Dan Madden on Boris Yeltsin

on Apr 28 in News by


A genuine hero, the like of which we we won’t see again in our lifetimes, died this week. Boris Nikolayevich was one of those rare phenomena, the right man at the right time. Without him, the Soviet Union would very likely still be with us. Lamentably, his successor is systematically eliminating all the good that he achieved.

I tracked his career for years, from when he first came to notice by quitting the communist party in the most theatrical (and dangerous) way. He stood up in the Politburo, with the cameras rolling, removed his microphone and walked out of the hall. At this time Gorbachev, so lionized in the west, was in the process of closing down his experiment with glasnost (openness, transparency literally “glass-ness”). Frightened at what he had wrought, he had dispatched troops in the streets of Baku, Riga and Vilnius, and allowed them to fire into the crowds of demonstrators clamoring for autonomy. Gorbachev sacked his cabinet and replaced it with old hard liners. This same crew then staged a coup, and very likely would have killed him. Only Big Boris, leaping onto that tank in Moscow, prevented this.

Three months later, on Christmas Day 1991, Boris and Gorby addressed a special session of congress. The man of the hour, Yeltsin handed over a document for Gorby to read aloud. Taken aback (and not forewarned of its contents), Gorbachev found himself declaring that the Soviet Union was hereby disbanded, the communist party was now a criminal organization, and its assets forfeited.

Days later Boris met with the leaders of Ukraine and the Baltic states. He affirmed their right to freely secede. He set a calendar for the withdrawal of Russian troops from these newly independent states, as well as from the former Warsaw pact satellites.

Of course, what followed has been referred to as the greatest lawn sale in history. Through a series of criminal maneuvers and phony stock offerings, the assets of the country were looted and fell into the hands of a small number of well placed insiders. It should be noted (and in the west, never is) that all this happened under the direct guidance of American financial advisors. The USA promised large financial grants to assist in the transition. In the end, little of this was actually delivered. Germany contributed far more than we ever did.

But Boris was a man of action, not a planner and certainly not a master of capitalism. He was not personally enriched by any of this scandal.

Rampant inflation, currency devaluation, the impoverishment of the elderly, the rise (and fall) of the mafia, the inept handling of Chechnya, the shelling of a recalcitrant parliament when they refused to endorse a new constitution. All these blunders happened under his watch. But I remain convinced that, in his heart, he meant well. He was beyond his depth.

In the Yeltsin era Russia had the greatest free press we are likely to ever see. Literally hundreds of newspapers and journals were available expressing every point of view. This freedom extended to broadcast media as well. Even Solzhenitsyn had a TV program, wherein he basically grouched like an old curmudgeon for 60 minutes each week. In the Putin era, all this is only a memory. Now upstart journalists get murdered. Chechnya grinds inexorably on, after Yeltsin had managed to create an armistice there. Russia meddles in the affairs of its old neighbors, fomenting civil war in Georgia and attempting to assassinate the president of Ukraine. In his quiet retirement, Yeltsin must have seethed at this. I wouldn’t be surprised if his opinions on this are published sometime soon.

Yeah, he drank a lot and sometimes acted like an ass. He was a Russian! Generous, emotional, uninhibited. A muzhik (a real man). He also underwent a midlife conversion, saw the cynical lies of the old regime, and singlehandedly brought it down.

I was in Russia for a few of the key moments in his career. When the parliament refused to write a constitution, before taking up arms against them, Yeltsin staged a public referendum, asking basically who do you support, them or me? I was in St. Petersburg the day of this vote, which he of course won. The evening he was re-elected, I was on Red Square. There was no rally; only a German TV crew doing a broadcast. And the day he shocked everyone by resigning, on New Years Eve 1999, I watched this live on TV at the Moscow Radisson.

For a few minutes, he appeared as a wise, humble, chastened old man. A lion in winter. He spoke of his regrets. He apologized that things hadn’t gone as easily as he had wished, and admitted that no one knew how to create a new democracy, there was no instruction book. In closing this final address to the nation, he said, “God bless you all I love you, my dears”.

Yeltsin anecdote… He first visited the USA in 1989. At that time he was the newly elected president of the Russian Federation, still under the soviet system. He visited DC, and nobody from the white house was willing to meet him (they were too occupied with courting Gorbachev, and saw Boris as a troublemaker). He made several paid speaking engagements, and set one odd condition. Rather than payment in cash, he requested that sponsors donate disposable syringes. He returned to Russia with over a million of them. He later noted that it was on this trip that he became fully convinced that communism had failed the russian people. The catalyst for this? He visited a supermarket and was simply flabbergasted.

Daniel Madden
Philadelphia, PA

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