Don't Cry for Boris Yeltsin

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Boris Yeltsin, who died on April 23, was a man of huge appetite, and he dined well at the richest table the Lord Almighty ever set before mankind — Mother Russia. But before taking his seat, he shattered the centerpiece of the Soviet Union, the final manifestation of the 400 year-old Great Russian Empire, and in an alcoholic stupor ordered a sizable chunk of the dining table lobbed off.

The shattered crystal shards and carpentry work were necessary. So long as there was a Soviet Union, there would be a Gorbachev. If there were no Soviet Union, there would be no Gorbachev, which would then allow Yeltsin, elected president of the Russian Federation in June 1991, to take his seat at the head of the table. It is this episode of brutal realpolitik which the West has spun into the legend of Boris the Democrat, the Great Liberator of the Chained Republics, which annoys the Russian people to this day.

When Yeltsin scrambled atop the tank in August 1991, it was not the great moment of liberation so widely advertised, but rather the conclusion of Yeltsin’s own and separate political intrigue to usurp Gorbachev. On that August day Yeltsin’s plot preempted the CPSU’s Emergency Committee’s coup. (The bad blood between Yeltsin and Gorbachev was a consequence of Yeltsin’s 1988 loss of his job overseeing Moscow and his resignation from the Politburo in protest, and the CPSU several years later.)

Like a cunning thug who’d once been fingered for trying to take over the mob, he suddenly found himself with a second chance to do just that. (After Aleksandr Korzhakov, Yeltsin’s longtime bodyguard, and Yeltsin had a falling out, Korzhakov reported that they were in direct contact with the military that day and knew they would not be attacked.)

With a gambler’s eye for the main chance, Yeltsin rolled the dice — and won. Immediately, the West claimed victory and hailed the conquering hero, who promptly became so intoxicated four men were needed to cope with him.

The consequences of that day proved immensely painful for Russia.

By abruptly dismantling the empire, which Stalin had re-structured in the Soviet era to create a superstructure of economic interconnectedness and politically- and cunningly-contrived borders that promised violence if undone, Yeltsin opened Pandora’s box. Though certainly the rightness of imperial dissolution can not be argued (Moscow exploited the Republics terribly, and managed them horribly,) the inevitable problems of that dissolution were unnecessarily complicated and extended by Yeltsin’s sudden opportunism. For instance, the alumina might be in Ukraine, but the aluminum smelters are in Siberia; and the chemical plants in Armenia supply factories in Azerbaijan, two countries at bloody odds over the border district of Nagorno-Kharabak. The quickness of the unraveling created economic dislocations that bedevil the economies of all the constituent elements of the former Soviet Union to this day.

The Chechen tragedy, decades of violence and death now in the latest episode of a centuries’ long story, is another consequence of Yeltsin’s clumsy dissolution of the Soviet Union, and his bull-headed approach to the ancient land’s demand for independence. But the war proved very profitable for a very few — "such a good business" as one oligarch famously told a Russian general – and very, very costly in blood and treasure for both the Chechens and the Russians. As Americans are discovering, long wars with Islamic backwaters take considerable hide. (Russians wonder why Americans would go halfway around the world to get themselves into one.)

Yeltsin is further lionized in the West for smashing the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, but the result was as bad as what happened in Iraq with the destruction and outlawing of the Ba’athist Party. The Soviet Union had a dual government, one of the nation, and another of the Communist Party, and it was the CPSU that ruled. Once the Communist Party was destroyed there was no way of governing the huge country. Yeltsinism offered no apparatus to execute reforms in an orderly and lawful manner, which of course was the beauty of it from the West’s point-of-view. Thus was the door opened wide to criminal elements — theirs and ours.

Yeltsin rolled the dice a second time in October 1993 and won again, when he deployed cannons to dissolve the Supreme Soviet, which was attempting to stop the disastrous voucher privatization Anatole Chubais and his Harvard advisers had implemented earlier that year as a self-serving attempt to fulfill that same Supreme Soviet’s July 1991 legislation mandating privatization.

The view from inside the Russian White House in late September and early October was not the one the West saw on CNN. The elected parliamentarians within did not recognize the armed forces deployed without as those of democracy. But this is how they were described in somber tones by Western newsreaders over footage of artillery firing point blank at the legislature.

For those within the White House, living without heat or light or water and surviving on dwindling food supplies, denied access to the media and therefore the opportunity to make their case, what they saw outside was a lawless land whose legislative bulwark against authoritarianism was being crushed by Boris Yeltsin. The opportunistic leaders and alleged free press of the so-called "civilized countries," the former enemies of their fallen empire, sanctioned and even cheered such repression. In the wake of the violence and the killing, the U.S. Congress voted $2.5 billion in aid to Russia. Boris Yeltsin, the West’s best boy.

And you wonder why the Russians don’t trust, and increasingly disdain, Americans?

The Yeltsin the Russian people saw was a great, drunken bear of a man stumbling about, breaking the crockery, scaring the horses and the women and children. He allowed in foreign meddlers and opened Russia’s mighty natural resource sector to direct dealings with the West, in return for huge foreign loans which left the country’s property at risk and its income flooding into foreign real estate and brokerage accounts.

Harvard’s reckless privatization scheme based on vouchers was so ludicrously (some say cunningly) designed that the Russian government became the controlling shareholder of all enterprise — enterprises that had formerly belonged to all the people undivided, not the government. A second privatization to correct the "error" of government control resulting from the first, not designed but certainly unopposed by the West, amounted to an outright gifting of company shares to the quick and the favored (who allegedly lent money to Yeltsin’s 2004 presidential campaign though more commonly only promised such loans.) At the conclusion of the two privatizations seven people controlled 60% of the economy.

Some of those seven, and many people associated with them, live today in almost incomprehensible luxury in London, sheltered by British authorities from the Kremlin who’d like to extradite them to face charges in court. Or in Israel, whose banks (which had no money laundering laws until 2000,) are stuffed with Russian oligarchical cash.

Yes, there were elections and Boris played his part, and they kept the loans coming. Yes, there is a new constitution, which created the powerful presidency the West rues today, but it kept the loans coming back then. And yes, the media was free, so too were the arts and the peoples’ shouted opinions, but who was paying attention? There were buildings and businesses to privatize, cash flows to seize, diamonds, gold, silver, platinum, copper, oil and gas, aluminum smelters, timber, ancient icons, works of art, rare animal pelts, to purloin and sell.

In the course of Yeltsin’s rule, the Russians lost their savings in the great inflation of 1992–93 Harvard advisers engineered by having Yeltsin free prices in a monopolistic economy, their jobs, or well, their jobs’ paychecks anyway. The population was halved literally overnight, and the nation’s boundaries pushed back to what they had been 300 years earlier.

Russians lived through the loss of their chance at becoming owners of a piece of their national estate and the public humiliation of social collapse and national insolvency. The psychological burden on the Russian people, citizens of what was for centuries a great and powerful country, was a heavy one. Each man, each woman was robbed and swindled several times over by street rackets, by lotteries, by government failure and stupidity operating under the banner of "reform." Deaths from accidents, suicides, sudden illness, drunkenness and violence skyrocketed. More died than were born.

And then in 1998, they got to do it all again!

In the wake of the collapse that summer of the Western-designed and IMF-funded bond market [GKOs], savings and jobs once again disappeared. "It seems that just no matter what we try, nothing, absolutely nothing, works," sighed one babushka, standing in line at a besieged bank.

The looting Yeltsin permitted out of inattention, disregard, and irresponsibility profited him comparatively little personally, until men like Boris Berezovsky, an oligarch now living in London, took control of the family’s finances. It is not Boris, but his daughters and their husbands and their agents who have built the family’s wealth, no doubt considerable. Boris, a top-of-the-world-ma! kind of guy, hungered for power alone, but the very top rung.

Yet this is the most puzzling aspect of the man’s life. Boris Yeltsin’s determined reach fell far short of his grasp. Contrary to the West’s myth-making rhetoric, there is no evidence the man had a larger purpose beyond the personal attainment of power. Once in the Kremlin, he fell into a roaring, drunken revelry from which he only emerged in retirement.

For the people the life of Boris Yeltsin had but one grace note and that was the selection of his successor.

Yet, the last laugh might be Yeltsin’s.

Under Putin, Russia has boomed, paid her debts, accrued $356 billion in reserves (the world’s third largest), set aside some $108 billion from the country’s energy windfall, and now proposes to form a Reserve Fund of $142 billion and a "future generations" Fund of $24 billion more. The United States, however, has sunk deeper into the Iraqi-Afghanistan quagmire while accruing the greatest debt the world has ever seen, after having enticed tens of millions of Americans through below-market interest rates to exchange the equity in their homes for liabilities. U.S. exports are principally, in no particular order, paper dollars, scrap metal, speculative financial schemes, and war weaponry. (You could even add "social security" to the comparison, a sort of unfunded and hollowed-out “dying generations” public liability.) Contrarily, the Russian people are not in debt up to their eyeballs, live in a country with things to sell that can’t be produced on a printing press, and is the only one on earth that could survive the collapse of the dollar.

When history marks the leaders of the first decade of the 21st century, the highly-destructive George W. Bush may well be put down the loser along with the American people, and the sober-minded, disciplined Vladimir Putin the success and today’s Russians the early beneficiaries of what could prove to be decades of growth and increasing prosperity.

Just a thought.

May 4, 2007