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The Czar last time: Yeltsin, Gorbachev and just where did Russia go? April 25, 2007

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Marxism, Russia.


Strange watching Channel 4 News tonight, and in particular the report from the funeral of Boris Yeltsin. Quite a window on the past it was too with Clinton, George Bush Snr., John Major and other worthies assembled to pay their last respects to the first President of the Russian Federation. Quite a window on the present with those remaining house-trained oligarchs clustered in another group.

And there, also at the funeral one of the pivotal figures of the Twentieth Century, Mikhail Gorbachev, paying his respect to the family and – notably – to some of the current regime members in attendance.

I have mixed feelings about Yeltsin. Actually, no. Not mixed really. Politically it’s difficult not to regard him as an opportunist, a man whose adherence to democratic norms was limited in large extent to the ability of those norms to be of advantage to him. One good thing, his response to the attempts to impose a hard line security solution in the breakaway Baltic Republics led to his call for Soviet troops not to obey illegal orders – unlike Gorbachev, already attempting to maintain his authority in the face of allies who wanted faster reform and opponents who wanted to roll those already in place back, who went remarkably silent for the best part of two weeks. Yet his actions during the 1991 coup against Gorbachev seem to me to be not so much directed by principle but by the possibility that this would finally destroy the power of the Communist Party.

And the famous incident caught in the photograph above following the coup seemed to me to be born of a personal malice rather than a political agenda (although there was that as well). This was a very personal and public humiliation designed to signal the end of the Communist period, but it was also entirely unnecessary. Gorbachev was never the enemy of change, but as an alternate arbiter of it he had to go.

Worse, naturally, was to come. His rule saw Russia enter into a period of chaotic economic change as individuals such as Yegor Gaidar pushed rapid liberalisation of what had been the largest centrally planned economy on the planet. The increase in prices and clear failure of the policies led to the 1993 confrontation with Parliament in an ironic inverse of the earlier coup. And after that? Privatisation, Chechnya and economic instability that was to continue until the end of his rule.

Reading the obituary in the Guardian yesterday, am I alone in thinking that when Jonathan Steele writes that while Yeltsin cannot be blamed alone for the dismal state of Russia in the post-Soviet era ‘Russia needed a more sensitive and intelligent leader during the transition from the politics of one-party control and repression to the politics of negotiation and consensus’ he is thinking of Gorbachev?

Unfortunately the coup plotters in 1992 didn’t merely do in the Soviet Union, they also – by fatally undermining the rapidly diminishing authority of Gorbachev – did in any chance of a managed transition from communist state to democracy. And it’s arguable that without that managed transition the situation we currently see whereby civil society within Russia remains stunted, centralised power remains embedded in the political system and the leadership is drawn from the security forces apparatus, is a result of that earlier ‘original sin’. Putin in power is a worrying prospect. More worrying is the thought that Russia has yet to develop more palatable and popular alternatives (which is in truth a function of the Yeltsin and Putin years), and that some of those on offer at the moment are much less palatable than him.

A couple of years ago I was talking to a member of the Communist Party of Ireland who proposed that Andropov was the man who, had he lived any length of time, would have reformed the Soviet Union unlike Gorbachev who had (according to himself) sold out Communism. I doubt that very much, this being the same Y. Andropov who had been one of those to oversee the Hungarian intervention by the Soviets. No reformist he. No Dubcek, no ‘socialism with a human face’, no Moscow Spring in the early 1980s. But it’s fair to point out that Gorbachev was and remains a convinced leftist and it’s at least possible to argue that had the Soviet Union survived even half a decade more, even in emasculated form, many of the excesses of the Yeltsin era might have been avoided.

But leaving his own words until last it’s worth noting the bitter honesty in what he said on his resignation in 2000 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.”


1. ejh - April 25, 2007

Two points. the first is that I don’t think it’s properly understood in the West how much Yeltsin’s circle are hated by most Russians. It’s not too much of a caricature to say that this is largely because Weastern media coverage of Russia tends to involve talking to young ambitious people in the capital who are doing al lright for themselves rather than speaking to people who aren’t shopping on the Nevsky Prospekt because they haven’t got any money. They haven’t got any money because – in their view – Yeltsin’s friends walked off with it. And they tend to back Putin because Putin had some of these people locked up.

There are small signs that correspondents understand that not all went for well everybody under Yelstsin, but you wouldn’t think ,for insatnce, that male life expectancy declined to an extent and at a speed that one normally associated with war zones. Or that Yeltsin was so much of a democrat that he shelled the parliament when it wouldn’t do his bidding.

The other thing is that despite all this, I do think he behaved well during the coup.


2. Wednesday - April 25, 2007

Putin in power is a worrying prospect.

Three years into his second (and final) four-year term. Bit late to be a “prospect” at this point, isn’t it?


3. WorldbyStorm - April 25, 2007

I should have made myself clearer Wednesday, but I didn’t want to take the focus away from the main point of the post which was about Yeltsin and I guess in a minor key Gorbachev.

ejh, I know what you’re saying. I think Yeltsin got a very easy ride in the West because basically he was implementing the sort of reforms which were expected of him, with little consideration that this was effectively a continent wide experiment in economic shock therapy. That it almost killed the patient was neither here nor there.


4. Andy Newman - April 26, 2007

I don’t think you can judge the prospects of how Andropov may have behaved as a reforming president had he survived longer by his secret police background.

I read a facsinating biography of Valentin Beria recently which detailed the suprising rate of political liberalisation that Beria introduced in his brief period in power, including the offer to the Americans to withdraw from Eastern Germany in exchange for mutual disarmament (paradoxically it was Beria’s refroms which encouraged the 17 Juli protests in Berlin which were the pretext for the coup that removed him).

Perhaps the secret police are less ideological and more pragmatic, and also the only ones who have a true idea about how unpopular the government is.


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