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Politics

The Man Who Failed Russia

24 April 2007

The Man Who Failed Russia

By Gwynne Dyer

He was always a heavy drinker, but until his health problems got bad in the mid-1990s he could usually hold his liquor. The real problem was that he was a man of action who didn’t have an idea in his head. A lot of people kept trying to put ideas in there, but they just fell out the other side. So he freed Russia (and a lot of other countries) from Communism, but he didn’t give it much else to work with instead.

Boris Yeltsin, who died at 76 on Monday, was brought to Moscow in 1985 to clean up the corruption in the capital by the man he eventually removed from power, the Communist reformer Mikhail Gorbachev. But the times were right for ambitious men to aim a lot higher, and Yeltsin was nothing if not ambitious, so by 1988 he had quit his position on the Communist Party’s ruling body, the Politburo. He ran for the all-Moscow seat against the official Communist candidate in the first free election in Soviet history, and won in a landslide.

I first met Yeltsin soon after that in the basement cafeteria of the Supreme Soviet, just inside the Kremlin walls, which was the easiest place for foreign journalists to find and interview deputies to this new-fangled beast, the Congress of People’s Deputies. It was one of the stars of the nascent Russian democratic movement, Galina Strarovoitova, who introduced us, and the contrast between the two of them was quite stunning.

Starovoitova (who was murdered some years ago in a contract killing) was a genuine democratic hero, an intellectual who dedicated her life to the ideal of a free society. Yeltsin was a charming bruiser who ran mostly on instinct and was all too aware of his considerable charisma. Yet he was in practice the leader of her little band of democrats, the Inter-Regional Deputies Group.

The IRDG flourished for less than a year, and it had less than a tenth of the deputies to the Congress, most of whom were still Communist Party hacks. Its leaders, including famous dissident figures like scientist Andrei Sakharov and historian Yuri Afanasiev, were using their unprecedented access to the media to spread democratic ideas to the furthest corners of a country where such notions had been condemned and suppressed for seventy years, but they knew those ideas alone would not produce a democratic majority in any Soviet election in the near future.

Yeltsin, on the other hand, could win the election, but he had no ideas at all. So they made him their leader, and during that year you rarely saw him without some leading light of the IRDG at his side, earnestly trying to fill this empty vessel with democratic ideals. Everybody meant well, I think, but the transplant didn’t take, and by 1990 Yeltsin had moved on.

In the following two years he did two things that should have earned him the gratitude of both Russia and the whole world. Standing on a tank outside the White House in Moscow in August, 1991, he turned back the hardline Communist coup attempt that almost reversed the flow of history. And he did it practically single-handedly, by the force of his own personality.

The coup was amazingly incompetent, but it could have succeeded nevertheless, in which case we would still be dealing with a ramshackle Communist-ruled Soviet Union, sinking ever deeper into poverty and corruption and fighting insurgencies all around its perimeter: Upper Volta with rockets, indeed. What we have is much better than that.

Yeltsin’s other great accomplishment, at the end of 1991, was to wind up the Soviet Union and set all of its constituent “republics” free. He did it for purely tactical reasons, but it was the last great act of decolonisation, and it spared us a generation of bloody struggles as the old Russian empire gradually fell apart. Despite tyranny in the ‘Stans and war in Chechnya, what we have is much better than that, too. But then Yeltsin should have died or at least retired, because he was a disaster and an embarrassment as the president of Russia.

There was the “shock therapy” prescribed by Harvard economist Jeffrey Sachs that ended all subsidies overnight, drove inflation to 2,000 percent, and wiped out the life savings of tens of millions of families. There were the corrupt privatisation deals that created the “oligarchs” and the gangster culture. There was the armed assault on parliament in 1993 and the needless, futile, bloody attempt to subjugate Chechnya by force. Russia in the 1990s could have done a lot better than that.

Yeltsin’s retirement on New Year’s Eve, 1999 was of a piece with all that: a cynical deal handing power to the former KGB chief, Vladimir Putin, in return for a guarantee that no legal inquiries would be made after he left office into the wealth accumulated by his family and his political associates during their time in power. There is not much genuine mourning in Russia for Yeltsin today, and you can see why.

But he did get the two big things right, and that counts for a lot. History may take a kinder view of him than Russians do today.

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 10 and 11. (“There was…seewhy”)