The View From the Kremlin by Boris Yeltsin HarperCollins $255 IN the late 80s, during the false elation of perestroika and glasnost, in what was then the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, I had occasion while in Moscow to be told a joke by a student. My new-found acquaintance, from one of the Asian Republics, told me of a man who had got fed up queuing for bread. He turned to a friend and said: ''I have had enough of this. I am going to buy a gun to shoot Gorbachev.'' A few weeks later, the man was spotted stamping his feet against the cold in another queue. ''I thought you were going to buy a gun to shoot the President,'' said his friend. The man replied: ''I was, but there was a queue.'' This simple tale captured the air of resignation and despair in the USSR at the time. After reading The View From the Kremlin, the reader can be sure that in the queue to assassinate Gorbachev, albeit figuratively, was a man with a little more patience and a lot more determination: Boris Yeltsin. This latest addition to his memoirs takes the reader through the turbulent period from the beginning of 1990 to earlier this year, when he set in motion Gorbachev's demise and his own ascendancy against the backdrop of the disintegration of the USSR into the smaller and looser Confederation of Independent States. Any autobiography written by a politician still in office has to be taken with spoonfuls of salt. There is always the suspicion that he is using it as a conduit for his own political machinations and that anything that might cast a bad light on the author or which might not nestle comfortably alongside his current posturing is excised. What remains could be at best an apologia for his decisions or indecisions. As such, it should only be read in conjunction with the memoirs of others who were there at the time. With that caveat in mind, it is possible to recommend The View From the Kremlin for exactly what its title suggests. This is a book about that ultimate aphrodisiac, power, and what it means to wield it in a country as huge as Russia, loaded down as it is with weighty bureaucracy, ambition in low office, lethargy in high, treachery and ruthlessness. All the ingredients of a lively tale are here. It might be one-sided history, but it is nevertheless a good, if not 100 per cent reliable, source on an extraordinary period in modern history. Though Yeltsin's prose style, at least in translation, is short on artistry, there is passion and vitality. This is partly because the events which he recounts are so very recent and thus more easily identified with. It is also because the information Yeltsin imparts was often recorded close to the chaotic time at which those events occurred. As a result, the drama of the August 1991 coup attempt by reactionary security ministers to depose Gorbachev, which saw Yeltsin as the natural leader of the resistance, or the dark days of last October's near revolution, are narrated with a gripping fervour. The reader gets a powerful impression of a man climbing on to the world stage and bringing the house down with his performance. Not long ago, before he assumed any real power, Yeltsin was portrayed, no doubt at the invisible instigation of his enemies at home and abroad, as a bumbling drunk. What comes through loud and clear in this book, trumpeted discreetly, of course, by himself, is a picture of a true statesman sufficiently skilled and charismatic to clamber to the top of one of the world's most powerful countries. No mean feat indeed, despite the element of luck which all ambition requires for its satisfaction. Yeltsin imbues his history of the past four years with occasional reminiscences from his family, which lends a warmth to the story. He is also not averse to dropping in his own observations which, probably inadvertently, present him in a poor light not equal to the stature he delineates for himself elsewhere. I cringed when I read the following, delivered during the October 1993 Revolution: ''Once again I realised what democracy means. Above all, it is a heavy, terrible responsibility. That is, if you are a decent human being.'' Yes, Boris. I'm sure it is and I'm sure you are. However, forward-thinking Yeltsin is the man sitting in the Kremlin. Gorbachev, who tried but failed to link the old and the new, and the Communists, who tried to re-impose the old, are the ones sitting in the cold.