Yeltsin: A Revolutionary Life

Leon Aron
August 27, 2016

Over the last several days I have been reading Yeltsin: A Revolutionary Life by Leon Aron. The book is by now badly dated, having been published in 2000 before the succession of Vladimir Putin, and this reinforces a general tendency to lionize its subject. Nonetheless, if the credit Yeltsin deserves for standing up for freedom of speech and individual liberty are diminished by the authoritarian regime that follows, the book’s coverage of the 1990s Communist opposition makes clear that things could have been a whole lot worse. For all of Vladimir Putin’s intolerance of dissent, toleration of violence against opponents, and xenophobic rhetoric, Putin is vastly more indulgent of opposition, less xenophobic, and perhaps most importantly, less anti-semitic than the forces which contended with Yeltsin from 1993 to almost the end of the decade and very nearly took power.

This may seem like an odd argument. The history of the Yeltsin years have been rewritten, not least by former Yeltsin liberals, to recast the 1990s as a period in which Russia had the choice of either pursuing a difficult but ultimately rewarding road of reform and democracy, or alternatively falling back into authoritarianism. Putin’s ascension then is cast as the end of a “liberal” interlude, with a former KGB officer who regretted the fall of the Soviet Union now back in charge of the Russian state. To the extent Putin came in with the overwhelming support of Russian liberals in 2000, even including later opposition martyrs like Boris Nemstov, it is because he hoodwinked them. The idea that Putin actually occupied the center of the 1990s Russian political spectrum and may even have leaned to the liberal side is rejected out of hand, because it would focus attention on the extent to which the liberals actually failed rather than were betrayed. The result has been a narrative that has made serious analysis of the Russian political scene next to impossible, since the starting presumption for almost all casual Western observers is that Putin was/is a hardliner.

This charge is to fabricate history. For one thing, the liberals were never a serious force outside of the executive in the latter days of the Soviet Union. Even during Perestroika, genuine liberals were few and far between among the party bosses and politicians, and non-existent outside of the central government in Moscow. A testament to that is how many of those bosses are still in office today in the Caucuses or Central Asia as authoritarian despots. Liberals within the party were mostly concentrated around Mikhail Gorbachev’s personal staff, in the form of figures such as Alexander Yakolev, and Eduard Shevardnadze, the latter of whom was the only Soviet liberal to acquire a political second wind. While they would rail against Gorbachev’s slowness in pushing reform in 1990, resign in protest in early 1991 when he turned towards the conservatives, and insert themselves into the crowds that blocked the August 1991 coup, ultimately they were irrelevant bystanders. Gorbachev correctly comprehended that the fate of the Soviet Union and his reforms would depend on the party bosses in the republics rather than public opinion, and that was precisely what happened. An overwhelming majority of Soviet voters may have endorsed maintaining the Union in early 1991, but it was the agreement of the republican leaders which mattered, and it was their withdrawal of that support which left Gorbachev powerless and the Soviet Union a memory. The Soviet liberals, for their part, largely vanished with Gorbachev, a testament to the fact that nationalists and communists both had constituencies, but the liberals’ was not among voters.

The same pattern repeated in miniature with Boris Yeltsin. Many Russian politicians, including Yeltsin, admired the United States, but what they admired was not the society itself but its abundance. Yeltsin was greatly influenced by the experience of walking into a supermarket in 1988 and seeing a greater selection than was available even to the top two dozen members of the party elite in the Soviet Union. Anatoly Sobchak, Putin’s boss from 1991 to 1996, and Mayor of St. Petersburg had a similar experience. To the extent that American society was free and democratic as well as enjoying abundance, they were interested  in freedom and democracy, but primary insofar as freedom and democracy produced abundance. Later, as Yeltsin and other politicians found they could make use of a free media as a weapon in their political struggles, they embraced it as a concept in and of itself, but for Yeltsin the understanding never progressed beyond noticing a correlation to a more general theory of causation. This would be evident in his media policy during his first term, where his hands off approach would ensure that Russians would have access to a plethora of media sources, almost all of which, however, represented extremist viewpoints.

In the last months of the Soviet Union, however, these views brought figures like Yeltsin and Sobchak  into partnership with genuine intellectual liberals, those for whom individual rights and economic reform were values in and of themselves. The two groups were separate despite much overlap between them. The economic reformers were not necessarily democrats in principle so much as democrats of convenience. With the Party as the major impediment to their reforms, democracy was a way of removing party hardliners. From the fall of 1991 onwards, however, democracy, rule of law, and parliamentary independence all became obstacles to economic reform. The best organized groups in society remained those with vested economic interests – plant managers, those tied to the Soviet military-industrial complex which had represented more than 40% of GDP, pensioners, all of whom opposed economic reforms which were predicted on making things worse before making them better. This came out in particular with regards to stabilizing the Russian currency. In 1992 the Ruble was non-convertible, being considered worthless on the international markets. In order to stabilize it, the Russian government would have to run a surplus, but this would have meant cutting spending massively, something that was resisted by the millions of voters who would be affected. Equally, fear of foreign influence led the first Russian Supreme Soviet to alter privatization laws to require majority ownership of state-owned firms to go to their employees which in practice meant handing them over to their managers. The halfway house of reforms which created oligarchs was a direct consequence of too much democracy, not too little, something that steadily became an article of faith among Russian economic reformers. And that article of faith would eventually lead to them embracing the need for a strongman, someone, who if he would not abolish the Duma, would definitely shift policy-making power towards the executive.

This placed the economic reformers on a collision course with the principled democrats, and would have even absent the uniquely Russian political climate. Advocates of process over policy, they found themselves trapped in a situation in which the only beneficiaries of freedom were those who wanted to end it. They might make demands that elections be free of governmental interference from Moscow, but abstention by Yeltsin did nothing to stop local and regional bosses from intimidating workers to back anti-democratic parties in the provinces. They defended freedom of speech, and opposed not only censorship on the part of Moscow, but even efforts to produce a pro-Yeltsin or pro-reform state media, with the consequence that in much of the country virtually the entire media remained in the hands of Communists or allied nationalists who heaped forth murderous invective not just against Yeltsin, but against liberals and Jews, with rhetoric about the latter reaching a level almost unseen since Der Sturmer.

The linkage of support for values like "democracy" or "freedom of speech" with Jews had a long historical record in Russia, and was a testament to the degree to which governments have been successful for centuries in restricting serious political discussion among the population by limiting access to newspapers, texts, and in earlier periods literacy itself. Individuals could still be exposed to new ideas, but they almost invariably were exposed to them from abroad, either on their own travels outside of the country, or from imported works, often in languages other than Russian which rendered them inaccessible to the vast majority of the population.. The result, invariably has meant that when reforming rulers, whether Czars like Peter the Great, or 20th century figures like Gorbachev or Yeltsin have sought to "modernize" Russia, they had to rely on a cadre of intellectuals who often were outsiders to the society they sought to reform. Peter the Great relied on Dutch, Germans, and Scottish Jacobites. Reformers at the end of the Czarist period, and Yeltsin in the 1990s relied on natives who nevertheless had been educated abroad or consumed foreign media, with the result that their ideas came to be seen as foreign. The presence of prominent members of Russia's Jewish community, over represented among the educated, produced the same sort of associations of "liberalism" and "democracy" with Jews that ordinary Russians associated the centralizing and secularizing reforms of Peter and his successors with the Baltic "German" officials who often implemented them.  Antisemitism therefore became a way of suggesting that the very ideas were "unRussian" and in the 1990s was part of the standard battle cry of the opposition, whether Communist or Fascist(and there was increasingly little difference between the two after 1992).

The latter became particularly acute as Yeltsin moved towards confrontation with the Supreme Soviet in the fall of 1993. “We are going to beat the kikes!” chanted the crowd defending the Russian White House(where the Supreme Soviet met), “All Power to the Soviets!Rutskoy President! Kikes out of the Kremlin!”(p. 538) “Hannukah has been ruined!” proclaimed the Communist aligned Zavtra following the 1995 Duma elections. The Communist candidate for President in 1996, who received over 40% of the vote, stated in April 1996 that “saddened to watch television where Jewish comedians Khazanov and Ivanov are shown all the time. Where are the ethnic Russians?” (p. 596) These passed for efforts at subtlety. When he was being blunt, Zyuganov could have passed for a Nazi

Beginning in the 19th century the world view, culture, and ideology of the West were increasingly under the impact of the Judiac diaspora, whose influence began to grow not even by the day but by the hour. With the expansion of the capitalist market, the Jewish diasopora, which had traditionally controlled the financial life of the European continent, was becoming a sort of holder of the “control packet” of shares of the entire economic system of Western civilization. The Western consciousness was more and more molded by the notions embedded in Jewish religious beliefs, exclusivity and the divine mission to rule the world…. With the Islamic civilization frozen in its development and this posing not threat to Western dominance, and with other world cultures incapable of resisting the military, economic, and ideological advance of the West the Slavic civilization embodied in the Russian empire become the last barrier to Western hegomonism.(p.597)

Much has been written about how the choice in 1996 was between a return to the "Soviet Union" if the Communists won, or the maintenance of the uncertain gains of the Yeltsin era. But the prospect on offer from the Communist party of the Russian Federation in 1996 was not a return to the Soviet Union as it had existed in 1990, or 1985, or even the 1970s. What the Communist opposition offered was at best a return to the pre-1953 Stalin era, with not just economic nationalization on offer, but a thorough extermination of liberalism and "Jewish" influence from the body politic.

If an ideology can be measured by its outcomes, then "democracy" in Russia had not just failed liberalism, but by the mid 1990s presented a much greater threat to liberalism than even Communist rule - after all there were reformers in the party - had done. Economic liberals could receive the blame for a mismanaged privatization, but they could point to successes as well, at least for some groups in society, albeit ones far too narrow for an electoral majority. They could also argue that their policies had never properly been tried, as Yeltsin not once during his Presidency ever had a friendly majority in Parliament. By contrast, Yeltsin had fully embraced the concepts of freedom of speech, free association, and free elections. Ballot boxes had not been stuffed, the most violent and defamatory papers had not been silenced, the most extremist parties had remained legal. The result had not been a consolidation of liberalism, but a return to the era of the "Black Hundreds:" when right-wing death squads had ridden across the nation with the official sanction of the Czar carrying out pogroms against Jews, Poles, and Balts, and murdering deputies, journalists, and intellectuals. It was not only the destruction of liberalism that was threatened by this opposition; it also threatened the physical destruction of Boris Yeltsin, his family, and many of the Oligarchs, a number of whom were Jewish, who had benefited from economic reforms.

1996 was a narrow escape, but it was not, as it was considered at the time, the final escape. Boris Yeltsin's second term saw disaster after disaster. Internationally, Russian opinion was inflamed against the West by the NATO war in Kosovo, not least the fact that NATO seemed to go out of its way to ignore Russian concerns despite the fact that Russia had(from a Russian perspective) bent over backwards on behalf of the West in Bosnia. With the concurrent beginnings of NATO expansion into Eastern Europe, the entire foreign policy of the Yeltsin administration based on cooperation and concession with the West seemed to collapse. The failures abroad were reinforced by disaster at home, when the aftershocks of the Asian financial crisis caused the collapse of the Ruble in 1998, wiping out the savings of millions of Russians. For many, in 1999, it looked very much as if all the suffering endured since 1992 had been for naught.

It was in this context - a perception of total failure on the part of the political elite combined with an opposition that threatened the destruction of entire social groups - that Putin emerged. Yes, it is true that he was never the hero of the "democrats", even in his early months in 1999. But they had long since established themselves as perfectionists to such a degree that to even try to appeal to them would have been an impossibility. In the midst of Yeltsin's showdown with the Supreme Soviet in 1993, with thousands of paramilitaries sporting Nazi armbands storming police barricades and trying to seize the national broadcaster they had managed to somehow adopt a position condemning both sides as culpable. Their position on Chechnya may have appealed to abstract morality, but their opposition to any effective military tactics on the basis of morality offered few answers for anyone. Their response to Putin's decision to use force in Chechnya could hardly have surprised anyone. That they concocted stories and managed to convince themselves that Putin was responsible for the apartment bombings that killed hundreds in the fall of 1999 showed the degree to which they were engaging with a conspiratorial world of politics as self-contained from the lives of everyday Russians as that in which their fascist and communist rivals dwelled. Putin did not destroy them, even if the FSB was complicit in the apartment attacks. To quote a Serbian proverb about the Battle of Kosovo, they had long since chosen the kingdom of heaven over the kingdom of the earth, and chose to abstain from any constructive role in politics.

For the economic reformers, and many "liberals" whose greatest fear was a regression into the sort of neo-Stalinist fascism preached by the Communists and Liberal Democrats, Putin was a godsend. Here was someone who not only mouthed all the right words, but seemed committed to carrying them out. To Westerners, fully accumulated to a balanced system of government, Putin's authoritarian instincts were a threat to Russian freedom. But for most Russian liberals, the local governments and the Duma had functioned as purely reactionary institutions throughout the 1990s. They had sabotaged economic reform from 1992 onwards, twice tried to stir up neo-fascist mobs to overthrow the government, and generally operated as an extortion racket for corrupt interest groups. When Putin promised to direct policy as President he was doing what they had wished Yeltsin would have done. His establishment of United Russia, far from being a threat, was exactly what reformers like Yegor Gaidar had dreamed of when they unsuccessfully begged Yeltsin to openly endorse the pro-Reform "Russia's Choice" party in the 1993 Duma elections. At the time, having used military force to dissolve the previous Duma, Yeltsin had sided with the democrats and allowed personal scruples from ensuring that he could win the political aftermath. He had then paid dearly for that mistake for the rest of his life. Putin was promising not to make the same mistake.

What Putin then was promising was not a dictatorship, but to create a functioning "democratic" system in Russia the way that appeared possible after the 1990s. When the Yeltsin Administration had respected the "separation of powers" the major consequence had been dysfunctional and corrupt Dumas. Putin clearly intended to win a majority, but liberals could console themselves that uniting all Pro-Kremlin forces would have the corresponding effect of uniting all opposition forces as well. The result would be an effective two-party system, in which the divisions would be between government and opposition.

Putin ultimately disappointed many of his liberal supporters. He turned on many of the Oligarchs who had supported him. Especially in his third term he turned increasingly intolerant of the liberal advisers who he had kept around during his early years. Opposition journalists and figures faced occasional murder. But all of this must be put in perspective. For all of the violence alleged against Putin foes, none of it compares to the sort of full-scale pogroms promised by the "national patriotic" opposition in the 1990s. Putin may have taken over major independent TV stations, but smaller ones still function, and Russian newspapers are free to print what they want in many cities. And perhaps most importantly. Putin is perhaps the only Russian strong-man of the last 400 years not to be anti-Semitic. Yes, some of the Oligarchs he turned on were Jewish, but given the language used in the 1990s, and the types of foes Russia has faced during his term - "Jewish" Oligarchs, international financial institutions, NGOs, the United States - it would have been pathetically easy for Putin to embrace anti-antisemitism, not to mention to his political advantage. That he has not, that Putin in fact has often gone out of his way to identify the Jewish community as "Russian" in a way Yeltsin did not do is a testament to him.

Furthermore, the ultimate failures of Russian liberalism are not on Putin in any case. The "democrats" were already a spent force by the end of the 1990s, and it is not Putin's fault that the strongest opposition parties are the Communists and fascist Liberal Democrats(both of which took part in the opposition coalition in 2011). Fourteen parties are registered for the Duma elections next month, including Yabloko, the party of the 1990s "democrats" for whom Yeltsin was too authoritarian. If there were polls showing such parties winning 10-12% and they failed to make the threshold that would be one thing, but virtually every poll shows them below 2%, 3% at most. Their own weakness makes them irrelevant. Putin failed in his duty to tolerate a loyal opposition, but his opponents failed too in their own duty to create one.

Modern Russian politics then is not comprehensible without a review of the events of the 1990s. Aron's book is dated, but in some ways that makes it more valuable than more recent works, which often approach the period with a political point to make about the present, almost invariably one that is anti-Putin among English language works. Seeing how precarious Russia's political space was provides insight into why it is dead now. History often provides the key to understanding the present, and nowhere is that more true than in modern Russian politics.

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