02 May, 2007


So Boris Yeltsin, the first democratically-elected leader in Russia, died a little more than week ago. I, like a lot of Westerners, admire the man. I especially admired what I think of as one of the noblest resignations in human history, where after years of mounting chaos and an economic disaster or two, Yeltsin apologized to the Russian people,

I want to beg forgiveness for your dreams that never came true. And also I would like to beg forgiveness not to have justified your hopes.
I cannot think of any other leader with the courage and honesty to admit when the plans he envisioned failed disastrously, and then to resign.

It would be a mistake to think that the Russians who make up my family share my esteem for the man. In fact, Russians in general still regard him poorly. A number of them seriously believe that the CIA paid both Gorbachev and Yeltsin to destroy the Soviet Union. My wife's family is not quite that extreme, but my wife remarked that the only reason Westerners love Yeltsin so much is that he destroyed much of Russia's economy, and sold to the West the few parts that he didn't destroy. Based on some people's words, she has a point.

Yeltsin was a man of contradictions. I have read that he gained notoriety in the Soviet Union by riding the bus and standing in line at grocery stores along with ordinary Muscovites. Ordinarily, Party officials rode limousines and shopped at special stores, thus insulating themselves from the ordinary man. Yeltsin would also berate publicly people who played according to the real rules of Soviet society, rather than the official rules which claimed to ensure equal treatment of all citizens.

Sounds good, right? Yet once Yeltsin actually assumed the presidency and dismantled the Soviet Union, the remainder of his tenure was a story of corruption, theft, and chaotic autocracy on an unimaginable scale. He effectively insulated himself in the same way that Soviet officials before him had done. Russia's economy collapsed under Yeltsin, even though capitalism and freedom were supposed to have brought prosperity.

Of course, one can argue that the public proclamation of democracy, freedom, and economic liberty were a sham to cover for the mass theft that followed, and many Russians argue precisely this. So do a lot of non-Russians. Many of the country's most valuable resources coalesced into the hands of the so-called oligarchs, who had mysteriously accumulated vast reserves of wealth under a Communist system that, supposedly, kept everyone equal. Not content with merely impoverishing the vast majority of their countrymen, these men set about waging war on each other with armed thugs and even car bombs. Some of this preceded Yeltsin; my wife has told me some of her memories of these gangsters' children when she was in high school. ("Gangster" is her word, not mine.)

I read everything I could on the news that came out of Russia during the 1990s. I don't know why, but I always wanted to read good news, and I could never find any; all the news consisted of one horror story after another. Population, economy, and opportunity collapsed. Eventually the banking system collapsed, and people lost their life savings.

I've mentioned this before, but one of the major shocks to Russians was how NATO decided to go beat up on Serbia. Russians watched in horror as its fellow Slavic country suffered an undeclared war unapproved by the UN Security Council. I remember reading in the Washington Post that Yeltsin, in one of his less coherent press conferences, exclaimed suddenly, Bombing a sovereign nation! Outrageous! The Russians managed to embarass NATO slightly by seizing an airport in Kosovo and forcing us to bargain for its handover, but by the earlier part of this decade, the Atlantic Monthly proclaimed brazenly on its cover, RUSSIA IS FINISHED.

Not yet, actually.

I'm not one to mourn the Soviet Union. Putting my economic and political opinions aside, there's always the matter of family. I don't believe I could have met my wife as an email pen pal, traveled to Russia, visited her family, and married her in a church even during Gorbachev's regime. International phone calls required permission and were strictly monitored; I can't imagine how they would have regulated email. Russians whose family members participated in Church services lost privileges because of the Soviet state's official atheism. I also doubt we could have traveled about the Soviet Union as freely as we traveled in 2004 and 2005.

On the other hand, I'm not going to mourn Yeltsin's presidency, either. For all the complaints today about how Putin has rolled back freedom and democracy, Yeltsin's Russia was not so free as some imply. Ordinary Russians lived in fear of the organized crime gangs that were siezing control of the country. Say all you please about freedoms written down on paper, but if you live in fear of what the thugs down the road will do if you report their activities to a disinterested (bribed) police force, you aren't free in reality. For all Putin's faults, Russia has now recovered some of the industries and resources that were stolen, and more importantly for the ordinary Russian, it has recovered a sense of stability and order that, one would hope, will lead to a gradual increase of freedom, just as Greece, South Korea, and Taiwan experienced during the second half of the 20th century. That said, Greece, South Korea, and Taiwan were not military powers, and had no hope of becoming such.

Russia today is not the Soviet Union of my youth. Russians enjoy economic freedoms, such as the right to acquire property and dispose of it as they will without obtaining the approval of several party-controlled committees. My father-in-law purchased some years back a small garden on the outskirts of the city. His family grows food and flowers and talks about modernizing or rebuilding the small farmhouse. (I want to write изба—isba—but as surely as I do, my wife will tell me it isn't an изба.) In addition, Russians can travel outside the country without government approval, something that only defectors did during the Cold War.

On the other hand, Russians don't enjoy the political freedoms they hoped for, either. The news has amply covered their curtailment over the last few years, so I won't dwell on that. Yet everything I read suggests Putin remains extremely popular, although not in my wife's family. :-)

Russians also suffer economic indignities that appall many who remember the Soviet Union as a time of economic security. Public employees, such as bus drivers and teachers, receive insultingly low salaries, insufficient to provide for their own needs, let alone raise a family. Pensioners have lost privileges such as unlimited bus rides, and struggle to get by on their pensions. Students now have to pay to attend universities, and professors are not held in the esteem they once enjoyed. The homeless and the public drunks, who once were never seen, are now almost as common on the streets as the video lottery kiosks.

All of this is Yeltsin's legacy. Imagine if one of our leaders had presided over a colossal implosion such as the one that Russia experienced throughout the 1990s. Was Yeltsin's apology, which I regard so highly, a sincere one? or was it a condition offered by a resurgent secret police to avoid prosecution for his crimes?

God rest his soul.

Note: I showed this to my wife, who is for obvious reasons the real expert on Russia in this family, and she made a few comments, and we've talked about some things since then. I revised this heavily in light of those conversations, but I wouldn't count on its receiving her kiss of approval. So, read all this with a big grain of salt.

1 comment:

Clemens said...

I wouldn't count the Russians out yet. They have been a great people from the time of the Rus up to their own 'drang nach Osten' that got them all the way to Northern California. Not to mention saving France's butt in WWI and then the Great Patriotic War. Putin's state may be the necessary chrysalis stage for an emerging democracy: Mexico went through this, Turkey, and perhaps Iran. Hopefullly they will all emerge as viable democratic states, though I have to admit that even Mexico and Turkey are in hard times at the moment.

What, btw, is your wife's family's take on Putin? I can certainly understand their feelings about Yeltsin.