A former paratrooper in the Russian Army, General Alexander Lebed (born 1950) served briefly as Russia's national security chief under president Boris Yeltsin before moving on to become one of Yeltsin's most probable successors. He is regarded as a fierce nationalist and an outspoken critic of corruption in Russian business and government.
With a strong showing in the 1996 Russian presidential elections, Alexander Lebed has shown himself to be one of the nation's most popular politicians. Building on an admirable 25-year military career, he has captured the interest of a population weary of corruption and political strife, promising renewed strength, unity, and prosperity for Russia. He is a harsh critic of Russian business and government leaders, a nationalist hero who brought an end to a costly civil war in Chechnya, and a brusque, dry-witted politician with powerful populist appeal.
In his autobiography, My Life and My Country, Lebed claims that he knew from a very early age that he wished to serve as a pilot in the Russian air force. As his book makes clear with its many accounts of brawls and resulting injuries, he was a competitive and aggressive youth, well-suited to his military ambitions. When he was old enough, he applied to aviation school and was rejected, ironically, due to the many operations he had undergone as direct results of his combative nature. Lebed recovered from this setback quickly, applying shortly thereafter to the Komsomol Ryazan Higher Airborne Command School-a school for paratroopers. "Although I wouldn't be in the pilot's seat, " he said, "I'd still be in the sky."
As a cadet at the Komsomol School, Lebed developed interests in chess and boxing. He excelled in the latter, advancing to the heavyweight semifinals of the school's boxing championship in his second year. Upon graduating, he remained at the school, first as a training platoon commander, then as a company commander, until 1981.
Itching for a change of pace, the civil war in Afghanistan gave Lebed his first real opportunity. He was placed in command of the 1st Battalion of the 345th Detached Airborne Regiment. He spent a year there, building combat experience, after which, he entered the M.V. Frunze Military Academy in Narofominsk, Russia. He graduated with honors in 1985, and, with the newly acquired rank of major, was placed in command of the 331st Airborne regiment, stationed in the city of Kostroma.
From there, Lebed rose quickly. In 1986 he was promoted to lieutenant colonel and was assigned the post of executive officer of the 76th Airborne Division in Pskov. Two years later he was given the rank of full colonel and placed in command of the Tula Airborne Division. These promotions took place during a time when the entire Russian military was undergoing great change, as a consequence of the political upheaval-the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the collapse of its Communist leadership-which was also taking place at that time. His years in the Tula assignment would prove, due in part to this political unrest, to be among the most decisive of his career.
Most of the incidents in which Lebed was involved over the years 1988 to 1995 involved ethnic clashes in the former Soviet republics. Lacking the strong guiding hand of the Soviet government, many of these states were disintegrating as long-suppressed conflicts rose to the surface. Thus, very shortly after his promotion to colonel, Lebed found himself attempting to intervene in hostilities between Azerbaijanis and Armenians in the region of Baku, in southern Russia. The experience may have helped bolster his already strong nationalist streak. He remarked, "There, for the first time since Afghanistan, I saw burned-out trucks and buses, charred houses, and people's hair, naturally black, turned white from the horrors they had seen … all this, in my country-as it was at the time."
There was to be much more of this. The year 1989 brought him and his division to Tblisi, Georgia-also in southern Russia. This was followed shortly by renewed unrest in Baku. At the conclusion of this last event, he was promoted to major general, and soon after, he was appointed deputy commander of Airborne troops for combat training and military schools. As his star continued to rise, however, the political situation in Russia seemed only to worsen, culminating on August 1991 in an attempted coup by hardline communist elements within the government. Lebed was called upon to organize a defense of the Supreme Soviet building in Moscow, and the coup failed in a matter of days.
Lebed's military career took one more turn, in the summer of 1992, when he was called in to quell an ethnic conflict in the Dniester Moldovan Republic. Although his sympathies in this episode lay with Dniester's Russian population, he performed his duties with detached coolness, and the episode was widely recognized as his greatest achievement as a military commander. Shortly thereafter, he was given his last appointment-commander of the 14th Guardian Army in Dniester. In June 1995, at the age of 45, he retired from service in the Russian Army.
Lebed's involvement in politics began quite some time before his military career ended. In 1990, he was elected by the 51st Tula Airborne Regiment to serve as their delegate to the 28th Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, which turned out, due to the sweeping political changes of that time, to be the founding congress of the Communist Party of Russia-the Soviet Union by that time had ceased to exist. He rose quickly to prominence, and his performance there resulted in his being elected to the Central Committee of the Communist Party. The chaotic and self-defeating nature of both these assemblies instilled in him a great distrust for the Russian political system. "I listened to the screaming and the useless fights, " he says of the plenary meetings he attended, "I observed the open, no-holds-barred struggle of various factions to get their people in the party hierarchy….I was an eyewitness to the double, or even triple, standards of morality that were endemic to the Party." This rude awakening was, by his own admission, a turning point in his life, "My faith in authority came tumbling down. I became convinced that all men are opportunists and fallible."
Regardless of these opinions, he was not dissuaded from pursuing a second career in politics. In 1993, he won a seat in the Supreme Soviet of the separatist Dniester Moldovan Republic, capturing 88 percent of the vote. This post was short-lived. In October of 1993, following a violent confrontation between Russian President Boris Yeltsin and the Russian Supreme Soviet, he resigned to protest Dniester's decision to send soldiers to oppose Yeltsin (Lebed preferred neutrality in this matter).
After this experience, Lebed departed the political scene until his retirement from the army. In 1995, he was elected in Tula as a deputy of the State Duma. The following year, he was nominated as a Presidential candidate. In June, running in third place, he withdrew from the race, backing Boris Yeltsin, who was subsequently elected. Yeltsin, in turn, appointed him Secretary of the Russian Federation Security Council. In this role, he brought about an end to the lengthy and bloody war in Chechnya. This may well have been the most decisive accomplishment in Lebed's life thus far. Discarding the standing government policy-violent repression of separatist elements in Chechnya-he brokered a peace which postpones a final decision on the Chechan independence question until 2001.
However much this bold move may have impressed watchers at home and abroad, his term in Yeltsin's cabinet was short-lived, ending with his expulsion in October 1996. Since that time, he has strived to cultivate a political following in Russia, forming his own political party, Honor and Motherland, to further that end. In February of 1998, he made a bid for the governorship of the region of Krasnoyarsk. He won this election in May of that year, and all indications are that he will run for president again in 2000.
Lebed has long been an outspoken critic of the "crony capitalism" (the selling of former state industries to political insiders at cut rates) which he claims is "bleeding the country." According to a website biography, he also has harsh words for his government's tax policy, which he says "is making everyone, every single entrepreneur, every single businessman, a criminal." He frequently refers to Russia's leadership as criminal, and in a turn of phrase so particularly characteristic of his style, he calls for the Old Guard to step aside, "Let them keep their orders, their medals, their diplomas, and let them fish and let them grow strawberries."
He is no less turbulent on the military front. Despite the keen fear and hatred of NATO held by so many of his countrymen, Lebed advises acceptance of the organization in a spirit of post-Cold War cooperation with the West. He seems compelled in this regard by a danger about which many Russian politicians refuse to speak-the fate of the U.S.S.R.'s nuclear arsenal. Lebed angered the Yeltsin government in 1997 by claiming, on U.S. television, that 84 tactical nuclear warheads had gone missing from the Russian stockpile.
To be sure, Lebed is not without his critics, both outside and within Russia. According to a website biography, the Russian press has referred to him as a "cheap populist, " while those in the West have emphasized his blustering nationalism and communist sympathies. He was noted early in his political career for his approval of former Chilean dictator General Augusto Pinochet, which support he abruptly shifted to General Charles de Gaulle of France, after observing the effect of his remarks in democratic nations.
Either way, no-nonsense reformer or aspiring demagogue, there can be no doubt that Lebed is a force to be reckoned with in Russia. Whether he will continue to influence events past the presidential elections of 2000 remains to be seen.
Lambeth, Benjamin, The Warrior Who Would Rule Russia, Brassey's, 1997.
Lebed, Alexander, My Life and My Country, Regnery Publishing, Inc., 1997.
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Christian Science Monitor, February 24, 1997.
East European Markets, February 14, 1997.
Forbes, January 12, 1998, p. 56.
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"Alexander Lebed, " http://www.cs.indiana.edu/hyplan/dmiguse/Russian/albio.html (March 24, 1998).