by Mahir Ali; May 05, 2007
SOME of Boris Yeltsin’s worst transgressions barely rated a mention in much of the media coverage that followed his demise last month. The broad tendency was to paint him as Russia’s democratic saviour, a political colossus given to occasional acts of drunken tomfoolery.
In a tribute published in The New York Times last Sunday, Bill Clinton described him as imperfect but “intelligent, passionate, emotional, strong-willed and courageous”, concluding: “Russia and the world were lucky to have him. History will be kind to my friend Boris.”
Among the stock footage favoured by many television networks over the past 10 days is a clip that shows Yeltsin making a remark that prompts an outburst of Clintonian laughter. It dates back to the period when Clinton compared him with Abraham Lincoln, a compliment that coincided with the destruction of Grozny by Russian planes, tanks and missiles.
Apart from the indelible image of Yeltsin berating troops from atop a tank outside the Russian parliament in August 1991, news reports tended to focus on the lighter moments in the former president’s career: Boris the friendly bear dancing on stage with a rock group, Boris the muzhik greeting an unsuspecting woman with a pinch on the backside, Boris the jester pretending to conduct a German orchestra. One almost expected the compilation of clips to be followed by a blurb along the lines of: “I thought Boris Yeltsin was a leading 20th-century political figure, until I discovered Smirnov” (or Stolichnaya, as the case may be).
Hardly any network deemed it worthwhile to visually juxtapose that moment of bravery - or at least bravado - from August 1991, when the coup attempt against Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev provided Yeltsin with the opportunity to strike a pose that would be recognized by posterity as his finest hour, with the scene some two years later in exactly the same part of Moscow, when Yeltsin ordered a military assault against the same Russian parliament that stood by him in 1991. This instance of state terrorism enjoyed widespread western approbation at the time and continues to be glossed over in retrospect, with leading American newspapers fallaciously describing it as a successful effort to defeat a communist coup attempt.
In certain other contexts, such as the economic “shock therapy” that reduced a large proportion of Russians to penury, liberal western media organs are now prepared to admit that Yeltsin was seriously mistaken, albeit without acknowledging the folly of their uncritical contemporary support. The blanket stamp of approval was somewhat more difficult in the case of the systematic violation of human rights in Chechnya. But then, what’s indefensible can often be ignored, and perhaps it’s not surprising that images of the havoc wreaked in Grozny and the massacres perpetrated in Chechen villages by ill-trained Russian conscripts have generally been absent from recent coverage of the Yeltsin years.
Boris Yeltsin was an unknown quantity when, shortly after the advent of Gorbachev, he was plucked from Sverdlovsk and installed as the metropolitan party leader in Moscow. His populist approach to the job offered a sharp contrast to the cautious conservatism traditionally associated with party bureaucrats, and Muscovites relished the sight of the local party chief travelling on public transport, publicly sounding off about empty shelves in shops, tracking down hoarders and lamenting the slow pace of perestroika. In the reformist atmosphere introduced by Gorbachev, Yeltsin swept through the Soviet capital like a fresh breeze.
His acrimonious rupture with the Communist Party did his popularity no harm. He seemed to represent the future, whereas much of the party, despite all of Gorbachev’s efforts, still seemed to be mired in the past. If Muscovites could have envisaged at that point the sort of future that lay in wait, their attitude may have changed dramatically - as it eventually did: on the eve of his departure from the Kremlin at the end of 1999, Yeltsin’s popularity had dwindled to two per cent.
Ten years earlier, however, his incessant attacks on the privileges enjoyed by the Communist hierarchy and the hurdles in the path of democratic reforms fell on receptive ears. In the first contested elections to the Russian Federation’s Congress of People’s Deputies, Yeltsin stood against a party candidate and won by a huge majority. Those elections, organized while the USSR was very much intact, were arguably the fairest that Russia has witnessed.
The parliament elected Yeltsin as its chairman, but he had set his eyes on a higher goal, and in mid-1991 he achieved his ambition by becoming Russia’s first directly elected president - a platform that strengthened his ability to undermine Gorbachev, whose elevation to the post of the Soviet Union’s first executive president had not been preceded by a popular vote.
A couple of months later, Yeltsin leapt to his rival’s defence when a conspiracy between members of the party hierarchy, the interior ministry and the KGB led to Gorbachev being taken prisoner. The coup-makers, who ostensibly wanted to reverse the reform process, behaved like nervous clowns. A more ruthless and clearly thought-out operation would, at the very least, have entailed Yeltsin’s neutralization. Instead, although tanks were ordered on to the roads, the soldiers manning them were sufficiently confused by their mission to be obeying the traffic lights.
Muscovites reacted to the show of force by pouring on to the streets, determined to resist the backwards lurch, and buoyed no doubt by Yeltsin’s declaration from atop a T-72 tank: “We are dealing with a right-wing, reactionary, anti-constitutional coup d’etat. We appeal to the citizens of Russia to give an appropriate rebuff to the putschists. The legally elected president of the country has been removed from power. We proclaim all decisions and decrees of this committee [formed by the conspirators] to be illegal.”
Chances are that the coup would have floundered anyhow, but it did wonders for Yeltsin’s image - although he found time for other pursuits during those three crucial days: on one occasion, former foreign minister Eduard Shevardnadze found him passed out on the carpet, with an empty bottle of vodka close by. Meanwhile, the coup attempt set the scene for three momentous events: the humiliation of Mikhail Gorbachev, the disbanding of the Communist Party and, within months, the dismemberment of the Soviet Union. Yeltsin was instrumental in each of them.
The final act involved a meeting between Yeltsin and the leaders of Ukraine and Byelorussia in a hunting lodge near the Polish border, where they arbitrarily chose independence for the USSR’s constituent republics, pre-empting a new union treaty that had been all but finalized. The undemocratic and unconstitutional move was effectively another coup against Gorbachev. The theoretical burial of the Soviet Union was followed by a feast that ended in a drunken brawl.
In the brave new Russia, the sudden removal of state subsidies was accompanied by the sale of state assets at throwaway prices. A handful of enterprising folk grew very, very rich while millions saw their savings rendered worthless: in 1992, inflation went up by 2,000 per cent. These policies inevitably invited parliamentary efforts to overturn them, leading to the 1993 confrontation. It seems perverse for the man who ordered military action against his nation’s parliament to be hailed as the father of Russian democracy, but in some eyes Yeltsin could do no serious wrong: he may have been a bit of a monster, but he was a monster who devoured communism and usually obeyed the west.
So who cares that in 1996, faced with the prospect of defeat in his re-election attempt, he seriously toyed with the idea of dispensing with the democratic process, until the crony capitalists he had nurtured came to his aid? Vladimir Putin, who isn’t always prepared to kowtow to the west, is often accused of possessing an authoritarian streak, but it’s seldom noted that he inherited it from Yeltsin - whose choice of successor, incidentally, was guided by one overriding factor: it had to be someone who would guarantee the outgoing president and his family immunity from prosecution. Yeltsin’s distaste for privileges and corruption had not survived the collapse of communism.
Towards the end of his tenure, a pair of scholars, Professor Peter Reddaway and Dmitri Glinski, offered this scathing opinion: “For the first time in recent world history one of the major industrial nations with a highly educated society has dismantled the results of several decades of economic development.” Small wonder, then, that when foreign correspondents took to the streets of Moscow for a vox pop last week, they could hardly find anyone willing to say a kind word about a leader who, whatever Bill Clinton may say, is likely to go down in history as a destroyer rather than a builder. “I think all of Russia is celebrating in silence,” ventured one young man. Gorbachev’s reaction, not surprisingly, was more measured: “A tragic fate,” he noted. “On [his] shoulders rest major events for the good of the country as well as serious mistakes.” Margaret Thatcher, meanwhile, echoed many of her ideological peers - and demonstrated her tenuous grasp of recent history - in describing the deceased as a “patriot and liberator” without whom “Russia would have remained in the grip of communism”.
A week ago, the late Russian leader became the first of his ilk since the days of the tsars to be laid to rest following a church service. Perhaps a suitable epitaph, simply and accurately summarizing the complexities of his political career, could have been: “Here lies Boris Nikolayevich Yeltsin, sober at last...”