The death of former Boris Yeltsin on April 23 brought to mind an appreciation of his political career that we first published in February, 2000, shortly after his resignation as President of Russia. We are republishing that essay because we believe it presents an accurate and timely depiction of the contradictory yet essentially courageous nature of the man but contradicts the overly optimistic claim by a former American president thatYeltsin should be considered “the father of Russian democracy.” -Pub.
by Keith Moon
“No one deserves a larger share of the credit for this transformation than Yeltsin himself. For all his difficulties, he has been brave, visionary and forthright and he has earned the right to be called the Father of Russian Democracy .”
President Bill Clinton, Time, January 3, 2000
It is no surprise that Bill Clinton and Boris Yeltsin built up an admiration for each other in their seven shared years in office: they are remarkably similar men. Both progressed to positions of regional stature by playing along with the cronyism of the system and then made the leap to national fame as self-styled outsiders. Both men have set themselves apart as “party free,” Clinton in his famous triangulation maneuver of offering America a third way, Yeltsin as a perennial lone warrior, surviving on his own political recognizance with no meaningful party behind him. Both men have faced intense public scrutiny of their private lives, Clinton for his reckless womanizing, Yeltsin for his legendary (even among hard-drinking Russians) alcohol consumption. Despite his personal failings,Clinton used his unflagging political energy and encyclopedic understanding of domestic policy to govern over an historic peacetime expansion. Yeltsin, meanwhile, squandered countless opportunities to establish a stable and legal government, allowing instead his political needs of the moment always to outweigh his vision of Russia’s future.
Boris Yeltsin is a true master of the brash political moment. From the late 1980’s, when he would routinely trump Mikhail Gorbachev’s public relations cards with his populist moves, to the late 1990’s when he rotated prime ministers like doormen to keep his own star luminescent, Yeltsin commanded Russia’s media attention even when he would disappear from public view for weeks at a time. As the 1990’s came to a close—a decade in which Russia tried desperately to maintain its position as a major global power despite a crumbling infrastructure—Yeltsin again stunned the nation and the world by abruptly resigning his position and delivering Russia face-to-face with its twenty-first century future. But, even with a hand-picked successor meant to guide Russia into the next millennium, Yeltsin’s perpetual “politics of the moment” have left his country ill-equipped for that future.
When Boris Yeltsin first appeared on the national scene in l985, his charisma and gift for political theater were tough to match in a colorless, stagnant bureaucracy. Yeltsin was so Russian it was as though someone made him up: bear-like in stature, hard-drinking, supremely confident. He made a name for himself quickly by challenging the expectations and distinctly secretive nature of the Soviet Union’s Communist Party. By 1989, he distanced himself from his mentor and political godfather, Mikhail Gorbachev, when he saw the president drifting away from radical reforms in the USSR. In a series of theatrical and dramatic moves in the late 1980’s and early 1900’s, Boris Yeltsin singlehandedly defined protest politics in Russia. Ultimately using his expulsion from the ruling elite’s Politburo as a badge of honor rather than humiliation, Yeltsin tore up his Communist Party card in 1990 and marched out of the Congress of People’s Deputies.
In an era when public criticism of the party was still risky, and even potentially illegal, Yeltsin’s move was confrontational and bold. The gamble worked, however; by June 1991, Yeltsin was elected president of the Russian Federated Republic, though that republic remained very much under the broader control of Soviet President Gorbachev. It was in August 1991, though, when hard-line Communist conservatives staged a tragicomic putsch to re-assert party control in the Soviet Union, that Boris Yeltsin definitively proved himself the most dynamic leader of Russia’s democratic forces. Yeltsin, at great personal risk stood openly on an army tank in defiance of the coup and declared that Russia would never return to a neo-Stalinist system; from that moment on Gorbachev and the Communist Party were in power in name only.
Even with these majestic strokes of rebellion, Yeltsin could not avoid the buffoonery that has plagued his career. International trips brought to light his self-indulgent flaws rather than his leadership qualities. At a speech at Johns Hopkins University, his speech was slurred and his behavior erratic, leading most Western journalists to assert that Yeltsin had been drinking. On a trip in 1994 after a G-7 economic summit meeting in Canada, Yeltsin landed in Ireland to meet briefly with the Irish prime minister at the airport. (Ireland was one of the earliest and most practical supporters of Russian reform, setting up joint economic ventures and sending many Irish citizens to work in the perestroika-era Soviet Union.) Hours later, with Irish officials still waiting on the tarmac for a ceremonial appearance by the two leaders, Russian officials announced that Yeltsin was “too tired” to meet with the Irish prime minister, again fueling widespread speculation that he was drunk. Russian officials later blamed heart ailments for both episodes, although even the Kremlin has never denied that part of Yeltsin’s populist charm includes a Russian muzhik’s healthy appetite for vodka.
(It was much harder for Yeltsin’s political cronies to explain away a bizarre 1989 incident in which a dripping wet Boris Yeltsin entered a Moscow police station claiming he had been thrown into a city canal by would-be assassins. The canal, as it turned out, had only inches of water in it; had Yeltsin been pushed from a bridge into the canal as he claimed, he would almost certainly have been seriously injured or killed. No serious investigation followed.)
Yeltsin oversaw the final dissolution of the USSR in December 1991, after subjecting his one-time boss Mikhail Gorbachev to a withering public critique of his presidency and then demanding his resignation. Yeltsin’s popularity at the time was beyond imagination: he had vanquished communism to its its own ash bin of history and he had done so without bloodshed. Yeltsin’s troubles would begin almost immediately, however, as he had to transform himself from the most visible and vocal leader of a righteous rebellion to the president of a huge nation in the midst of its own redefinition. Russia was attempting to change everything at once. It was shifting from a command economy based almost exclusively on the military-industrial complex to one that could compete effectively with European, Asian, and American markets; it was changing its political system from a single-party monolith to a parliamentary system with no written rules; and it was preparing to take away many of the safety-net features of a socialist country that many of its citizens had come to take for granted. The task was monumental and Yeltsin, with no particular training in economics, law, or ministerial services was singularly unprepared to handle the challenge.
While certainly not all Yeltsin’s fault, the Russian economy was catastrophic during his presidency. The ruble, which traded at an artificially controlled thirty-one to the dollar the summer he was elected president of the Russian Federated Republic, cascaded down to the equivalent of 27,000 to the dollar eight years later. Inflation, while it eased considerably from the four-digit rates of the immediate post-Soviet era, continued to bite into the meager monthly wages of the average Russian worker deep into the 1990’s. Mines and factories in Siberia produced next to nothing for years, with cities like Novosibirsk (two million residents) facing unemployment rates of thirty to fifty percent and higher. It is estimated that 120-150 billion dollars “fled” Russia to private bank accounts in the West, a corruption scandal that infected every institution in Russia— including Yeltsin and his family, according to a Western news reports. (Yeltsin was granted full prosecutorial immunity by his successor on New Year’s Eve.) A 1998 default on international debt repayments led to a stunning eighty-three percent “correction” in the fledgling Russian stock market.
Health care in Russia also suffered enormously during the 1990’s. While Yeltsin’s own precarious health situation was carefully monitored by an international team of experts, most Russians received dismal and unsanitary treatment. Outbreaks of tuberculosis, cholera, and—at an alarming rate of increase—AIDS taxed the health care system beyond its capabilities as Russia watched its life expectancy rate for males fall to fifty-seven years. The most basic services broke down, and stories of families being forced to keep the corpses of dead relatives in their apartments for two or three days before the authorities would come around to pick them up were routine. Whatever its hideous crimes, the communist government of the Soviet Union has supplied a basic level of services and protection to the people that suddenly Russians were unable to get.
But it was Yeltsin’s two assaults on the separatist Republic of Chechnya that ultimately spoiled his record as a democrat and defender of national self-determination rights. Chechnya, a small North Caucasus region between the Black and Caspian seas, was first occupied by the Russians in the early nineteenth century and for nearly 200 years the animosity between Russians and Chechens has been palpable. The Chechens have refused to give in to Russian domination, having fought against tsarist armies, Stalin’s secret police, and now Yeltsin’s sophisticated fighter jets. As Leo Tolstoy wrote in Hadji Murat, near the end of his career:
No one spoke of hatred for the Russians. The feeling experienced by all the Chechens, from the youngest to the oldest, was stronger than hate. It was not hatred, for they did not regard those Russian dogs as human beings, but it was repulsion, disgust, and perplexity at the senseless cruelty of these creatures that the desire to exterminate them—like the desire to exterminate rats, poisonous spiders, or wolves—was as natural an instinct as that of self preservation.
Today, Chechnya is regarded as the Sicily of Russia, with mafiosi “families” engaging in broad, black-market criminal activities centered there. When the Soviet Union broke up in 1991, President Dudayev in Chechnya seized the opportunity to fight for total independence from Russia and, while Yeltsin and others were focused on the post-coup dramas in Moscow, Dudayev issued radical policy edicts that ignored Russian suzerainty in the region and allowed Chechnya to be used as a vast staging ground for illegal smuggling operations.
Spooked by the sharp rise in popularity of Russian nationalists and imperialists like Vladimir Zhirinovsky, Yeltsin needed to show that he would not allow the non-Russian peoples of his country (twenty percent of the overall population) to secede. When Yeltsin started his war in 1994, he was told by his military advisors that a lightning-fast victory could be concluded “in a matter of hours.” Yeltsin gave the go-ahead. Russian forces struck at the Chechens with startling ferocity in 1994 and did not let up for over two years. Grozny, the capital city, was leveled on a scale matched only in Berlin and Stalingrad during World War II. The Russian air force dropped bombs on the city at a rate of over four thousand an hour at the attack’s peak. By 1996, 80,000 people had died in Chechnya, but the Russians still could not claim a victory. As the presidential elections approached in the spring of l996, Yeltsin called a halt to the unpopular and disorganized war and abruptly withdrew from the embittered territory.
After a series of bombings by unknown terrorists killed hundreds of apartment dwellers in Moscow in September 1999, Yeltsin and his new prime minister, Vladimir Putin, decided the time was right to resume the war in Chechnya. This time, Moscow was more methodical and organized in its prosecution of the war, and public support for the action has been strong. The attack has been handled with astonishing disregard for civilians and refugees, many of whom were turned back by Russian troops at the borders and forced to remain in the Chechen war zone while warplanes flew overhead. Reports of unarmed refugee convoys being attacked directly by Russian troops were frequent, and a vicious attack on Grozny was underway by the time Yeltsin resigned. (ln sad irony, those left living in Grozny when the city fighting broke out were mostly poor and elderly ethnic Russians who had nowhere to go; most of those in the line of the heaviest Russian fire in the capital city were themselves Russians.)
By quickly vilifying the Chechens as extremists and terrorists, the newly-appointed prime minister watched his popularity ratings quadruple in a matter of weeks. With Yeltsin’s strong support, Putin talked of the importance of wiping out the “vermin” in Chechnya and Russian commanders talked of “flattening the region.” With parliamentary elections coming in December 1999 and the presidential election now set for March 2000, the Kremlin-controlled media bombarded Russians with jingoistic and xenophobic spin that strengthened Putin’s political hand still more. Suddenly, by year’s end, a forty-seven-year old former deputy mayor of St. Petersburg and KGB bureaucrat—whose name was virtually unknown in Russia before last summer—was the acting president of the country and the leading contender in this spring’s presidential contest.
In its own way, Yeltsin’s resignation on New Year’s Eve may have been his way of dealing with Putin’s meteoric political rise. Easily threatened by his own deputies, Yeltsin had all but made a parlor game of the constant reshuffling of his ministers; during one eighteen-month stretch, Yeltsin hired and fired four prime ministers. His desire to control politics in Russia meant that it was important to topple any would-be successors before his own role was challenged. Yeltsin has always seen himself as bigger than any party or government: in 1993, he launched a full-scale military assault against the Russian parliament building in Moscow—killing hundreds—to dislodge rebelling members of the Congress of People’s Deputies, whose political existence he had outlawed without any clear constitutional right to do so. He threatened to dismiss the Duma when the members voted against his nominee for prime minister. Within months of this constitutional showdown, Yeltsin fired the minister himself. ln his last years, all access to him, including by ministers, was tightly monitored by his bodyguard and his daughter. Yeltsin would disappear from Moscow for weeks at a time with various serious health problems.
For several months in 1998, Yeltsin had even hinted that, as Russia’s first elected president, he was not restricted to the two-term constitutional Iimit that his own administration had proposed. More recently, he had acknowledged that his term would legally end in 2000 and he had begun to talk about Putin as his hand-picked successor. By resigning just as Putin’s popularity peaked, Yeltsin insured that he would not have to compete politically with his own protégé, and he may well have assured that his pick would in fact win the presidency.
Yeltsin’s culpability in the post-Soviet chaos should not be underestimated. By refusing to create a party structure with definable goals and platforms, by changing prime ministers and governments so often that most people lost track of who was in and who was out, and by launching two military attacks on the separatist Chechens, Yeltsin left his country perpetually off balance and unorganized. Rather than working to establish a rock bed of stability upon which future Russian politicians could build democratic rule and economic success, Yeltsin intentionally undermined stability and relied extensively on his own political persona for survival. History will be kind to Boris Yeltsin for his dramatic and heroic moments as the Soviet Union sputtered to its final destiny, but it will also evaluate him harshly for failing to build in Russia the infrastructure and rule of law it so desperately needs. He has certainly earned the right to be hailed as the man who ended communist rule in Russia, but clearly the title “Father of Russian Democracy” must await another man.
Mr. Moon, who teaches Russian studies and language at Hotchkiss School in Connecticut, earned an M. A. in Russian Studies at Harvard University. He has visited Russia eight times since 1983.