Translator Vova Khavkin offers the following rumination on Russian patriotism by columnist Ilya Milshteyn (pictured) of Grani.ru.This is a topic of great importance and interest. So often in Russian history, those in power are Russia’s greatest enemies, and they label Russia’s greatest heros as traitors. From Pushkin and the Tsar through Brezhnev and Solzhenitsyn to Putin and Politkovskaya, this is a horrible, tragic theme of Russian history that has brought the nation to the brink of ruin.
Thinking Aloud About my Motherland’s Savior
April 24, 2006
At the Kalininskiy market bread was “dumped” once every half hour. This was a strange type of bread: Some mongrel-looking types with large nostrils of unimaginable shape, as if made by a spiteful drunk baker as a revenge for his damned life. The people were grabbing them, scooping up the monsters off the counter. Then an invisible aunty-type woman’s voice was heard shouting from behind the empty counters: “No more, break it up!”—and the dense crowd moaned and quieted in a stupor. It was in a winter evening during the last Soviet year.
One had to be able to digest this, smoking a Java [cigarette] from the Ducat [Tobacco Factory] in the December wind. They ran out of bread for good in the central store downtown, in USSR’s capital. And this meant that with that there was no more food in my own country, in this freaking state. No food to feed the kids. No food to feed the family. No food to feed yourself. The words “we are f**ked” were spelled across the grey sky in yard-sized fiery letters.
I had never experienced such horror in my life. Not in August 1991—not too far from this place in Tchaikovsky Street—when at dawn a new wave of tanks was moving from Mayakovski Square towards the tunnel. Not in October 1993 near the White House and the Moscow City Hall. Generally speaking, hunger is scarier than war. Because it means them all—war, poverty, jail, and death in a back alley.
Unimaginable last loaves of bread—as if twisted with a poke—was all that was left then as a legacy from the communists. This was their farewell practical joke and parting shot. To a country that at the turn of the century was exporting bread to the whole world while they were arguing at their clandestine party congresses.
This is the country which Yeltsin inherited when he pulled the throne from under Gorbachev and proclaimed Russia to be an independent and democratic, you see*, state—and went on putting this country together from rusty bolts lying around in the backyard. This was the economy he endeavored to cure together with Gaidar-Chubais with the help of a treatment the people referred to as “shock therapy”—something that even the reformers themselves agreed with.
It is hard to tell where this definition came from. The life itself was shocking, expecting a catastrophe and humanitarian assistance every day. The people rambling by in shock with red banners near the stores where food reappeared all of a sudden in a flash: It was expensive but real. The bosses who let a huge and vastly endowed country slip away were shocking. What was also shocking was the fact that there were people among those mid-level bosses and heads of laboratories who grabbed the impoverished and miserable Russia by the hair and started pulling her from the swamp.
The Yeltsin phenomenon was shocking.
A poorly educated, stubborn, and brutal man who had spent half of his lifetime sitting in the same offices where all human traits are exorcised from the very first day, he displayed an inexhaustible reserve of courage and spiritual power and barely sensed the power and personal responsibility for Russia. For a nation that of all the skills during the last half century preserved only its ability to “communize” [i.e., steal] all that’s not nailed down. For the reputation of a state which for 70 years evoked nothing but fear and disgust in the rest of the world except for a short break for the war.
He was like a born-again, this former civil engineer, a political appointee, and a Politburo member; a staunch democrat for whom the freedom of speech was above all printable and nonprintable abuse directed at him—from the TV screens, in the newspapers, and in graffiti on the walls; a staunch Liberal for whom the notions of “freedom of enterprise” or “market” or “private property” were sacrosanct; a staunch anti-communist for whom the gods from the old testament of party booklets turned to be the demons reeking of sulfur and blood. Like any neophyte, he was laughable when discovering the truths knows even to children in Russia, but this did not make people laugh—because it originated in his childish naiveté which, together with his hunger for power, pride, and anarchic explosive temper, he maintained all his life.
During his time (and only during his time) Russia rose from her knees—in one leap from destitution and shame. From communistic feudalism—to wild capitalism; from a Soviet siege economy—to Chicago of the 1920’s because Russia had no other way to go no matter what the proponents of “gradualism” and “slow convergence with the market” would want to say; had they had their way, the country with an empty treasury would have gone under in less that 500 days. The cornucopia on the store shelves and almost convertible ruble, factories and oil refineries rising from the ashes, gaudy restaurants, travel agencies, banks, banks, and more banks… all this was created during his reign, during the reign of Boris Nikolayevich Yeltsin, during the early years of his rule and at the time which has become inextricably linked to his name.
Then he became worn out. Later under the strain of tiredness and the age-old Russian remedy to rid oneself of fatigue he began to display at times the worst of a regional party secretary’s traits. Despotism coupled with trusting the scoundrels woke up in him: This is how the fist Chechen war started. He developed great-power phantom pains: Then he started to threaten his “Friend Bill” with nuclear missiles and give medals to the [Kosovo] Pristina assault operation personnel. After all, he was too spontaneous as a market reformer and democrat: He didn’t like the oligarchs but tolerated them, didn’t tolerate but liked the thieves from among his inner circle. He took to drink trying to reform the country. He got well for a long time after he retired. In a well-known interview with Nikolai Svanidze he admitted that his life had not been an entirely happy one. And he only became happy now in his old age, being at rest.
This, by the way, is hard to believe in because Boris Nikolayevich himself gave plenty of reasons for doubts—on rare occasions he did respond to the leaden news from the life of sovereign Russia, and did so with noticeable despair. For example, when the man he himself anointed as his successor brought back Stalin’s national anthem or made a cynical grab for power after Beslan. And here the script became worthy of a tragedy. A sick Yeltsin who mistakenly saw in Putin an heir to the glory of past achievements was doomed, together with his countrymen, to live out his hallucination—in Russia which he chose for himself; and together with the bewildered compatriots watch how his political gains were slowly—but surely—being destroyed.
By the way, there aren’t many [gains] left. Even Russia’s second president remembers this; he once muttered through clenched teeth: See, no matter what you think about Yeltsin, but it was during his years that “[T]he people got what matter most—freedom.” It also turned out that its value is also incontrovertible for Putin himself, at least during the moments when he is speaking about Yeltsin.
Actually, freedom still lingers in the country: “Yours and our freedom”—freedom of speech which has migrated to small-circulation newspapers and mass-circulation Internet. Freedom to demonstrate embodied in the banned marches where the “Other Russia” is defending her right to disagree in a city occupied by stormtroopers; the freedom to rally for human right—rights limited by the lawlessness of the Basmanny**-like courts and the overall environment of senile spy mania.
On the other hand there is freedom to move about the world. At least the Russians—whether at home or in emigration—can wittingly today, together with the rest of the world, commemorate their first president for all the good things he’s had the time to do, and forgive him for his unwitting yet grave sins. For in these mournful days the image of Yeltsin the Liberator and Reformer eclipses all the mistakes of the sinner and at times irrational and inebriated man named Boris Nikolayevich Yeltsin.
He will live in the memory of the generations to come as one of the most honorable heads of the Russian State. For if History were to make any sense it would be for the yearning of nations for freedom. In Gorbachev’s footsteps, Yeltsin took over this yearning and pushed ahead as long as his strength allowed him, and did not hold on to power when the strength failed him, and repented at the end, and with rising concern watched how events were unfolding in a country which he loved and which he wanted to become like himself—free, magnanimous, and strong. Until illness and unfulfilled hopes made his heart stop.
*“You see” – Yeltsin’s trademark interjection
**Basmanny court where Mikhail Khodorkovsky was tried and convicted, an epitome of Russia’s “telephone justice”