Exit Yeltsin

May 3, 2007

Following the April 23 death of Boris Yeltsin, various polling organisations conducted surveys on how Russians regarded his actions. Asked what they saw as Yeltsin's main achievement, 33% of respondents answered: "He left office voluntarily in December 1999." All his other achievements were within the statistical margin of error. The majority of those surveyed did not consider that Russia's first president had any achievements at all.

Liberal politicians and foreign commentators, meanwhile, were united in maintaining that Yeltsin had "given Russians freedom" (as if freedom were the kind of thing that someone could bestow). Stars of show business stated unanimously that it was only thanks to Yeltsin that they had become millionaires. Not only had the fees for performances risen by hundreds and thousands of times, but the numerous propaganda campaigns that were waged by the authorities, and to which popular singers were constantly being recruited, brought them incalculable riches at government expense (for taking part in a single propaganda action they would receive as much as $100,000 in cash, tax free). Liberal media outlets murmured persistently to their audiences: it was under Yeltsin that freedom became established in Russia, and it was Yeltsin who gave the country multi-party rule, elections and freedom of the press. The Western media repeated the same story.

These arguments, however, simply do not correspond to reality. To put it simply, they are lies. Yeltsin was not involved in a single one of the democratic changes in Russia. All these reforms were carried out by Mikhail Gorbachev. Yeltsin then took advantage of the new democratic conditions to get rid of his former chief. Part of the collateral damage was the destruction of the Soviet Union, for whose preservation 80% of the population had voted in a referendum, and in which citizens of 12 of the 15 union republics wanted to live (the exceptions were the three Baltic republics).

Democratic freedoms reached their peak in the spring of 1991, during the final months of Gorbachev's rule. From this point, rights and freedoms were taken away one after another. When Yeltsin took advantage of the failed coup by conservatives against Gorbachev in 1991 to seize power for himself and to abolish the structures of the Soviet government, the world community rejoiced at the "victory over communism" and calmly accepted the overturn, even though Yeltsin's actions from a formal point of view were just as illegal as those of the putschists.

At that time, of course, the recently elected Russian president enjoyed the support of the bulk of the population. If this did not give him the legal right to act outside his formal powers, then in the extreme situation during that period he could at least claim a moral right. But the process that was initiated in August 1991 was continued in December with the illegal Belovezhskaya Accords on the dissolution of the USSR, and in the autumn of 1993 by the clearly unconstitutional dissolution of the Russian parliament (the same parliament in whose nominal defence Yeltsin in 1991 had seized power and dissolved the Soviet organs of rule).

The president's popular support was already declining rapidly, even as his power was being consolidated. The shelling of the parliament, the introduction of censorship (true, this was a temporary measure, designed to ward off opposition from the press), the introduction of a new, consistently anti-democratic constitution that reduced the role of the parliament and constitutional court to mere decorative functions — these were all natural and logical stages in the new politics that had their beginnings in August 1991 and that have continued unchanged to the present.

Vladimir Putin, in abolishing what remained of Gorbachev's democratic changes, has simply brought to the post of president the consistency and persistence that Yeltsin at times lacked. Prior to 1995 the media did not represent a serious problem for the Russian authorities, since at the head of all the editorial offices, including that of the "independent television", loyal people had been installed who freely and willingly, without any outside pressure, came out with a line favourable to the regime.

It was these people who in the spring of 1993, when confidence in the president was a serious issue, unleashed an unprecedented propaganda campaign against the parliament. The same people agitated for privatisation, and threw mud at those who criticised it. Freely and willingly, they ignored the corruption that was a common talking-point throughout the country. Late in the winter of 1994, however, something happened that neither Yeltsin nor the media elite had expected. A punitive expedition into Chechnya turned into a prolonged war that aroused the indignation of the liberal public, which shortly before had approved the shelling of the parliament and the killing of hundreds of people in Moscow. The propaganda machine suddenly flew out of control and began waging a struggle against the authorities, arguing that it could decide for itself what was good in the country and what was bad.

Yeltsin won this fight, as he won all his battles. The revolt of the propagandists had been crushed by the early spring of 1996, when the presidential elections began to loom on the horizon. A master of bluff, Yeltsin presented the Russian elites with a choice: either to support him and ensure he was again elected by the "democratic route", or to suffer another coup d'etat, with the possibility of a civil war to follow. There was no question of the president departing if he lost the election.

Journalists love relating how the Russian business oligarchs met at the World Economic Forum in Davos, and settled the question of financing Yeltsin's election campaign. The meeting in Davos, however, decided only technical and financial questions; the oligarchs needed to make peace with one another and to agree who would invest how much. The political questions had been resolved long since. The oligarchs had no choice; a change of leader threatened to turn into a redivision of property, which was in fact to take place in 2003.

The revolt of the propagandists was replaced by total loyalty. Fulfilling the edicts of the media owners, the liberal journalists displayed impeccable discipline. The propaganda machine set to work, and gathered speed. The older generation could recall the propagandist hysteria of 1937 and 1938, but those who had not experienced Stalin were in utter confusion. Such bare-faced and aggressive propaganda had simply not existed under Brezhnev. The genetic memory of the older generation whispered: after propaganda like this, repression will inevitably follow. Patiently and conscientiously, the experts explained: that will indeed be the case, but only if the country votes the wrong way. In striking fashion, huge numbers of pensioners and elderly people voted for Yeltsin despite having earlier been indignant at his policies. It was no longer people that were voting, but fear.

Gennady Zyuganov, as leader of the Communist Party of the Russian Federation, was the perfect rival for Yeltsin. Some people he repelled with his compromises, others with his openly reactionary views. Although the population had been worked over with propaganda, electoral fraud was also considered necessary. But the opposition, scared to death of taking power, lacked the mettle to protest.

It is not surprising that by the end of the 1990s large numbers of Russia's population hated and despised the media. The journalists stuck to their posts, but paid a heavy price; the outcome for them was a complete loss of public trust. A second revolt of the propagandists, which occurred in the early years of the new century, was crushed by Putin even more easily than the first had been crushed by Yeltsin. Various oligarchs were sent off in disgrace, and their publications were shut down with the complete approval of the citizens. But the oligarchic structure of the economy remained unchanged; all that was different was the faces.

Following the collapse of the ruble in 1998, a new epoch began. Yeltsin was obliged to depart not because he had grown old, and still less because the constitution demanded it. As Yeltsin himself had shown, the constitution could simply be ignored. The conditions had changed, and so had Russian capitalism. Yeltsin's economic policy had been a brilliant success. Not in the sense that people's lives had improved, but in the sense that the tasks that had presented themselves had been carried out.

In place of Soviet ministries, large private corporations had arisen. The oligarchy had been transformed from bands of marauders into a respectable bourgeoisie, and business now required calm and predictability. Impulsive and inclined to adventures, Yeltsin had to give way to the grey bureaucrat Putin, who embodied the spirit of the new epoch just as thoroughly as Yeltsin had embodied the spirit of his.

Whether one loved Yeltsin or hated him, the man was a politician of genius. He captured the essence of a situation not through analysis, but like an animal, instinctively. Aristotle described human beings as political animals, and this applied to Yeltsin in full measure. Reason and analysis can make mistakes, but not instinct. It was an acute political instinct that told Yeltsin, who not long before had clung desperately to power, that it was time to go.

Life under Yeltsin was horrible, but at least it was not dull. He inspired revulsion, but sometimes admiration as well. His vices — irresponsibility, laziness and drunkenness — were so obvious that they could not fail to arouse sympathy. After all, a good half of his compatriots also suffered from these shortcomings. He was a real people's president in the sense that he embodied all the negative characteristics of his people. The people took this at its worth, feeling at first a wholehearted love for Yeltsin, then a hatred for him that was just as unanimous, but peculiarly intimate and profound.

The popularity of Putin, a figure devoid of all charisma, charm or even expressiveness, was guaranteed by the fact that he was fundamentally unlike Yeltsin — that is, unlike a man whom two-thirds of the population perceived as having offended them personally.

It was precisely such an individual as Yeltsin who was needed to play the role of a mega-Pied Piper of Hamelin, leading Russian society on its transition to capitalism under conditions where two-thirds of Russians feared this outcome and did not want it. People followed him initially because they did not understand where he was taking them; then because they trusted him; and finally because they did not know how to escape from the quagmire into which he had led them. Merry and charming, he continued playing on his pipe, paying no heed to the moans resounding behind his back. Had he even once turned round, had he just once listened to the cries of despair, that would have been the end of him. But he never did turn round.

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