Boris Yeltsin, history man

About the author
Zygmunt Dzieciolowski is a Polish journalist who has covered Russia and other post Soviet republics for European media since 1989. He is joint editor of openDemocracy/Russia.

When I first learned about Boris Yeltsin's death on 23 April 2007, I immediately called some Russian friends. Having worked in Russia in the 1980s and 1990s I felt an immediate sense of loss. I wondered if they felt the same.

It was a journalist's dream to report from Moscow in the Soviet era of perestroika (reconstruction) and glasnost (openness), when Yeltsin - head of the Communist Party in Moscow and a member of the Soviet politburo until his forced resignations in 1987-88, and from May 1990 head of the Russian republic within the Soviet Union - was struggling with his arch-rival Mikhail Gorbachev, and when after the collapse of the Soviet Union he took the reins of the born-again Russian state.

No other world leader of his time faced such tremendous tasks as Boris Yeltsin. After seven decades of the communist system he inherited a country in the deepest economic and political crisis. Russia, a huge and wounded superpower, stretching over eleven time-zones, had suffered an unprecedented historical disaster. Now the country had to look for a new identity, find resources to rebuild its economy, and to give its citizens a new sense of life.

Zygmunt Dzieciolowski is a Polish journalist and writer who has reported on Russia for leading German, Swiss and Polish newspapers since 1989. He is the author of Planet Russia, published in Poland in 2005.

Also by Zygmunt Dzieciolowski on openDemocracy:

"Mikhail Khodorkovsky’s shadow"
(3 April 2006)

"Russia: racism on the rise"
(26 April 2006)

"Russia's corruption dance"
(15 June 2006)

"Kinoeye: Russia’s reviving film industry"
(11 July 2006)

"Russia and the middle east: post-Soviet flux"
(14 August 2006)

"Roman Abramovich’s Chukotka project"
(14 September 2006)

"In Russia, death solves all problems"
(3 November 2006)

"Alexander Litvinenko: the poison of power"
(20 November 2006)

"The Russian politics of vodka"
(7 December 2006)

"How Russia is ruled"
(14 March 2007)

"New Russia, old Russia" (5 April 2007)

The limits of power

At first everything seemed easy. Yeltsin and his closest advisors expected that their radical-reform programme - including expunging the power of the Communist Party, liberating prices, privatising the economy, and securing freedom of speech - would be enough to bring immediate prosperity to their country. They believed the programme would produce quick results: soon the standard of living would improve, people would enjoy their newfound freedom to travel, and the stupid party slogans of the communist past would be forgotten for good.

In his darkest dreams Boris Yeltsin did not envisage the difficulties with which he had to cope. Within two years a parliament controlled by opposition forces was openly challenging his authority, millions of employees across the country were waiting for months for their wages to be paid, the liberalised economy was falling under the control of criminal structures, and corruption was reaching record levels.

As if this was not enough, Russia's international standing was suffering enormous setbacks. Yeltsin's radical criticism of western policies did nothing to prevent former communist satellites (such as Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic) or ex-Soviet republics Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia moving towards the western orbit. Western politicians did not pay much attention to his objections to their decisions over the wars in ex-Yugoslavia. His liberal image suffered even bigger damage when in 1994 he sent troops to suppress the Chechen rebellion, a decision which brought only bloodshed and massive violations of human rights. 

For Boris Yeltsin, learning the limits of his power must have been the most painful experience. In the communist period, when his political career had begun, it had all been different. It was enough for the party general-secretary sitting in his Kremlin office to push a button to send thousands of members of the communist youth organisation Komsomol to build the BAM railway in the virgin taiga north of Lake Baikal; or soldiers to invade Afghanistan; or to allocate funds for researchers to develop new kinds of nuclear warheads.

The chaotic post-Soviet reality no longer responded to these governing patterns. Boris Yeltsin - the ex-communist apparatchik who had spared no effort in destroying the communist monster, now the democratically elected president of the Russian Federation - would sit in his Kremlin office helplessly watching the growing chaos in his own country. In vain he tried to tell his fellow countrymen that he was not responsible for their miserable life, that there was little he could do about low world energy prices, rampant inflation, the destruction of health and educational systems, or militia unable to cope with the mafia. Democracy, he tried to teach them, worked differently from the old communist dictatorship.

An end to promises

But Russians knew better. Yeltsin had cheated them with his promises that their life would improve once they had released the private-business initiative of a Russia freed from responsibility of the other republics of the Soviet Union. They blamed all that followed on him: he had in their eyes destroyed their sacred motherland, tolerated mafias, and allowed his family to accept kickbacks from the newly emerged oligarchs.

Only in times of serious crisis, similar to a polar-bear waking up after an ice-cold winter, had he been able to break his lethargy and demonstrate strength and real political charisma. The emblematic moment of August 1991 when he climbed on a tank in front of the parliament building was formative in paving the way for the defeat of the reactionary, anti-Gorbachev communist coup. But in January 1992 he closed his eyes when the liberal cabinet led by radical young reformer Yegor Gaidar introduced market-price mechanisms which ruined millions of Russian wage-earners (even if, in the long perspective of history, this action laid the foundation of economic recovery).  

He did not pay attention to his worsening heart condition when in 1996, following advice from his liberal allies, he decided to run for a second term against the communist candidate Gennadi Zyuganov. He did not hesitate for a moment when he realised that only sacrificing some of his closest associates would enable his victory (which was effectively won by cheating).

It did not matter that one of these allies was General Alexander Korzhakov, the chief of his personal security service and also his closest personal friend. Yet in 1998, at the time of Russia's financial meltdown, he had enough guts to appoint one of his political opponents - Yevgeny Primakov - as the head of the government. And in December 1999, he shocked the world when as the first leader of the Russian state he resigned voluntarily from his post half a year before he was due to step down.

By that stage, Russians were happy to see him go. At first glance they liked his handpicked successor, ex-KGB colonel Vladimir Putin. Unlike his predecessor he was young, did not drink, had trained in karate, and promised to demolish Chechen fighters even "in the outhouse". Most Russians had tired of the chaotic democracy of the Yeltsin times, and agreed with their new president that perhaps it made sense to restore some of the old government authority patterns. They were relieved to see in the Kremlin an energetic new Czar who did not bother too much with democratic mechanisms and could barely tolerate opposition.

The memory of freedom

And my phone calls to Moscow?

My friend Mumin is a journalist at the American-funded Radio Liberty. He did not like Yeltsin, and blames him for the growth of crime and corruption. But when we talk about the media in Yeltsin's times, Mumin agrees there was no censorship, and that he allowed media to say what they wanted, even when he felt their criticism was unfair.

Leonid, a well known St Petersburg sociologist active in the perestroika days, now an emigrant living in Germany, shares my feeling of loss. He is not Yeltsin's enthusiastic fan, after all in 1994 he sent troops to Chechnya and won an election fraudulently. But at least he made his best to stop a possible communist revival.

Somehow Yeltsin's magic brain, says Leonid, was equipped with sensors which alerted him anytime his main achievements - free speech or a liberal economy - were in danger. Even though he had enemies he did not seek revenge; nobody was sent to a Siberian prison or labour-camp for being his critic or opponent.

My other friend Irina, an ecological organisation activist, says she will try to go to Boris Yeltsin's funeral on 25 April at Moscow's historic Novodevichy cemetery. After taking part in the dissenters' demonstration on 14 April in Moscow, Irina thinks it would be one more occasion for her to voice her critical opinion of Putin's regime, which (in her view) did its best to ruin the best part of Boris Yeltsin's legacy.

It is pretty obvious that in retirement Yeltsin himself was quite concerned by the political course taken by Putin and his allies. Sergei Filatov, head of his presidential administration in the early 1990s, confirmed that he was worried by the Putin regime's clampdown on free media or manipulating the election system to keep the opposition out of power.

My friend Irina only laughs when we remember the 2006 speech delivered by Vladimir Putin on the occasion of his predecessor's 75th birthday, in which he emphasised that Yeltsin's biggest achievement was giving freedom to the Russian people. Without it, Irina says quite sarcastically, Putin and his KGB buddies would not have had much to do. It has kept them busy: making proper use of the skill they learned in the good old communist times at their special-services schools, taking freedom away.