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Burbulous: A man who changed the face of history

By Paul M. Weyrich
web posted January 7, 2002

A few days ago was the 10th anniversary of the end of the Soviet Union. For taking that courageous step, the world is indebted to Boris Yeltsin. But the real architect of the end of the Soviet Union was Yeltsin's Chief of Staff Gennady Burbulous. It was Burbulous who pushed for a meeting in the woods where real reformers met with Yeltsin and pledged their support to him if he would take this step.

This meeting was literally held in a wooded area so as to be free of KGB surveillance. I have seen the pictures of those involved. I have seen the hesitation on Yeltsin's part. At one point he walked away from the gathering. Burbulous had drawn up the papers. He had everything in order. All that was required was Yeltsin's signature. Finally Yeltsin agreed. He signed the papers and the end of the evil empire was announced to the world.

Despite all of the precautions, word leaked out about who did what to end the Soviet Union. At that time the Duma was dominated by the Communists. Their immediate demand was that Burbulous be fired. Yeltsin and Burbulous were friends from high school days in Sverdlovsk, now Ykaterinburg. As Yeltsin advanced in the Communist power structure and built a real power base in the Ural Mountains, Burbulous was his alter ego. Burbulous had every reason to believe that his oldest and dearest friend would fight for him. He was sure that Yeltsin would tell the Communists to forget it. Who he had as Chief of Staff was his business as President of Russia. Instead Burbulous' wife called and told him she had just heard on the radio that he had been fired.

My mentor Fritz Rench and I visited Burbulous in the Kremlin soon after he was sacked. He occupied Gorbachev's old office. He had an enormous desk with at least a dozen telephones. The Soviets did not yet have phones with multiple lines - so important people had direct lines for different purposes. All during our nearly two-hour visit different phones would ring. Each had a unique tone. Burbulous knew exactly who was calling and for what purpose.

I had known Burbulous for about three years. He was one of the active participants in our Free Congress Foundation training conferences in 1989 on how to win elections. Then in the spring of 1990 he hosted a huge conference at the school where Communists were trained to be government bureaucrats. Rench became acquainted with him later that year, as we continued our march across the Soviet Empire, preaching freedom and democracy wherever we went.

We had expected him to be angry and bitter over what had been done to him by his boyhood buddy. He was not. His position basically was that he had been in the right place at the right time to change history. He knew, he said, there would have to be a price paid for what he did.

It was one of many times during the next years that Yeltsin would do an about-face and would cave in to the Communists. But then he was no reliable ally of the Communists either. Just when it would seem as if he had gone backwards to placate them, he would fire them and would bring in a young democratic team. So it was an erratic tenure for Yeltsin, punctuated by either heavy drinking or bouts with manic-depressive behavior or both.

Given the virtually untold story of the critical role that Burbulous played in those early days of the new Russian Republic, his self-effacing attitude is one of the most remarkable chapters in Russian history. The truth is that Yeltsin would never have developed the power base he did, a base which enabled him to challenge the whole Kremlin power structure, without Gennady Burbulous. He was the person who understood the power of organization.

Moreover, Burbulous was the brain behind Yeltsin. He knew just when to act and how to explain it. Ending the Soviet Union, giving the Baltic states, Armenia, Georgia, the Central Asian Republics, and especially Ukraine some measure of freedom from the Kremlin was an act of extraordinary political courage.

Just this month, the man Yeltsin ousted, Mikhail Gorbachev, in an interview with Deal Hudson of Crisis Magazine, expressed his bitterness that he didn't have the chance to reform the Communist structure so that the union could be preserved. No wonder the Communists hated Burbulous. No wonder his head was the first price that had to be paid for that extraordinary act of courage.

Following his ouster, Burbulous (who was also the victim of an assassination attempt) spent a number of quiet years as an independent Member of Parliament. Ironically, the last parliamentary elections brought Russia the first solid non-Communist majority in the Duma. But Burbulous was defeated in his re-election bid. So now he serves as Vice Governor of one of Russia's provinces. He is a brilliant and thoughtful man, something unusual in politics. Whether or not he will again play a critical role in Russia's future, God only knows. No matter. This man altered the course of history and for that all us owe him our profound thanks.

Paul Weyrich is president of the Free Congress Foundation.

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