When I first met General Alexander Lebed, shortly after he was forced to retire from his military career in 1995, he was a crusty soldier with great political ambitions, itching for action but visibly uncomfortable in mufti.  His tie knot was too wide and his parade-ground bass sounded coarse and unmodulated.  His face, with more than a hint of the Asian steppe, bore the marks of many brawls.  His views on Russia’s predicament, mostly grim but stated with simplicity and conviction, were refreshingly clear in a city brimming with “experts” who sought to rationalize their country’s economic and political collapse.  Lebed did not oppose capitalism—“real competition is good, healthy”—but he hated its Mafioso-monopolistic variety rampant in President Boris Yeltsin’s Russia and resented the resulting reduction of his countrymen to the status of “beggars.”  He accepted the Soviet Union’s disintegration but wanted clear guarantees of the rights of millions of Russians stranded in the successor states; he rose to national prominence because of his support, in 1992, of the Russians’ demand for self-rule in Moldova’s Trans-Dniester region.

The news of Lebed’s death in a helicopter crash on April 28 did not merit front-page treatment in the West, but, at the time of our first encounter, he was regarded as a man of destiny.  Assuming that I was yet another foreign visitor in need of quick assurance about his intentions, he claimed to accept “democracy” as the basic framework for Russia’s future political discourse.  To his credit, he did so without nurturing any illusions about democracy’s magical properties; personally, he favored what he called “the dictatorship of the rule of law.” Looking back at his notable record as a paratroop commander in the “chaos” of the Afghan war, he said he saw “pain and remembrance, but never shame”—shame belonged strictly to politicians, the breed for which Lebed had a healthy disdain.  To him, Yeltsin’s “democrats” (with whom he sided in the confusion of the 1991 coup attempt) were as self-serving and hypocritical as their Communist predecessors, and he condemned them by quoting Plato on the dangers of “liberty” when demagogues and oligarchs manipulate it.  “I couldn’t care less for democracy,” he famously remarked about his role in the events of August 1991, “but I wasn’t ready to kill my fellow Russians.”

Lebed was born in the southern Cossack city of Novocherkassk in 1950, and his boyhood taught him some of the harsher lessons of Russian politics.  In 1962, he watched Soviet troops gun down hundreds of workers in his hometown, bringing a quick end to one of the few labor strikes in Soviet history.  Lebed’s father was a former political prisoner, condemned by Stalin to the Gulag but later reprieved to serve in a military punishment battalion during World War II.  Lebed nevertheless chose a military career.  After graduating from the paratrooper academy in 1970, he rose swiftly through the ranks.  He was decorated for his service as a battalion commander in Afghanistan in the early 1980’s and, in 1990, became one of the Soviet Army’s youngest generals.

Five years later, Russia seemed ripe for someone like Lebed: patriotic, unlike Yeltsin’s “pro-Western” coterie embodied in his foreign minister, Andrei Kozyrev, and the hated ex-premier Yegor Gaidar; honest, unlike the mega-rich oligarchs in and around the “family,” embodied in prime minister Viktor Chernomyrdin; reliable, unlike the erratic and embarrassing Vladimir Zhirinovsky; and free from the old apparatchik taint, unlike the Communist opposition leader Gennadi Zyuganov.  As the election year of 1996 drew near, Lebed was more popular than any one of them, and the outside world started taking notice.  In January 1996, I brought a half-dozen Western friends (including Tom Fleming) to meet the man then increasingly regarded as Russia’s likely next president.  We encountered a self-confident and friendlier Lebed.  His voice sounded smoother, and he wisely made pauses before answering questions.  His suite of offices on the Arbat had the appearance of a viable political operation.  He spent over an hour speaking mainly on foreign affairs, and his salient theme was the need for Russia’s recovery—not only for Russia’s own sake but because the “void” in place of Moscow’s traditional geopolitical role was bad for the rest of the world, America included.  He dwelt on the necessity for Russia to develop a “national idea” that would reassert its national identity on Soviet ruins.

In the crucial months that followed, Lebed proved out of his depth in the complexities of national politics.  He came third in the first round of the presidential contest, winning over 11 million votes (about 15 percent of the ballots cast).  Some projections showed him winning in the second round, which scared Yeltsin into cutting a deal in which Lebed dropped out of the race in return for a high Kremlin post and anointment as the president’s chosen successor.

To the boundless chagrin of many of his followers, Lebed supported Yeltsin in the second round, helping him clinch a victory against Zyuganov.  This was a fateful error: He was appointed Yeltsin’s national security advisor, but the damage to his credibility proved irreparable.  In his new capacity, Lebed successfully negotiated the ceasefire in Chechnya, but he also created powerful enemies by his unconcealed disgust for the sleaze and graft rampant in the Kremlin.  His costly acceptance of a high position could have been followed by a patient exercise in empire-building, and it is possible that his role of heir-apparent might have been accepted by the oligarchs had he not made them feel threatened.  Lebed chose to make himself feared by the corrupt presidential entourage instead, ending up with the worst of all worlds.  After only four months, in October 1996, he was fired, and there was no power base to go back to.

Lebed seemed able to rebuild it when he ran for, and won, the governorship of the huge Siberian province of Krasnoyarsk in 1998, but his victory in retrospect looks like an admission that his higher ambitions had evaporated.  He took no part in the subsequent political maneuvers that brought Vladimir Putin into the Kremlin as prime minister in 1999, leading to Putin’s enthronement as president in March 2000.  He had become a has-been, without ever having “been,” while almost a decade of Yeltsinism reduced Russia to a neocolonial wreck with collapsing birthrates, a moribund industry, and an unconsolidated body politic.  We will never know if Lebed might have prevented Russia’s descent to its present status of a crisis-laden society and a disoriented state, because, having alienated the narrow stratum of robber barons during the early stages of his would-be rise, he never got the chance to try.

On one occasion in the past half-decade, Lebed attracted considerable attention in Washington, when he warned the United States that at least 80 suitcase-sized nuclear devices from the old Soviet Union’s weapons arsenal had gone missing.  On CBS’s 60 Minutes (September 7, 1997), he first revealed that Russia had built small, portable nuclear bombs called “Special Atomic Demolition Munitions” that were truly “first strike” weapons that could be used at the outbreak of nuclear war by saboteurs.  During his short time in power, he ordered the Russian military to make an accounting of these weapons and was shocked by the result.  As he told a delegation of visiting congressmen, including Rep. Curt Weldon (R-PA), he could only locate 48 of 132 such devices.  This meant that there were over 80 small atomic demolition devices, with capacities of one to ten kilotons, that the Russians simply could not locate.

On another occasion, Lebed’s wise words elicited no response from Washington.  In an interview with the Hamburg weekly Der Spiegel on April 5, 1999, at the height of the NATO bombing of Serbia, he rejected the interviewer’s suggestion that he wanted Russia to wage war on Serbia’s behalf: “On the contrary.  I want to resist the large-scale war in a civilized manner, because, otherwise, it will spread over the entire world-above all, through terrorism and, above all, against the Americans.”  Lebed may not have been clever, but he was wise.