La Russophobe‘s original translator offers the following remembrances of Boris N. Yeltsin from hero journalist Yuliya Latynina, from the pages of Yezhedevniy Zhurnal (an abridged version of this article was also translated for publication in the Moscow Times).
A Great President Has Died
April 23, 2007
Boris Yeltsin, one of the greatest leaders of Russia, has died. His greatness was not in his being a decisive liberal reformer, like Alexander II; nor in his hacking a window into Europe, like Peter I; nor in his making Russia an enlightened European country, like Catherine II. The greatness of Boris Yeltsin — the peasant’s son, the Party boss, the ruler, the passionate lover of power – was that he had an inborn sense of freedom.
This sense of freedom, joined with a massive personality, was common in Party bosses – Aleksandr Yakovlev, Eduard Shevardnadze – but completely lacking in the majors and lieutenant colonels of the KGB, who plied their trade in those days from embassy to embassy with red caviar, vodka and little denunciations. Exactly this sense of freedom led Yeltsin to his expulsion in the late 1980’s, and to the barricades in 1991, and never once allowed him to cancel elections, manipulate their results or close television stations.
Everything becomes known by comparison. Yeltsin was accused of corruption. But the most that history will produce against him are a few doubtful case-files of his daughter and son-in-law who headed Aeroflot. By whatever means men like Friedman, Khodorkovskiy and Potanin might have come to own half of Russia, it was not because they shared an office with Yeltsin.
What a contrast with the Russia of today. A Russia in which all of President Putin’s friends, everyone who served with him in the KGB or joined him in the “Ozero” (“Lake”) Cooperative, have received stakes in Russian gas, oil, uranium, military equipment, railroad and other companies. [TN: The “Ozero” Dacha Cooperative, co-founded by Putin in 1996, included many of the highest-level business and criminal figures in Saint Petersburg at that time, including Vladimir Smirnov, Vladimir Yakunin, the brothers Sergey and Andrey Fursenko, Viktor Myachin, Yuriy Kovalchuk and Nikolay Shamalov – all of whom have since been appointed to high-level posts in the Russian government or as heads of government-owned companies. ]
The press fiercely criticized Yeltsin for the Chechen War. The mass media ridiculed the dancing, drunken Yeltsin in Germany, and Yeltsin’s story about the 38 snipers. [TN: In 1996, in connection with the Kizlyar Hospital hostage crisis, Yeltsin on national television gave a rambling, mostly incoherent briefing about the Russian military response, in which he mentioned the use of “38 snipers”.] But for some reason, no journalists were killed in the entryway to their apartments for this, and no television executives were put in jail.
What a contrast with the Russia of today. A Russia in which no one dares to criticize President Putin out loud. And we hear nothing from President Putin himself, because he is not in the habit of reaching out to the people during times of national crisis or other important occasions for the nation.
Yeltsin has been criticized for the breakup of the USSR. This is hard to say, because if the USSR had not broken up peacefully, it would have broken up in the manner of Yugoslavia – in a growing sea of blood in every one of its republics. But under Yeltsin, one way or another, Russia held a central role in the CIS, and was an equal partner in the West. We sometimes had to blush at our drunken president, but we never had to live in terror because of an infantile president.
What a contrast with the policies of President Putin: beginning with presidential wrath at the robbery of some Russian diplomats’ children in Poland, which resulted in the vicious beating of Polish diplomats in Moscow; and ending with a turn of phrase about citizens of “certain nationalities”, which lead to the mass deportation of Georgians. The result of these policies is that we now no longer have any friendly countries on our borders. Yeltsin brought the country into the “Group of Eight”, Putin – to the brink of becoming a pariah state.
Yeltsin made a lot of small mistakes: he inconsistently pursued reforms, stayed with Korzhakov too long, then Berezovskiy. Yeltsin also committed one fundamental mistake: he never reformed the intelligence and security services (siloviki). At first he did not think he needed to. Under Yeltsin, the role of the all-powerful silovik was played by Aleksandr Korzhakov, who opposed holding elections in 1996. This is an iconic story for the siloviki: they did not want the president to be dependent on the people for his power. They wanted the president to be dependent only on them.
So when the elections happened and Yeltsin entered his second term, Korzhakov did everything to spoil the elections – with boxes from under the copy machine. The President sent him into retirement, and a few days later suffered a severe heart attack. But Yeltsin nonetheless made his choice – between being dependent on Korzhakov and being dependent on the people. A few years later, following the arrest of Khodorkovskiy, President Putin would make exactly the opposite choice.
But only around 1998 did Yeltsin realize that while he had only poorly reformed the economy, he had not touched the siloviki at all, and this entire horde of employees of the Prosecutors Office, FSB, MVD, all converted into a corporation with many shareholders, subsidiaries and affiliates, all of these colonels and generals, who supplied the oligarchs with girls or factories, attacked Yeltsin under the slogan, “They stole the country”. A slogan which actually boiled down to: “They stole the country, and didn’t give us anything”.
Yeltsin tried to remedy his situation. At first he appointed as head of his Administration the silovik Bordyuzh, but he did nothing. Then the President appointed as head of the government the silovik Sergey Stepashin, but he decided to just get along with everyone. And then the President appointed as head of the government yet another silovik – Vladimir Putin.
Short indeed was the list of siloviki who might be considered in even small measure liberals.
President Yeltsin loved equally both power and freedom. He knew that newspapers were one thing, history another. He did not want to go down in history as the first dictator of Russia. He did not dole out Russian companies to his cronies, did not poison his enemies with polonium or throw them in prison, did not close opposition television stations or pervert the purpose of elections. For this he was laughed at on the television, and Prosecutor Skuratov, when he wasn’t visiting prostitutes, rummaged around in the files of his daughters. President Putin learned from the mistakes of Yeltsin. No one laughs at President Putin on the television. But the question is what will history say about Putin?
True, President Yeltsin did not create very much. He was not much for economics, caused a default, and did not reform the siloviki. But he was a free man, and he shared that freedom with all of us. Under Yeltsin, for the first time in the 20th century, a free society appeared in Russia, and this free society remains free to this day, despite the closed television stations, the seized assets and the Chekisti at the head of government.
Even President Putin will not be able to turn this free society into a unitary enterprise and place at its head an old buddy from the “Ozero” cooperative.