Don't Cry for Boris Yeltsin


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

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.

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.

4, 2007

Williamson [send her mail]
has been observing the international aid institutions since their
arrival in Russia after the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union. Currently
she is expanding and revising her opus on the post-Cold War era,
Contagion: The Betrayal of Liberty; the United States and Russia
in the Post-Cold War World, to be published by Poor Richard’s
Press this coming autumn. She no longer lives in the United States.
This article was originally published by Sanders
Research Associates