RUSSIA POLITICS: Alexander Ivanovich Lebed Biography
BIO INTRODUCTION: Like a gallant man on horseback, General Alexander Lebed aroused some hope among the Russian people that an enlightened dictator could put the country back in order. He is a nationalist who sees Russia’s future greatness anchored in a powerful and respected Army commanded by an authoritarian leader. Lebed’s personal courage, obvious military talent and the independence of his judgments, combined with his integrity and his open contempt for political manoeuvring, make him a rare figure in Russia today.
In the 1996 Russian presidential election, Lebed became a surprisingly popular third choice for voters. He appealed to those who could not continue to endorse the Yeltsin government, yet would not retreat to the old ways by voting for the communist candidate Zyuganov. Lebed was quickly appointed as Yeltsin’s powerful national security chief after he confirmed his claim to a growing, independent constituency. After using Lebed to win the vote in the run off election, Yeltsin tried to gradually demolish him by giving him the Chechnya problem. Despite Yeltsin’s plan, Lebed successfully negotiated a peace settlement ending 20 months of bloody conflict and furthered his popular image. Desperate, Yeltsin and his followers dismissed Lebed just four months after taking office, but only succeeded in again increasing Lebed’s already soaring popularity. Lebed had become the most politically viable presidential candidate for the 21st century.
Alexander Ivanovich Lebed Full Biography
ALEXANDER LEBED, who has died aged 52, was once seen by many as a future Russian president. An immensely popular army officer, he came third in the presidential election of 1996, before throwing his support behind Boris Yeltsin. Rewarded with the job of “Security Tsar”, he was credited with bringing peace to Chechnya after 21 months of fighting.
However, after four months in the post, he was sacked by Yeltsin, who accused him of mounting a “creeping coup”. But he returned to politics in 1998 as the elected governor of Krasnoyarsk, a vast region in Siberia.
His honesty, patriotism and willingness to confront the establishment made him a hero to millions of ordinary Russians. Lebed was one of the generation of Soviet airborne forces officers who fought in, and were marked by, the Soviet-Afghan war.
Although he only served nine months in Afghanistan, he came to be closely identified with the anger of those serving officers who determined that the old men in Moscow would never again send Russian conscripts to die in an unwinnable and unnecessary war.
An able and dedicated officer, proud to to serve in the airborne forces, Lebed none the less felt it right to speak out when he felt that the military were not living up to the standards he expected of them; he was, he liked to say, “a tom cat who prowls alone”.
His honesty and independence of mind earned him the respect and admiration (sometimes grudging) of everyone who worked with him; but they did not always serve his own interests well.
Alexander Ivanovich Lebed was born on April 20 1950 at Novocherkassk, near Rostov, in southern Russia. He grew up restless, prone to fighting (he boxed well), and determined to become a paratrooper.
While working in a magnet-grinding factory, he bribed a parachute instructor with four bottles of vodka to take him up; on his first jump he fractured his spine.
Nothing daunted, he entered Ryazan Higher School of Airborne Troops in 1969, staying on after graduating as a platoon and company commander training cadets. The long-awaited chance for action came in 1982, when he was posted to Afghanistan to command of an ill-disciplined, demoralised airborne battalion.
He found the treatment of recruits to be unacceptably brutal, and knew what to do. When he heard that 11 officers had severely mistreated a soldier who was having difficulty with his PT, he lined up all 11 men, and then punched them one by one in the face.
The ringleader was unconscious before he hit the ground. From then on, Lebed’s men looked on him with admiration and offered dog-like loyalty.
In Afghanistan, Lebed also quickly saw the counter-productive aspect of Soviet tactics. “A division would come to the village [suspected of harbouring rebels],” he recalled, “bombard it with a few hundred shells, and it would turn out that in the best case they had killed 10 civilians for every rebel.
A man far from thoughts of war, not wanting to fight, returns home and finds out that he doesn’t have a wife any more, doesn’t have a mother any more. He is not a man, but a wolf, ready to kill for ever. The longer the war goes on, the more wolves are made.”
Lebed returned to Russia in 1982, and attended the Frunze military academy. In 1986 he narrowly failed to land the plum job of commander of the only independent airborne regiment in Afghanistan; but two years later he received command of the Tula paratroop division, which was repeatedly ordered to put down civil unrest.
His anger grew as his troops were often deployed without proper orders, and he was left to carry the can when blood was shed. His men later took part in the repression of independence movements in Georgia in April 1989 and Azerbaijan in January 1990, where Lebed refused to obey a general’s order to attack a crowd of peaceful demonstrators.
In 1991, by then a major-general, Lebed moved to Moscow as second-in-command of airborne forces. During the hard-line coup against President Mikhail Gorbachev that August, Lebed emerged a hero when he refused to obey the coup leaders’ orders to storm Boris Yeltsin’s White House stronghold, providing a great morale boost to the anti-coup camp.
Praised by reformers when the coup collapsed, Lebed forcefully pointed out that he “could not care less for democracy”. He said he was simply a loyal party member who wanted to prevent bloodshed and leave the politicians to sort out their own affairs. “If Lebed had only kept his mouth shut he would be a Colonel-General by now,” a fellow officer said a few months later.
Yet after the attempted coup, Lebed became ever more outspoken, unable to restrain his criticism of the government – and of his old airborne forces comrade Pavel Grachev, who was appointed Minister of Defence in 1992.
That summer, Lebed was sent to take command of the 14th Guards Army in the breakaway region of Prednestrovia in Moldova.
The job was seen by the General Staff in Moscow as a poisoned chalice; they assumed that Lebed would be tied up for months in the south and that inevitably he would fail. But against the odds, he succeeded in restoring order and rocketed to national prominence and popularity.
Nevertheless, Lebed’s hostility towards Grachev made it impossible for him to remain in the army. Resigning his commission, he went into politics; but lacking a political base and a coherent programme, the nationalist party he stood for won only a handful of seats in the parliamentary elections of December 1995.
In the first round of the presidential elections in 1996, however, on a tough law-and-order ticket, Lebed came a strong third (behind Yeltsin and Gennady Zyunganov) with 15 per cent of the vote. Although claiming to be an independent, it later emerged that he had accepted money, staff, television airtime and much-needed advice from Yeltsin’s aides.
A few days after being appointed by Yeltsin as Security Tsar, Lebed called a press conference at which he openly criticised the president. He was clearly uncomfortable in his new role, and seemed by nature ill-equipped to deal either with the press or political manoeuverings. It was perhaps no surprise that Yeltsin should before long remove him from his post.
As governor of Krasnoyarsk, Lebed was happier than he had been for some years. His Siberian stronghold bore far more resemblance to the old Soviet world than to the maelstrom of the new Moscow.
He was faced with enormous problems of corruption, fraud and incompetence, but felt that he knew how to tackle these. He cared intensely about the fate of abandoned children, poor families and the defenceless elderly.
Although he was a convinced atheist for most of his life, Lebed found that with the collapse of Soviet power and the revival of the Orthodox Church in Russia he was moving, albeit with some bewilderment, towards Christianity.
He found it difficult to accept all the Church’s teachings, but he admired its strengths and traditions. He felt that Christianity could help restore spiritual integrity to Russia.
An energetic, restless man, and one who never stopped striving to live up to his own high ideals, Alexander Lebed was utterly devoted to his wife Inna, whom he had met on his first day at work at the magnet factory when he was 18 years old. They had two sons and a daughter – to whom Lebed was a most loving, though not always uncritical, father.
– Alexander Ivanovich Lebed Biography (Telegraph)