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Boris Yeltsin

David Satter

The era of Boris Yeltsin, who died Monday, was a time of lost opportunity. Yeltsin led the revolution that overthrew the Soviet Union. But his attempt to build democracy in Russia was a failure in no small measure because, mesmerized by the success of the West, Yeltsin was determined to create democracy by force.

In some respects, Yeltsin was one of history’s great benefactors. Expelled from the leadership after he made a speech in 1987 denouncing the slow pace of Soviet reform, he became a martyr in the eyes of the public and, with the help of the first free elections, emerged as the leader of the opposition to the regime. The movement he led brought a peaceful end to 73 years of communist rule.

The fall of communism, however, was only one of the goals that faced Russia in the 1990s. The second and equally important goal was the creation of a reliable democracy. If in the case of the fall of communism, Yeltsin put himself in charge of a movement that already existed and had swept the whole country, in the building of democracy he made decisions alone and those decisions spelled disaster and the ultimate end of democracy for his country.

It is this failure that explains why Yeltsin will be little mourned in Russia where his popularity at the end of his second term was 2 per cent. When Russians are asked to explain the popularity of Putin today, they inevitably refer to the chaos and criminality of the Yeltsin years. It also the reason for the loss of faith in “democracy,” a fact that places a huge burden of explanation on Russia’s dwindling band of human rights activists.

The country that Yeltsin inherited after the fall of the Soviet Union was spiritually disoriented. After 4,000 years of civilization, the communists decided to reject not only God but any intuitive sense of right and wrong. “Right” was what served the working class. Under these circumstances, the most pressing need for Russia was to reestablish the authority of universal moral values, which could only be achieved by establishing the rule of law.

Yeltsin, however, and the small group of economists who advised him, decided that the most urgent priority for Russia was putting property immediately into private hands, even if those hands were criminal. In this, they were fully supported by the U.S. The result was that the path was laid for the pillaging of the country and the rise in Russia of the present KGB dictatorship.

Foreigners, viewing Russia from the outside, and impressed by the country’s new freedoms were often unaware of the crime and wrenching poverty that overwhelmed ordinary citizens. All property was in the hands of the government. Money was in the hands of black market operators and gangsters. Without legal safeguards, criminals acquired property by bribing state officials and the biggest criminals became oligarchs and, with their newfound wealth, pillars of the government.

Russians watched with astonishment as the wealth created by the combined efforts of the entire population was parceled out to well placed insiders on the strength of corrupt connections. The new owners proceeded to strip the assets of the factories and mines they acquired and the economy collapsed. In the period from 1992 to 1998, the Russian gross domestic product fell by half. This did not happen even under Nazi occupation.

One consequence was that Russians stopped receiving their wages. By January 1, 1998, wage arrears reached 13 per cent of the total money mass (M2) or $8 billion at the official rate of exchange. Official statistics even introduced a heading “wage arrears” and, to ward off starvation, factory workers who had gone months without their salaries began raising their own food.

Perhaps most important, the spiritual crisis in Russia deepened. Communist ideology was based on a set of anti-values designed to facilitate murder and justify totalitarian rule. At the same time, however, these values defined a worldview that gave each individual a sense that he was working for the good of mankind and his life had meaning. The revelations of glasnost showed that the communist worldview was based on lies but offered nothing to take its place. When, after the fall of the Soviet Union, people, instead of the hoped for democracy, found themselves ruled by bribe takers and gangsters, the result was widespread despair.

Between 1992 and 1994, the rise in the death rate in Russia was so dramatic that Western demographers did not believe the figures. The toll from murder, suicide, heart attacks, and accidents gave Russia the death rate of a country at war and Western and Russian demographers now agree that between 1992 and 2000, the number of “surplus deaths” in Russia deaths that cannot be explained on the basis of previous trends was between five and six million persons.

Under these circumstances, Yeltsin became an unpopular and even hated figure in Russia. But even in light of the disastrous toll of reform, one could argue that, in his policy decisions, Yeltsin had good intentions. No such argument is possible about the means through which Yeltsin and his entourage ensured the choice of Putin.

By 1999, it was clear that, barring extraordinary events, no candidate associated with Yeltsin had a chance of being elected president. This meant the results of the dishonest division of property in the country would almost certainly be reexamined. And, for those close to Yeltsin, this promised not only the loss of their illgotten gains but prison or worse.

As it happened, events intervened. In September 1999, four apartment buildings were blown up in Moscow, Buinaksk and Volgodonsk, killing 300 persons as they slept. The explosions were attributed to Chechens and, with the public galvanized in support, the authorities launched a new invasion of Chechnya. Vladimir Putin, the virtually unknown former head of the Federal Security Service (FSB) who had been named prime minister, was put in charge of the campaign. It achieved some early success and attention was successfully diverted from the pillaging of the country under Yeltsin to the supposed Chechen attack. Overnight, Putin became a national hero and was elected president. His first official act was to pardon Yeltsin and the members of his family for all crimes committed in office and to announce that the results of privatization would not be reconsidered.

A fifth bomb, however, was planted in a basement in Ryazan southeast of Moscow. In that case, the bomb did not go off. Quick thinking residents called the local police. The bombers were arrested and found to be agents of the FSB.

Yeltsin was a contradictory figure. He had boundless energy and determination. His fight against the Soviet system was motivated by a personal desire for revenge but also by a vision of a better life. At the same time, however, Yeltsin shared the core assumption of the communist worldview that the individual has no value compared to the goals of the state. It was this that undercut the democracy he hoped to build and prepared the way for the KGB-FSB government that exists in Russia today.

In the aftermath of Yeltsin’s death, there will be many, particularly in the U.S., who try to draw a distinction between democracy under Yeltsin and authoritarianism under Putin. This distinction is false. Democracy implies the rule of law that did not exist under Yeltsin. At the same time, Putin was Yeltsin’s handpicked successor. He never would have become president were it not for the criminality of the Yeltsin years and the apartment bombings that led to the Second Chechen War.

The emancipation of Russia and its descent back into authoritarianism are both part of Yeltsin’s legacy. Fate put Yeltsin at the head of a movement that did great good but he proved incapable of guaranteeing his country a better future. In the end, his life is a sober illustration of the necessity of uprooting the communist inheritance in Russia and how deep that legacy runs.

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