Modern Russian history, as taught by Clinton Administration spin doctors and Op-Ed pundits, holds that Boris Yeltsin dismembered the Soviet Union and set Russia on a historic path to democracy and a market economy. The Russians were eager to follow their first “duly elected” leader. They idolized ;the West and they willingly surrendered their values and their dreams–at least the “new Russians” did, a term that apparently is confined to a segment of the newly rich Muscovites. Year after year we were told that Yeltsin’s reforms were changing the face of his land–witness the number of Mercedes and the evidence of breathtaking conspicuous consumption. A few years ago, shortly after I checked in to one of the new luxury hotels in Moscow, I was told that each Friday I could avail myself of fresh lobster flown in from Canada that very day! Western experts advising Yeltsin’s “young reformers” on how to proceed were optimistic. I was given a stern lecture by one of them, an economist from Sweden, for suggesting that conditions in the country appeared catastrophic in comparison to the days of Communist rule.
The Yelstin legend took hold; he was Clinton’s icon for a new Russia. From the moment he stood on a tank in August 1991 to face down an attempted Communist coup, Yeltsin was championed by the West as Russia’s great hope. He was an appealing figure, athletic, always neatly dressed. He publicly boasted of his friendships with Bill Clinton and other Western politicians. He was a man to do business with, the Kremlin leader whose government was no longer a threat, whose human failings were on display for all to see. Who could forget Clinton’s uproarious laughter as he tried to defuse Yeltsin’s drunken diatribes during their summit at the Roosevelt museum in Hyde Park? Or the inebriated Yeltsin snatching the baton from the conductor of the Berlin Police Band and proceeding to conduct himself? Little attention was given to Yeltsin’s tanks pounding his “duly elected” Parliament or to his policy in Chechnya. The Clinton Administration publicly encouraged Yeltsin to disband the Parliament because a solid majority of deputies wanted to pursue reforms more slowly. Several months before he actually moved against the legislature, a senior US official told the New York Times that “if Yeltsin suspends an antidemocratic parliament, it is not necessarily an antidemocratic act.” Later, while Russian planes, tanks and artillery rained death on the Chechen capital of Grozny, Clinton saw fit to compare Yeltsin to Abraham Lincoln. Even when Yeltsin’s entire economic reform program came crashing down in 1998, Vice President Gore voiced the opinion that “optimism prevails universally among those who are familiar with what is going on in Russia.”
In short, the Clinton Administration hitched its Russia policy to Yeltsin’s fortunes. Yeltsin’s critics in Russia were dismissed as “dark forces” seeking Communist restoration or worse. There is a simple explanation. Heavily dependent on Western loans and subsidies, Yeltsin was always prepared to render services to Washington, provided he was handled with great sensitivity and accorded even greater public respect. He proved accommodating in Bosnia and again in Kosovo.
But for most Russians, Yeltsin’s rule was a social and economic disaster. They viewed him–not without good reason–as being completely dependent on Washington, where the US Treasury and the International Monetary Fund are located. These institutions were a primary influence on his behavior and the often violent and self-destructive course he followed.
When he suddenly resigned on New Year’s Eve a year ago, Yeltsin left his successor an impoverished state with few features of democracy and many more of authoritarianism. It is too early to assess properly the true meaning and consequences of his rule. But figures indicate that it wreaked far greater damage on Russia’s economy than the Nazi invasion and World War II. Russia’s gross domestic product between 1991 and 1998 declined by 43 percent, compared with the Soviet GDP decline of 24 percent from 1941 to 1945.
Behind this figure lurks a dramatic decline in living standards. An estimated 40 percent of the population lives in poverty–a tenfold increase since the collapse of Communism. Yeltsin’s policies have had a catastrophic effect on health, education and social programs. Rising infant mortality, declining life expectancy and spreading infectious diseases have produced a negative population growth that is obscured in part by the steady stream of ethnic Russians returning from the outlying parts of the former Soviet Union (by 1995, Russia’s population had declined by some 2 million). Agriculture remains comatose–Russia today imports 55 percent of its food supply. Officially, unemployment is about 12 percent, but the real figure is estimated to be between 20 and 25 percent (there are about 11 million Russians of working age who are listed as “missing”). The average daily food intake today is 2,100 calories, less than the minimum recommended by the World Health Organization; in the 1980-85 period, the average intake was 3,400.
None of these troubling issues are to be found in Yeltsin’s Midnight Diaries. Memoir writers of course want to present themselves in the best possible light, and Yeltsin is no exception. He portrays himself as the leader who set Russia on a new course, gave it political stability and secured a peaceful transfer of power. Under his leadership Russia has joined the exclusive club of the eight most advanced industrial nations in the world.
What seems most remarkable about this Panglossian version of one of the most turbulent decades in Russia’s history is its tenuous relation to reality. The disastrous reform program and the failure to introduce the rule of law, to the extent that they are touched upon at all in this book, are presented with serene detachment–Yeltsin writes about such things as though they had nothing to do with him.
On the other hand, Yeltsin wants us to believe that he had everything to do with his memoir, that he wrote it himself “in fragments over the years…late at night or early in the morning.” It is widely known that it was ghostwritten by Valentin Yumashev, a former journalist and Yeltsin’s longtime personal aide, with daughter Tatyana being the final censor. Only in passing–in Chapter 13–does Yeltsin mention that Yumashev worked with him on the manuscript. Other bits of contrived candor are sprinkled sparsely around with the apparent aim of defusing–with a sentence or two–some of his well-publicized shortcomings, even his drinking problem. Yeltsin says alcohol was his “only means [of getting] rid of stress”–until his 1995 heart attack. His consumption was afterward reduced to a single glass of wine per day.
Herculean efforts are made by the authors of this slapdash tome, which is filled with homilies about duty and patriotism, to suggest that Yeltsin possessed mysterious and therefore miraculously effective leadership skills. He liked the “simple, effective” style of leadership and made his decisions with “surgical precision.” His stationery was embossed in gold with the presidential seal. His desk was cluttered with “coded telegrams” and “presidential mail.” He used his “presidential pen” to sign decrees. By pushing buttons on a presidential “control panel” he could reach his far-flung minions. Metaphors reinforce the image of a supercool superexecutive who is always in control. Sometimes he is the sea captain, steering the Russian ship of state past dangerous reefs and shoals. On another occasion, before making a major announcement, he is like the space expert about to fire a rocket. (“Now it was too late for doubts. The countdown had begun. The bomb was ticking.”)
The oddest thing about the details is that they offer the illusion of concreteness to obscure enormous ambiguities. We don’t see Yeltsin making decisions on any substantive domestic issues. There is no evidence of his even being aware of the scope of devastation visited upon the people by his social policy. (Statistics give us an inkling: His government used only 9 percent of GNP on social services, compared with around 33 percent in the West.)
Yeltsin is certainly not stupid, but when you consider his remarkable energy in fighting for the presidency he seems unaccountably passive in other respects. We don’t see him really concerned with the substance of his job. It is difficult to find an economic or social initiative Yeltsin conceived and brought to completion. (“There won’t be any inflation,” Yeltsin tells the press shortly before prices explode following the collapse of the ruble.) In fact, he reversed the democratization trend initiated by Mikhail Gorbachev. Yeltsin resorted to force to overhaul the entire constitutional order and to create a presidency that suited his needs. According to his own account, his crowning political achievement was Vladimir Putin’s election as Russia’s president in March 2000 (much of the first and last portions of the book are devoted to this).
There was something Reaganesque about Yeltsin, for his leadership seemed to exist only in his public utterances. But Reagan looks like a giant by comparison, since he held on to a few simple but firm beliefs and surrounded himself with capable aides. Yeltsin seems to be missing a central core belief–“the vision thing.” He believed, he said in his final speech (in which he asked forgiveness of the people), that he was moving the country from its totalitarian past “to a bright, prosperous, civilized future.” But wasn’t that exactly the belief he was supposed to cherish when he served as the Communist Party boss of Sverdlovsk?
There is nothing in this book that appears to qualify Yeltsin for the presidency, with the exception of his prodigious lust for power and a genius for behind-the-scenes, byzantine politics, in which various elites struggle over the reallocation of power and wealth. Yeltsin was not a marionette. Far from it–he made his way up the greasy pole of power and fought constantly to stay at the top. He may have been extraordinarily passive on economic and social matters, but he was a superb bureaucratic infighter–bold, decisive and ruthless. He had no qualms about sacrificing even his most loyal supporters. “It was too bad, really just too bad,” he notes after dismissing one of his prime ministers. When he fired his longest-serving prime minister–“faithful, decent, honest, intelligent” Viktor Chernomyrdin–he did it without forewarning because decision-making requires a special approach. “A decision should not wait. With any leakage of information, the decision ceases to be a bold, unexpected move and turns into the opposite.” But even though he says firing people caused him “the severest kind of stress,” Yeltsin concedes that he “felt an unusual rise in spirits, an enormous wave of optimism.” He insists that his perpetual personnel changes were part of a careful and deliberate search for a politician to replace him and continue “on the path of democracy.”
On the basis of the evidence, in the light of his years as president, we see Yeltsin as confident, surefooted and deeply interested in only one issue: the preservation of his personal power. He is a genius at perpetual conniving. Unlike Reagan, Yeltsin feared competent officials with established reputations. He entrusted great power to younger, inexperienced people without a political base of their own, then dismissed them when things went wrong. The failures were attributed to his revolving-door prime ministers as though they bore exclusive responsibility.
But why put oneself at the mercy of incompetent advisers? Yeltsin reveals his priorities in explaining his reasons for appointing Sergei Kiriyenko, 35, an obscure and inexperienced official, as prime minister: “Everybody needed a new figure, not someone who would lobby for the interests of some against others, not someone from some sort of camp, not someone who had already appeared in Moscow’s echelons of power.” In short, someone without a history or a political base. During his most severe crisis, in 1998, Yeltsin turned to his foreign minister and perhaps the most experienced man in the government, Yevgeny Primakov. But when Primakov suddenly gained widespread popularity in early 1999, Yeltsin became alarmed. He realized, he writes, that Primakov “was becoming a serious political alternative to my course and my plan for the country’s development.” Ignoring Primakov’s “honesty, decency, and loyalty,” Yeltsin swiftly defused the threat by dismissing the prime minister for alleged pro-Communist sympathies. “Primakov had too much red in his political palette,” Yeltsin writes.
His final choice was Vladimir Putin, a former KGB lieutenant colonel, who was named prime minister in the summer of 1999. Putin’s first move on becoming acting president was to sign a decree protecting Yeltsin from future criminal prosecution.
In this context, Yeltsin’s rambling memoir is inherently interesting for what it tells us about his character and maneuverings. Its author-statesman casts the ongoing Russian drama in terms of Kremlin intrigues, ceremonial functions, gossip, meetings and talks with foreign potentates, and perpetual personnel changes. All along it is Yeltsin who holds every string in his hands and who, like a puppetmaster, keeps moving the cardboard characters he has created, apparently for that very purpose. The sagging economy, rampant corruption, rising crime, growing social inequities and one of the greatest lootings of assets ever recorded in history seem to be matters of minor concern. “How can you force a bureaucrat not to take bribes to feed his family, when he earns only 5000-6000 rubles per month but is involved in monitoring multi-million-ruble transactions?” Yeltsin writes. “Naturally, the only way is to raise his salary.”
The picture that emerges is one of a petulant, self-centered, cunning man whose lust for power and fragile ego were the dominant forces of his presidency. Even though he was the picture of a model Bolshevik throughout much of his life, even though he had toadied up to Brezhnev, Chernenko and other political leaders to crawl up the party ranks, Yeltsin had always been a man waiting for the main chance. He turned against his colleagues when they blocked his path to the top in 1987. He fought hard. He finally seized his chance. The image of the man atop a tank was the apex of his career, the grand gesture for which he will be remembered in history.
Paradoxically, despite his anti-Communist diatribes, Yeltsin remained a Bolshevik at heart insofar as he believed that strong-willed and determined individuals could change the world by forcibly engineering social and economic changes. He saw himself as just such a man. He sought to obliterate the past, revise his own history and cultivate his own myth. I recall a St. Petersburg historian contemptuously quoting from an early New Year’s Eve address to the nation in which Yeltsin referred to Communists as “they”–“They have imposed Communism on us for seventy years.” And who was talking, the historian asked rhetorically? A former Politburo member and Communist boss of Sverdlovsk.
What is there of substance, if anything, in this man who strove mightily for grand gestures and theatrical effects? Midnight Diaries provides no answers, so there remains the question of whether Yeltsin ever seriously considered championing a democratic revolution.
What happened in 1991 is that the students and workers who made the revolution and toppled the old regime did not know how to make a new government. Those who did know how were the ones from the old regime. Yeltsin brought those same people back to power and subsequently worked mightily against the very democratic forces that had been the mainstay of his support when he was a populist politician.
Yeltsin’s memoir offers no evidence to suggest that he was ever interested in the systematic mobilization of Russia’s democratic forces. He had no vision of the nation’s identity and future; his concerns were far more personal. His obsession with the grand gesture–something that required an element of surprise–made him fret constantly about leaks. Not only did he crave the limelight, he always tried to stun the world by unexpected actions: “If the news were to leak, the whole effect would be lost,” he writes about his decision to resign. “Any leak, any advance talk, any forecasts or proposals would put the impact of the decision in jeopardy.” In June 1999, at the end of the war with Yugoslavia, he ordered the Russian brigade serving on peacekeeping duty in Bosnia to steal a march on NATO and occupy the Pristina airport in Kosovo even though he knew it was an empty maneuver. “I decided that Russia must make a crowning gesture, even if it had no military significance,” he writes. This was, he adds, “a sign of our moral victory.”
Ironically, the first wave of opposition to Yeltsin’s policies came from the very people who brought him to power. They argued that his economic reforms had little to do with a genuine free market but amounted to a Bolshevik-style, top-down expropriation and redistribution of assets in disguise. In The Tragedy of Russia’s Reforms: Market Bolshevism Against Democracy, Peter Reddaway and Dmitri Glinski note that by late 1993, most democrats–“an entire generation of talented and idealistic would-be leaders of Russia’s body politic and civil society”–were “pushed off the political stage along with the democratic movement as a whole.”
Reddaway, a professor at George Washington University and former director of the Washington-based Kennan Institute for Advanced Russian Studies, and Dmitri Glinski, a senior research associate at the Moscow-based Russian Academy of Sciences’ Institute of World Economy and International Relations, teamed up to produce a critical analysis of the Yeltsin years in power. It is a finely argued and frequently provocative account that deserves a respectful hearing.
Reddaway and Glinski believe Yeltsin had “little commitment to democracy, the national interest, or the economic development of his nation.” His rule was an age of blight. The destruction of Russia’s intellectual assets was particularly severe. The number of scientists has shrunk from 3.4 million to 1.3 million. Russia’s net financial loss from the decline in its science is estimated at between $500 billion and $600 billion annually.
The overall damage inflicted on the economy, they write, exceeds that of the comparable American experience during the Great Depression or, again, the industrial loss inflicted on Russia in World War II. High-tech industries suffered the worst. Production in electronics fell by 78 percent between 1991 and 1995. In 1997 imports made up half the Russian consumer market.
The picture of devastation looks even grimmer in light of dramatic declines in energy production (since 1991 oil production has declined by 50 percent, gas by 13 percent and electricity generation by 20 percent). Lack of investment in electricity generation will have potentially far-reaching consequences for the military and civilian economies, with the prospect of future migrations away from the frigid northern zones of the country. Brownouts have already forced a population exodus from the city of Norilsk.
“For the first time in recent world history,” Reddaway and Glinski write,
one of the major industrial nations with a highly educated society has dismantled the results of several decades of economic development…and slipped into the ranks of countries that are conventionally categorized as “Third World.” To make this experience even more dramatic, this comprehensive national collapse occurred at the same time as the nation’s leaders and some of their allies in the West promised Russians that they were just about to join the family of democratic and prosperous nations.
Instead of promoting democracy, these analysts argue, “Yeltsin and his associates disbanded the new post-Soviet parliament by force and emasculated its successor, blocked the development of an independent judicial branch, reduced the power and revenue base of local self-government, and by 1994 had imposed a regime of Byzantine authoritarianism on the country.”
The authors contend not only that Russia’s social and economic degradation “can and should be reversed” but that it is in the national interest of the United States and Western Europe to assist in that process. A more stable Russia, they say, would provide better hope for viable security arrangements and for a more cooperative relationship between Moscow and key international organizations.
But this is a Catch-22. Given the fact that Moscow is not able to service its foreign debt, no influx of foreign capital is to be expected. Who wants to invest in a country lacking comprehensive, clear and effective tax legislation?
In his book Post-Soviet Russia, the distinguished Russian historian Roy Medvedev also chronicles the failures of Yeltsin’s rule, arguing that Russia’s plunge to capitalism was both precipitate and ill conceived.
Yeltsin first privatized the area of public safety, which led to the creation of private armies and mafias. At the same time, the managers of state-owned firms created private companies and moved the cash flow to offshore banks in Cyprus. New banks were formed and made fortunes in currency transactions.
There was something very Russian about the whole endeavor. Yeltsin approached it much in the way Peter the Great and other czars carried out their modernization programs; “capitalist perestroika” was imposed from above. Medvedev notes Yeltsin’s explanation: “We had to forcibly introduce a real market place, just as potatoes were introduced under Catherine the Great.”
The remark suggests, perhaps inadvertently, how vague was Yeltsin’s grasp of the magnitude of the undertaking. Once prices were allowed to float freely, they immediately jumped fifteen to twenty times over. Hyperinflation wiped out life savings of the population. It touched off the flight of capital, as profits from exports were deposited in Western banks as a hedge against inflation. Low domestic prices on raw materials generated illegal exports and the emergence of illicit trade. Domestic production declined sharply. In 1998 the government once again devalued the ruble and froze bank accounts.
Another of Yeltsin’s failings was his lack of sound judgment about people. Medvedev catalogues the incompetent, inexperienced young men with whom Yeltsin chose to surround himself. One was a junior foreign ministry bureaucrat, Andrei Kozyrev, who was made foreign minister. Medvedev likens another Yeltsin aide, Boris Nemtsov, to the character of a confidence man in Gogol’s Dead Souls.
Why did Yeltsin entrust so much of the government to a young and green journalist, Yegor Gaidar? During their very first meeting, Gaidar assured Yeltsin that the shift to the market could be accomplished in one year. Yeltsin himself provided an account of the “surgical precision” of his decision to place Gaidar in charge: “It’s a curious thing, but I couldn’t help being affected by the magic of his name,” Yeltsin wrote later. Gaidar’s grandfather, Arkady Gaidar, had been a famous children’s writer whose books were read by generations of Soviet kids, Yeltsin explained, “Including myself. And my daughters. And so I had faith in the inherited talent of Yegor, son of Timur, grandson of Arkady Gaidar.”
Gaidar’s advisers included a group of Western experts, led by Jeffrey Sachs of Harvard and Anders Aslund of the Carnegie Endowment [see Janine R. Wedel, “The Harvard Boys Do Russia,” June 1, 1998]. The Russians were very receptive to outside advice; they thought the West was genuinely concerned. But expert recommendations failed to “take into account the structure of the Russian economy and its particular features” and thus did more harm than good, Medvedev believes. He goes even further and suggests that the experts were trying foremost to preserve the interests of the wealthy Western countries.
“Shock therapy” sent the country reeling with pain, causing tremendous harm to an economy that, despite all its known shortcomings, did include first-rate firms and research and development laboratories. This was particularly true of the military-industrial complex, which employed millions of highly skilled workers, technicians and engineers. Yeltsin failed to reorient these resources to the production of consumer goods. At the same time, there was a sharp drop in government orders for military-industry goods.
But the calamity also created opportunities for people to become rich almost overnight. For aficionados, Medvedev provides a detailed analysis of this new but small class of Russians who acquired vast fortunes during what can only be described as the looting of Russia. One of them is the subject of Paul Klebnikov’s excellent book Godfather of the Kremlin, which is a must-read for anyone interested in the Yeltsin era.
Klebnikov, a senior editor at Forbes, makes its amply clear that thievery on such a scale has occurred with the cooperation of top political leaders. The businessmen, in a strict sense, committed no crimes and broke no laws; they were advised and helped by Yeltsin’s young reformers in the Kremlin. Virtually all the people around Yeltsin, including members of his family and the President himself, are portrayed as deeply corrupt. “Yeltsin was very quickly compromised by all those things that accompany limitless power: flattery, luxury, absolute irresponsibility,” Yeltsin’s former chief of security is quoted as saying.
Klebnikov’s vivid portrait of Boris Berezovsky, until recently one of the wealthiest men in Russia, is closely documented by detailing financial transactions, strategies and alliances. Berezovsky’s fortunes rose after the publication in the early 1990s of Yeltsin’s memoirs Notes of a President, which Berezovsky had partly underwritten. Having expected to make $1 million, Yeltsin was disappointed by his far more modest proceeds. At that point, according to Klebnikov, Berezovsky began putting funds into Yeltsin’s personal account at Barclays Bank in London, explaining that this was income generated by the memoir. Berezovsky in turn became a Yeltsin favorite (by 1994 Yeltsin had $3 million in the account).
In addition to Berezovsky, a former scientist turned car dealer, Klebnikov skillfully describes other members of the clique of predatory oligarchs who plundered the country’s most important assets with the connivance of the regime. “He and his crony capitalists produced no benefit to Russia’s consumers, industries, or treasury. No new wealth was created.” They did, however, produce substantial benefits to Yeltsin and his entourage.
Yeltsin, in Midnight Diaries, dismisses such allegations. “In fact, these people don’t have any links to the criminal world. These are not robber barons and not the heads of mafia clans. These are representatives of big capital who have entered into close and complex relationships with the government.” The evidence indicates otherwise, though. Klebnikov’s presentation suggests that Berezovsky was involved in mafia wars, that he attempted to have his chief rival killed and that he was the target of an assassination attempt himself. (Berezovsky was badly injured and his driver decapitated by a bomb placed near his automobile.)
Klebnikov may indeed go too far, however, when he asserts that Berezovsky, as a private individual, managed to “hijack the state.” Berezovsky’s influence was always directly linked to his proximity to Yeltsin. Yeltsin appointed the oligarch to several top posts, including that of deputy chairman of the National Security Council. But ultimately Berezovsky remained a moneyman who was never allowed into the charmed circle of power. Political power in Russia, when it came to a crunch, always had more punch than financial muscle.
Klebnikov adds his voice to recent charges that the Clinton Administration stuck by Yeltsin even though it knew all along about the unsavory nature of his regime. The Administration, he writes, “while trumpeting the principles of democracy and the free market, repeatedly ignored evidence that the Yeltsin regime was a kleptocracy.”
Gaidar, the architect of Yeltsin’s shock therapy, acknowledged in a 1997 book that the entire Yeltsin program was a failure. “Unfortunately,” he writes, “the combination of imperial rhetoric, economic adventurism, and large-scale theft seems likely to become the long-term determinants of Russian realities.” The term now commonly used to describe Russia is a “bandit state.” Reddaway and Glinski call it “market bolshevism.”
The new books have punched some big holes in the Yeltsin legend as well as in Clinton’s own uncritical backing for the Russian president. Reddaway and Glinski provide some evidence that Yeltsin used his secret police to stage “a provocation that unleashed violence on the part of the opposition, thus giving Yeltsin a pretext to proceed with a bloody crackdown on the parliament.” Clinton joined Yeltsin’s war against Parliament, saying, “We cannot afford to be in the position of wavering at this moment, or backing off or giving any encouragement to people who clearly want to derail the election process and are not committed to reform.” An unnamed US official was quoted by Newsweek as saying the Administration “would have supported Yeltsin even if his response had been more violent than it was.” (Official figures say 187 people died and almost 500 were wounded in the attack.) Charles Blitzer, chief economist on Russia for the World Bank, commented on the incident: “I’ve never had so much fun in my life.” Another Western economist advising the Yeltsin government was quoted in the press as saying, “With parliament out of the way, this is a great time for reform.”
There is also evidence that the 1993 referendum on a new constitution–which gave Yeltsin extensive personal powers–was in fact rigged. Reddaway and Glinski cite various infractions, including intimidation and other irregularities engaged in by the Yeltsin people. The minimum voter turnout was reduced from 50 percent to 25 percent; the minimum wage was raised; television access for oppositionists was sharply curtailed. “By all indications, the constitution did not gain the necessary minimum of voter support, but the authorities declared it [had] been approved,” they write. “The gap was evidently closed by government vote fraud.”
Yeltsin’s 1996 re-election campaign–financed by Berezovsky and other oligarchs and mafia barons–“was marked by spectacular violations of the law on the part of the incumbent,” Reddaway and Glinski write. Yeltsin started with an approval rating of less than 10 percent and succeeded in getting re-elected by spending thirty times more than the legal spending limit. One incident is telling: An aide of Anatoly Chubais, a key Yeltsin assistant at the time, was caught leaving his office with $200,000 in cash in a suitcase. Apart from direct distribution of money, to win votes Yeltsin used government funds on a lavish scale for tax breaks; made cash transfers to institutions, garden owners and small farmers; and disbursed government credits. The Economist estimated that the effort cost the Russian treasury some $10 billion. The aggressive giveaway dwarfed the promises of all other contenders combined. But the most powerful weapon in Yeltsin’s hands was the broadcast media. The brazen violations of the law on campaign coverage were summarized by the European Institute for the Media: Yeltsin got 53 percent of prime-time coverage; the Communist candidate, Gennady Zyuganov, 18 percent; and all other candidates combined, 11 percent.
After the election, the oligarchs divided up among themselves the most valuable state companies, which Yeltsin privatized under fire-sale conditions. But corruption permeated all levels of government, and included Yeltsin’s “young reformers.” One of them is said to have handled an estimated $178 million in precious stones, gold and antique jewelry smuggled out of the Russian treasury, to be sold in San Francisco and Antwerp. The bribery involved in “trading” operations was on an epic scale. The wives of the interior minister and his first deputy, invited on a three-day shopping trip to Switzerland by a commodities trader, bought $300,000 worth of furs, perfumes, watches and so on (and carted the haul in twenty pieces of excess luggage)–all paid for by the trader’s firm.
Primakov was the only prime minister who made a determined effort to fight corruption and hold Berezovsky and others accountable to the law. This may have brought stability and trust back to Russian politics, but his corruption probe was extremely dangerous for Yeltsin. Moreover, Primakov did not offer enough of a guarantee that Yeltsin himself would not face prosecution after leaving office. Finally, Klebnikov says, Primakov’s government evoked loud protests from Washington. He was replaced as prime minister by the minister of internal affairs, the man who had promised to protect Berezovsky. (“The dismissal of Primakov was my personal victory,” Berezovsky later told Le Figaro.) Here lie the reasons for the selection of Putin.
Putin and his people are left with the overarching need for a qualitatively new strategy of economic and social recovery. Yeltsin’s course reached a dead end; polls suggest that discontent with capitalist experimentation now permeates all classes–workers, peasants, the army, intellectuals. Whatever emerges in this decade in Russia is likely to be viewed as a communist reformation–a moderate shade of red–that would allow some degree of private property, individual freedom and entrepreneurship. How this will evolve is going to depend on Putin himself. An argument can be made that the origins of Communism’s collapse may lie partly in a car trip the young Gorbachev and his wife made in the 1960s, which allowed them to observe that even Italian peasants lived better than Russian elites. Putin served as a KGB officer in East Germany for six years in the 1980s, but even that exposure was enough for his wife to complain about the empty shelves back home in Russia.
How will history judge Yeltsin? On one level, to use the image of one of his acolytes, Yeltsin could be compared to Ilya Muromets, the peasant hero of medieval epics who one day is bravely slaying Russia’s foes, then spends weeks sleeping on the stove in his hut.
On another level, however, Yeltsin’s final grand gestures do set an enormously important precedent. During the twentieth century ten men stood at Russia’s helm, but only one of them–Yeltsin–was actually elected by the people. Moreover, there was no regular system of power transfer in Russia throughout the twentieth century, and that was perhaps the most important cause of the country’s difficulties and setbacks. Five of its ten leaders died in office, three were removed by revolutions and one by a palace coup. Yeltsin alone left office before the end of his term. This indeed established a much-needed precedent to legitimize an orderly system of succession. In the context of Russian history, this has been progress.