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“Yanks to the rescue”: Time’s not-so secret story of how Americans helped Yeltsin win 1996 presidential election

Catte Black

Imagine Izvestia ran a headline in January 2018 titled “Rescuing Donald”, in which it proudly boasted that a group of crack Russian election-fixers had been sent over to Washington to make sure Trump beat Hillary. Does anyone imagine it would stop short of impeachment for Trump and maybe even hot war with Russia? Yet 22 years ago Time magazine ran just such a feature on how four Americans and an ex-pat Russian had managed the 1996 Russian presidential election to ensure a win for Boris Yeltsin. And apparently that was something to openly boast about.

The cover of Time July 15 1996

On July 15 1996 Time magazine ran a screaming front page that read “Yanks to the Rescue – the secret story of how American advisers helped Yeltsin win.”

The exclusive feature inside left little room for doubt. It was headlined in red “Rescuing Boris” and the caption on the header photo of a smiling Yeltsin was:

The secret story of how four US advisors used polls, focus groups, negative ads and all the other techniques of American campaigning to help Boris Yeltsin win

while the standfirst continued the exultant theme (our emphasis):

In the end the Russian people chose – and chose decisively – to reject the past. Voting in the final round of the presidential election last week, they preferred Boris Yeltsin to his communist rival Gennadi Zyuganov by a margin of 13 percentage points. He is far from the ideal democrat or reformer, and his lieutenants Victor Chenomyrdin and Alexander Lebed are already squabbling over power, but Yeltsin is arguably the best hope Russia has for moving toward pluralism and an open economy. By re-electing him, the Russians defied predictions that they might willingly resubmit themselves to communist rule.

The outcome was by no means inevitable. Last winter Yeltsin’s approval ratings were in the single digits. There are many reasons for his change in fortune, but a crucial one has remained a secret. For four months, a group of American political consultants clandestinely participated in guiding Yeltsin’s campaign, here is the inside story of how these advisors helped Yeltsin achieves the victory that would keep reform in Russia alive.

The article went on to explain that Yeltsin was deeply unpopular at that time in Russia, polling no more than 8% and widely blamed for the rise of the gangster oligarchs, the collapse of infrastructure and the looting of Russia’s once state-owned natural resources. The Communists were resurgent, taking a lot of new seats in the elections to the Duma in the winter of ’95-6.

The Communist presidential candidate, Gennadi Zyuganov, was poised to ride this wave. If left to their own devices, Time says, the Russians could easily have voted a Red back into the Kremlin.

Obviously this could not be permitted to happen.

Time tells us America needed to keep the Communists out because of the need to maintain Russia on track with “reform.” But from our vantage point we now know that “reform” didn’t mean political reform. In fact the US was more than happy to ignore Yeltsin’s numerous unconstitutional incursions for as long as he was doing their bidding.
What Time means by “reform” is the vastly illegal and ethically barbarous looting of the Russian state and its people that was then being systematically perpetrated by the US, its financial institutions and its own gangster capitalists.

A Communist, or even a moderate nationalist, could be a disaster for this lucrative open conduit of virtually free raw materials and knock-down block shares in oil and gas production (and that’s not even getting into the questions of PNAC and the neocon drive to see Russia perennially divided and weakened, if not actually partitioned).

For all these reasons, broadly encompassed under the weasel word “reform”, the US did not want anyone but Yeltsin in the Kremlin in 1996. So, says Time, the Yanks decided to step in and fix things.

They sent over a team of five election-managers and image-makers to try to turn Yeltsin’s fortunes around. The men were old hands at this business. Richard Dresner had helped Bill Clinton get elected as governor or Arkansas. George Gorton was a “longtime strategist” for California governor Pete Wilson. Joe Shumate was a “polling expert” and another of Bill Clinton’s election team. Steven More was a PR specialist. Felix Braynin was a Russian ex-patriot who didn’t trust Communists.

They knew from the off their job wasn’t going to be easy. Because for the Russian people Boris Nikolayevich was one step up from poison. 60% of the population thought Yeltsin was corrupt. 65% thought he had wrecked the economy. In 1996 Stalin was getting more positive approval ratings than Yeltsin. An “early memo” from the group dated March 2 and cited by Time says:

Voters don’t approve of the job Yeltsin is doing, don’t think things will ever get any better and prefer the Communists’ approach.

They were similarly frank about the solution:

There exists only one very simple strategy for winning: first, becoming the only alternative to the Communists; and the second, making the people see that the Communists must be stopped at all costs.”

So, the five Americans got to work trying to secure the Russian election for their candidate of choice. They ran ad campaigns to promote the (bogus) idea of Yeltsin’s popularity. They ran other ads denigrating the opposition. They fixed his suits and sprayed his hair.

Time’s graphic showing the five “yanks” who came to Boris Yeltsin’s rescue in 1996 and helped secure him the presidency of Russia

They Americanised the process as much as they could – but not as much as they wanted to. A plan they conceived of Yeltsin entering a conference hall “through a boisterous crowd that would mob him” and delivering a short 15-minute speech “that television viewers might actually sit through” was rejected out of hand. Yeltsin decided instead to enter the hall in the normal Russian way to polite claps from men in suits, and he delivered an hour-long speech that probably made his American handlers groan in despair.

They made sure this rebellion wouldn’t happen again by using a “perception analyser” to show Yeltsin’s handlers what a turn-off his performance had been. From then on the Yanks seem to have had things their way, or so Time implies. They proceeded to look into the Russian people’s deepest fears and see how they could be used advantageously:

Having helped establish the campaign’s major theme, the Americans then set out to modify it. The Americans used their focus group co-ordinator, Alexei Levinson, to determine what exactly Russians most feared about the Communists. Long lines, scarce food and re-nationalisation of property were frequently cited, but mostly people worried about civil war.

Fear was the key. And Russia in the 1990s was a fearful place. All they had to do was convince enough people the Communists were more frightening than the gangsters currently running the show.

‘Stick with Yeltsin and at least you’ll have calm’ – that was the line we wanted to convey

And it worked. Or something did. Whether by dint of hairspray, focus groups, fear porn or something else undeclared, Yeltsin leapt from 2-8% popular support to 54.4% by the end of the campaign.

And he won. And Russia was saved.

Well, it was saved for the United States, its financial institutions and gangster capitalists anyway. But that’s another story.

You can download the entire article as a PDF here. You need to read it all to get the full flavour. And just to show how proud America was of interfering in this election, there was even a Hollywood movie made about it in 2003 called Spinning Boris.

[UPDATE: have now watched that film – it adds mind-blowing levels of racism and racial stereotyping to the mix to complement the laugh-along celebration of defrauding a sovereign nation and its people. Enjoy.]

After you have taken a look at all this, consider the following question:

What’s worse?

1) The triumphal bragging about manipulating the election to make sure their man became president in order to continue defrauding and dispossessing and even starving ordinary Russian people, or

2) The insane hypocrisy of – 22 years later – indicting 13 Russians for doing at worst a fragment and shadow of this colossal crime?

History will have a tough time deciding won’t it.