Yeltsin Nostalgia

Russian leader dolls. March, 2009.

Today’s tensions with Vladimir Putin probably make American policymakers nostalgic for the days of Boris Yeltsin. If we wish to understand today’s Russia, we have to look at the way the Federation emerged from the tumultuous collapse of the USSR. Putin’s allegiances were clear from the beginning. He was not a mindless KGB thug, as he is often portrayed. His intelligence career ended with a principled stance in support of Mikhail Gorbachev, and against his superiors, when he opposed the Communist attempt to overthrow the leader and turn back the tide in 1991. Years later, much of his ideology would be affected by its fallout.

The possibility of a new order was realistic in the days before the attempted coup. Gorbachev had initiated a modicum of reform. The bloody war in Afghanistan was over. It looked as if the US might actually want a settlement on missiles. Bush had promised the Soviet leader that he wouldn’t expand NATO any further eastwards. It’s no wonder  that the majority of Russians, along with Putin, were on the side of glasnost and perestroika.

However, Yeltsin, and his backers, had other plans. His ambitions were right for the time, although they were wrong for Russia. His ascendency came at the heel of the Bush administration’s efforts to back nationalists in Yugoslavia, adjusting its aid policies accordingly and ending Josip Broz Tito’s dream of a state for all Southern Slavs. Following suit, Bush took the side of Russian nationalism in order to definitively break up the Soviet Union.

The “great reformer” Gorbachev, and his supporters, were a hindrance to these objectives. Thus, the United States backed Yeltsin, who became instantly popular in the aftermath of the botched coup. Many democrats hoped that their new political centre would guide Russia into a new era. However, the enthusiasm wouldn’t last, since Yeltsin’s real agenda had little to do with democracy.

Yeltsin tennis painting. July, 2007.
Yeltsin tennis painting. July, 2007.

The right-wing consensus was that a selection of tiny, fractured states would succeed the USSR. They were designed in this manner so that they could easily be picked off, and be subjected to economic underdevelopment. These plans aligned with Yeltsin’s personal aims for power and grandeur in the post-Cold War era.

The Russian President was integral to it happening. In a series of manoeuvres, Yeltsin cut deals with the various leaders of Soviet republics, including Leonid Kravchuk of Ukraine, and saw the Soviet Union dissolved. Yeltsin could do this because Gorbachev had guaranteed a policy of non-intervention towards Eastern Europe. Signalling just how much the balance of power had shifted after the events of 1991, Gorbachev’s resignation was accepted pre-emptively.

Shock Therapy

The fall of Gorbachev marked the end of the Soviet era and set things in a completely new direction. Russia’s Parliament gave Yeltsin free reign to implement an economic programme of rapid deregulation and privatisation, known as shock therapy. Yeltsin had the advice of US economist Jeffrey Sachs and Clinton administration official Larry Summers, who is often blamed for the post-Communist Russia’s first, and most severe downturn. The plan was to establish the conditions for a market society as fast as possible.

First, price controls were eliminated. The resulting hyperinflation quickly ate through the savings of most Russians. This was soon followed with a rapid privatisation of over 200,000 state-run companies.

The Russian people suffered greatly for this and the rouble was tremendously devalued. Living standards plummeted. Millions fell into unemployment. Even the employed were not guaranteed a wage. Every Russian was given vouchers to buy shares in the newly private companies. However, since most were desperate for cash, they sold their vouchers cheaply to ruthless businessmen who began to organize the early phases of “mafia rule.”

After a year of ruling by decree, Yeltsin’s struggles with wresting government controls from parliament and state institutions reached a head. Apart from its effects on citizens, the privatization program had also led to a credit crunch and heavy taxes, causing a prolonged depression. Legislative-executive tensions peaked with the 1993 constitutional crisis, when Parliament presented its own draft constitution.

This quickly led to a general repeal of ‘shock therapy,’ and Yeltsin responded by dissolving the legislature and suspending Russia’s constitution. The Clinton administration, along with many Western governments, backed Yeltsin’s decision to shell Moscow’s White House when it was occupied in protest. This was the bloodiest non-foreign violence that Moscow had seen since the October Revolution. Yeltsin justified it by saying it was necessary to remove impediments to a market economy.

Military postcard with toy. April, 2006.
WWII-themed postcard, with Russian tank. April, 2006.

After he regained control, the market reforms went further. More price controls were removed, going as far as basic food stuffs like bread. State expenditure on social services was slashed, and the rate of privatization increased dramatically. Yeltsin found enthusiastic support in a newly ascendant upper-class, later to be dubbed “the oligarchs.” He assisted them in wiring approximately $2 billion out of the country per month. He also undersold enormous industrial assets and resources to his constituents at sometimes less than 2% of their actual value.

The end result was that by 2000, 74 million people were in poverty, with 37 million of them ranked as “desperate.” Meanwhile, Moscow became home to more billionaires than other city in the world.

Yeltsin was a barely functional figurehead by 1999, and kept a coterie of close advisors and friends around him at all times. It included oligarchs like Roman Abramovich and Boris Berezovsky. Although corrupt, and exploitative, many Western leaders were relieved to see the Federation controlled by people who were reliably compliant. This same entourage would be the one that ultimately selected Putin as Yeltsin’s successor.

He was an appealing choice. Yeltsin may have survived multiple crises, but the Kremlin was wracked with corruption scandals. Putin was head of the Federal Security Service, the successor to the KGB, and oligarchs thought it could use him as a battering ram against their enemies who were looking to crack down on their activities. Putin was soon made Prime Minister in 1999, and Yeltsin’s resignation was secured the same year.

Putin’s Wager

The oligarchs had underestimated Putin. He skilfully used a series of terrorist attacks as a justification to wage war in Chechnya and consolidate his rule. The conflict boosted his popularity, and also legitimized his budding push for an Orthodox Christian nationalism.

He followed up by turning on The Family, rather than simply rubber-stamping their extraction of wealth. Shortly after Putin became President in 2000, Boris Berezovsky fled to London to escape arrest, and was soon joined by other oligarchs who now live in exile. They were smashed by Putin, who strengthened his position as a Hobbesian force of stability after the disarray of the 1990s.

Putin didn’t take long to find new oligarchs to support his rule, ones that were subservient to him and disproportionately employed in the energy industry. He reasserted the role of the state and buttressed his rule with tough appeals to populist chauvinism, which affected such decisions as the 2002 storming of the Dubrovka theater.

Putin is now seen as the man who can flush out all the “problems” affecting Russian society, whether they be Chechen terrorists, corrupt oligarchs, or more recently, homosexuals. The contrast with Yeltsin is stark. The Soviet Union isn’t back, but for Putin’s supporters, Russia is strong again.

Soviet scouts recoloured. Voronezh, 1942
Soviet scouts colorized. Voronezh, 1942.

This is exhausting for Western leaders, who yearn for a Yeltsin Kremlin. The difference between Putin and Yeltsin is the spin of the strongman policies. Yeltsin’s policies rarely antagonized the West, while Putin almost craves the opportunity.

This is how we should read the international outcry against Russia’s most recent military incursions: one in Georgia, with Abkhazia and South Ossetia in 2008, and Ukrainian Crimea in 2014. Both efforts were preceded by Yeltsin’s decision to invade Chechnya in 1994, setting off an ongoing conflict that has killed tens of thousands of people. However, Chechnya still rarely gets substantive coverage in Western media outlets, and certainly did not provoke the same level of Western outrage when Yeltsin was at the helm.

The real problem is Putin himself, who is comparatively disagreeable to say the least. His Kremlin is also much less willing to accept the expansion of NATO outposts into bordering states. Putin’s Russia is a brutal one, which deserves the fear and loathing it provokes. However, for Western leaders, it is despised mainly because of what it represents. Putin’s Russia is a Russia that has abandoned Yeltsin’s subservient market reforms, and positions itself against the United States in a manner that many believed had died with the Soviet Union.

The evaporation of Viktor Yanukovych’s government was welcomed by many in Ukraine and in the West. It was not welcomed in Russia, partly for reasons that any military historian can grasp. Russia has long been vulnerable to invasion on its Western frontier. One of Stalin’s major motivations for building the Eastern bloc was to create a buffer-zone between “the motherland” and Western powers. This is understandable, given that 23 million Russians died during World War II. Those concerns also framed the vicious crackdowns of 1956 and 1968.

Chairman Putin graffiti. St. Petersburg, 2009.
Chairman Putin graffiti. St. Petersburg, 2009.

However, since the world appears to have moved beyond major interstate warfare, these concerns are moot, for the most part. They make for strong rhetoric, but the real problem is that Putin recognizes how the EU’s and NATO’s presence in Ukraine will affect gas pipelines. This is part of the reason that Russia’s military assets in the Crimean Peninsula are so important: a state’s military presence bolsters its market activity in an area.

Putin’s actions are currently forcing a political compromise that Yeltsin wouldn’t have dared to even mention.

It is likely that Crimea will leave Ukraine, giving Putin a major strategic victory as well as a domestic image of rebuilding a foregone era of Russian glory.

He has proven himself so cunning that a future Ukrainian NATO bid is now effectively impossible, even if it does slip into the European orbit. It appears that due to Russian hostility, the future of the EU may be tied to it easing away from NATO.

Putin can also be a little more secure about the state of gas pipelines in the country, which are an even greater concern for him now that North America’s fracking boom threatens to corner Russia out of the market.

The wider picture, though, is that Putin has continued his original allegiance to Gorbachev into a rollback of the short-lived dream of a Western-friendly Russian Federation. For better or worse, the West now has to deal with a Russia that is an opponent again. Hence the fond memories of Yeltsin. Statements of “remember when we didn’t have to deal with this” are probably ringing through every Western capitol at the moment.


Photographs courtesy of Amy Allcocksweejak, Michael B., Zo Rodinu, and Kevin Buitrago. Published under a Creative Commons License.

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