historical perspectives, latest, Russia
Comments 13

The Real Boris Yeltsin: Democratic Reformer Or Brutal Dictator?

by Dr Paul Kindlon at Russia Insider

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This week marks the 25th anniversary of the “August coup” that brought Boris Yeltsin to prominence and power. In the western media Yeltsin is often contrasted with Putin and portrayed as an ethical reformer and anti-corruption crusader. But is this the real Yeltsin?

Coincidentally, at the time Yeltsin was standing on top of a tank declaring himself as a defender of political reform, I was in Chicago“defending” my doctoral dissertation. Little did I know that only one year later I would be reporting Russian news as a broadcast journalist in Moscow and interviewing key players involved in the conflict between anti-Yeltsin pro-communist figures and pro-Yeltsin democracy advocates. Because of my position as a journalist in Moscow I was able to learn a great deal about “the real Boris Yeltsin”.

So let’s get to the key questions on this metaphysical matter…

“Wasn’t Boris Nikolaevich an ethical, anti-corruption reformer?”

Well…his humble origins are fairly well-known, but not many people outside of Russia are aware of the fact that hard-drinking Boris was a big-time Communist party boss out in Sverdlovsk in the 1980s where he did virtually nothing to hinder the activities of the local mafia. I learned from an article by Artyom Troitsky, that this was the most powerful mafia in the country and that Yeltsin essentially “looked the other way” as the local organized crime group engaged in massive illegal activities.

This rather startling piece of news was supplemented by an even more surprising revelation from the loose lips of Elizabeth Susskind who was then Director of Estee Lauder in Russia. At a dinner/drinking party on the terrace of her elite apartment overlooking the Kremlin, Elizabeth confided to me that she had serious doubts Boris Yeltsin was actually the one calling the shots in the country. She told me of lines of black limousines with “Sverdlovsk license plates” entering the Kremlin gates late at night. Some years later I even heard the BBC Moscow correspondent openly doubting whether Yeltsin was “running the show”, specifically raising the issue of a covert shadow government on early morning radio.

If you add to the aforementioned the fact that Yeltsin not only allowed, but encouraged the now infamous sell-off of Russia’s natural resources to pre-selected buyers at ridiculously low prices you probably arrive at a very uncomfortable conclusion. Not to mention the “biggest robbery of the century” privatization scam.

“Wasn’t Boris the first democratic leader of Russia?”

In 1993, President Yeltsin – by now hostile to any and all opposition – aggressively confronted the democratically elected Congress of People’s Deputies which he saw as “obstructionist” despite the fact that the body passed nearly 80% of the bills Yeltsin put forward. (Note: an 80% passage rate would be an American president’s wet dream)

On September 21st Yeltsin would issue an executive act worthy of a very undemocratic Russian Tsar: Ukaz number 1400. This decree unilaterally abolished the legislative branch of government. Just to be clear – this is the equivalent of President Obama signing an uber executive order making the entire Congress disappear from the face of the earth. The Supreme Court deemed the decree unconstitutional and so Yeltsin simply suspended the Judicial branch of government as well.

Eventually, Yeltsin would send in tanks and fighters to oust the protesting deputies and supporters holed up inside the congressional building. Eyewitnesses reported deaths in the hundreds although official figures hovered between 50 and 100. The American journalist Peter Khlebnikov published a stunning article about bodies piled into “bread” lorries and carted off to a monastery where the corpses were quickly cremated.

In the end, Western governments approved of good old Boris’ actions. Bill Clinton – ejaculator-in-chief and president of the beacon of democracy – even applauded.

“Wasn’t Boris the “defender of freedom” and liberator of oppressed republics?”

For the Soviet republics- yes. But in December of 1994 Yeltsin autocratically and very unwisely unleashed a war against the “Russian republic” of Chechnya. This was not anything like the recent anti-terrorist operations that take place in the Caucasus. In fact, over a two-year period up to 50,000 people died – most of them civilians! Not surprisingly, Chechens who suffered because of this war or who had friends and relatives killed by Russian bombs and missiles vowed revenge. To this day, Russia and Putin have had to deal with the terrorist blowback from this ill-thought out war intended to crush the spirit of freedom. Instead of the “defender of freedom” label the journalist Thomas de Waal suggested the title “butcher of Grozny”. Not all journalists were critical, however, as throughout Yeltsin’s early tenure some spoke of “creative destruction”. Was Chechnya just another broken egg to be added to the omelet?

Looking through the glass prism of Russian history, then, how should we ultimately view the legacy of Yeltsin? I suppose it all depends on whether or not you see your Vodka bottle as half-empty or half-full.


13 Comments

  1. Alessandro says

    In 1936 Lev Trotsky predicted that if Soviet bureaucracy continued to grow and entrench itself as a class of society, when one day having to decide between making democratic reforms and returning power to the soviets (workers’ councils) and making capitalist reforms to increase their privilege and wealth, their children and grandchildren who had no part in the revolution would abolish communism and take the state’s wealth for themselves. And that’s exactly what Yeltsin, whose father was a kulak, did. Yeltsin was the worst example of both a corrupt, self-interested Soviet bureaucrat and a robber capitalist as opportunistic and ambitious as any.

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  2. James Carless says

    Gorbachev was the greatest Russian leader and international politician,his human qualities made him a rock star when he visited abroad,the thousands chanting “Gorby,Gorby,Gorby” in Berlin was simply unimaginable then and I know of no politician who could repeat that adoration outside his own country today.
    Given a chance,he could have brought a true rapprochement between East and West ,gone further in nuclear disarmament, and put climate change on the forefront of the international agenda decades ago when it might of had some effect.
    Yeltsin was a Russian forerunner of Trump,a drunken embarrassment who rather than save Gorby from the Old Guard , publicly humiliated him in the Duma,and with that destroyed him and the hopes of the revolutionary changes in Russian society ‘Glasnost and Perestroika’ had begun.
    His mistake was to be too trusting, that Baker ,Genscher and later Bill Clinton,would be as honest and honorable as himself in keeping their word on NATO encroachment.
    Gorbachev is still an honored,humanitarian,dignified voice on the environment and in world affairs, Yeltsin couldn’t handle power , standing upright,and the bottle so after giving away the national assets to the corrupt oligarchs financed by G H Bush and friends (tax evidence unfortunately destroyed in building 7 on 9/11) he selected the quiet, hard man in the back office, Putin, to clean up his mess and on the proviso that he is not impeached for corruption kept out of prison.

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    • Seamus Padraig says

      Could not disagree more. Gorbachev was a sap and a dupe, whose disastrous decisions made the likes of Yeltsin possible. How could he have disbanded the Warsaw Pact without getting NATO to disband as well? How could he have let the Soviet Union simply disintegrate when more than 3/4 of the people voted to keep it?

      Maybe Gorbachev’s intentions were good, but that’s between him and his Maker. His decisions were catastrophic, and the post-Soviet peoples are still in many ways paying for them even now.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Reblogged this on The Most Revolutionary Act and commented:

    *
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    In addition to launching a military coup against a democratically elected Parliament, Yeltsin llaunched the now infamous sell-off of Russia’s natural resources to pre-selected buyers in the “biggest robbery of the century” privatization scam.

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  4. chrisb says

    I don’t question the evaluation of Yeltsin. You should however ask why the ‘Mafia’ was permitted in the USSR. Some private enterprise was tolerated due to the inability of the socialist state to meet its people’s needs and due to corruption. By definition, however, any private enterprise was a crime. The consequence, therefore, was that there was no differentiation between what we would consider as legal enterprises and illegal enterprises. As much of this private enterprise involved import and export, the financial links with the outside world had already been established when the opportunity rose to plunder the Russian state.

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    • Seamus Padraig says

      Oh, brother. You could just as well make the same argument about heroin-smuggling: ‘Well, since the government made heroin illegal, the poor heroin smugglers had no choice but to form ai illegal mafia to smuggle it in.’

      Whatever …

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  5. michaelk says

    My Russian family memebers cringe when Yeltsin’s name is mentioned and have to look away in embarrassment and something close to shame. The piece of film with an obviously plastered Yeltin stand next to Bill Clinton is very revealing. Clinton can’t control himself and doesn’t even bother to try, he bursts out laughing at Yeltin’s stumbling over his lines and his antics. Bill can’t stop laughing at this foolish clown he’s standing next to. It’s all so fucking grotesque and ridiculous. A slobbering drunk in charge of Russia!

    Yet, Yeltsin, is the kind of guy we prefer running our client states, as long as they obey orders and don’t get in the way of our plans and interests. Only the idea that Russia was ever going to stand for this, being turned into a broken state, a virtual colony, was always a pififul fantasy. Given Russia’s culture and history and people, anyone with half a brain understood that they would never, not in a million years, accept this fate, but rather, pull together, regain their national pride and sovereignty and the right to say ‘no!’ This, of course, is where the problem with the West lies, Russian independence. There’s simply way too much of it. One is either a loyal client state, run by a guy like Yeltsin, or one is an enemy that has to be brought to heel.

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  6. michaelk says

    The famous tank scene with Yeltsin speaking to the masses, isn’t what it seems. In fact it’s very similar to the stunt performed by the Americans in Baghdad when they, sorry, the Iraqi people, pulled down Saddam’s statue in revolution square. Anywya, back to Moscow. In essence, the tank scene is a fake. Yeltsin isn’t addressing a vast crowd at all, but a mere handful of people, many of them journalists. The camera angle is designed to give the opposite impression to reality. It’s propaganda. Occassionally one can see the real footage where a camera pans away from Yeltsin standing on the tank, towards the vast sea of demonstrators, where one can see how few people were really there.

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  7. When the good willing but towards the West highly naive Gorbachev was deposed Yeltsin started the fast sell out of Russia almost to the total downfall. Putin – no matter what could also be critized with him – became the saviour of Russia. And most likely Russia with its Military strength together with China´s economic power might be the only forces to save the world from finally falling under the US Neocon Power Elite´s dictatorship and slavery! Thus the efforts for a Eurasian cooperation is so important. But the necessary efforts drive the US Power Elite mad!
    „Geo-Politics: The Core of Crisis and Chaos and the Nightmares of the US Power Elite“ https://wipokuli.wordpress.com/2016/08/01/geo-politics-the-core-of-crisis-and-chaos-the-nightmares-of-the-us-power-elite/
    Andreas Schlüter
    Sociologist
    Berlin, Germany

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  8. Secret Agent says

    The thing is, it doesn’t matter what Yeltsin was. He served the oligarchy and so he gets good press. The Chechen terrorists of the time also served the oligarchy and they got good press too. The people of the Donbass resisted the oligarchy and they will be exterminated at the first possible opportunity. The Syrian people will similarly be destroyed asap.

    The point is, there is no point playing he said she said with psycopathic homicidal maniacs.

    Liked by 1 person

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