The Talented Mr Yeltsin

David Bennett will remember 1st January 2000, above all, for the resignation of Boris Yeltsin from the Russian Presidency.
This article was originally published in Melbourne publication
Serendipity, May 2000.

Where an entry exists on PWHCE's
Who's Who of Russian History and Current Events, links are provided to that entry.

Boris Yeltsin brought his remarkable political life to an end when he announced his resignation, appropriately on a milestone, the New Year's Day of the New Millenium,1 to conclude the career that represented a milestone in history.1 In the popular imagination, if not in strict, mathematical fact.
Anti-anti communismYeltsin's successor to the Russian Presidency has been democratically elected and presides over some sort of market economy. Such an inheritance would have been fantasy fifteen years ago. Confounding the Marxist view of history that insists that individual leaders cannot divert its course, the most significant and seminal dynamic in acheiving this seemingly implausible scenario must be attributed to the historical role played by the figure of Boris Yeltsin. Along with Ronald Reagan, his vital contribution to the final discrediting and break up of the Soviet Union and its non-pluralistic style of communism, has been (predictably) belittled by a western media and intellectual elite, which prefers to characterise Yelstin as a gross incompetent and drunkard. This is consistent with, and a continuation of the political culture of 'anti-anti communism'. This political tradition - identified by Jeanne Kirkpatrick during the Cold War - promoted a perspective that placed the United States on the same moral standing with the (former) Soviet Union. Or worse, anti-anti-communism promoted the dangerous view that communism was a benign force that should be accomodated. Those who were hostile to this viewpoint were accordingly attacked and ridiculed as paranoid McCarthyists. This anti-anti communism was particularly evident in the 1980s when President Reagan initiated the process by which the United States militarily challenged the Soviet Union. He did this by building up NATO's nuclear missile stockpiles, by verbally attacking the immorality and illegitimacy of the Soviet Union and by providing covert aid to anti-communist insurgents in the Third World. Throughout the early and mid 1980s there was a well resourced and active "peace movement" which effectively sought to fatally undermine the Reagan-led counter-attack against the Soviet Union. For good measure, President Reagan was often portrayed by the western media as an intellectually limited, befuddled ex-B-Grade movie actor who was guided more by his anti-communist prejudices than by rational analysis.
The Rise of GorbachevThe Rise of Mikhail Gorbachev, in March 1985, to General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) was therefore hailed by much of the western media. Gorbachev's relative youth, vigour and intelligence were often highlighted so as to contrast these virtues with President Reagan's alleged intellectual deficiencies. Gorbachev's policies such as Perestroika (restructuring) and Glasnost (openness)2 were acclaimed by much of the anti-anti communist media, as they appeared to vindicate the viewpoint that the Soviet Union was a beneficial force in world affairs.2 Glasnost, literally translated, means 'voiceness'. Though Gorbachev identified it with Lenin's Glasnost policy for the purpose of ideological legitimacy, the two policies gave the term entirely different meanings.
In truth, Gorbachev's Glasnost and Perestroika reforms were deficient. Their objective, to stimulate human initiative and creativity within the Leninist/Stalinist paradigm, was ultimately untenable due to its inherently contradictory nature. However Gorbachev's reforms can be seen as historically significant in that they allowed a maverick such as Boris Yeltsin to break in.
The Rise of YeltsinGlasnost and Perestroika were never intended to dilute the Communist Party's predominance. For this reason a figure such as Boris Yeltsin was too dangerous, because he was not prepared to operate within the confines that Gorbachev had set. This became evident when Yeltsin attacked the privileges and corruption of the capital's nomenklatura (Soviet elite).
Consequently Gorbachev dismissed Yeltsin as Moscow party chief in November 1987. The prominence and love that Yeltsin gained from his dismissal resulted in his overwhelming election (89%) in March 1989, to the quasi-representative legislature - the Supreme Soviet. This election victory was in spite of - or perhaps because of - Gorbachev's attempts to block Yeltsin's canditure. His presence in the Supreme Soviet's Chamber of People's Deputies provided a focus for its authentic reformist minority. The legislature subsequently became a more genuinely pluralist body than Gorbachev had intended it to be.
Perhaps the turning point in Yeltsin's career came in May 1990 when he skillfully lobbied the Russian Federation's Supreme Soviet (legislature) to elect him - over Gorbachev's prefered candidate - as its Speaker; thereby making him the Russian Federation's titular President. In June 1991, Yeltsin consolidated his position when he was elected to the newly created position of Russian Executive President. As President, Yeltsin was able to attract disenchanted reformers from Gorbachev's camp into his own.
First Coup AttemptWith the resignation in December 1990 of Foreign Minister Eduard Sheverdnadze, the last major 'liberal' in Gorbachev's circle, the General Secretary was left isolated amongst hard-liners and stolid bureaucrats. Sheverdnadze's break represented the point at which Gorbachev's reform process came to an end. It was similar to the CPSU's 1961 Congress at which Nikita Khrushchev's de-stalinisation programme was effectively terminated (thus paving the way for Leonid Brezhnev to depose Khrushchev in 1964).
As Gorbachev's major critic up until the hard-liners' coup attempt in August 1991, masses of people (the crucial component of which were upper middle aged citizens embittered by the failed expectations of the Khrushchev era) rallied to Yeltsin's standard to oppose the coup outside the Russian Parliament, popularly known as the 'White House'. These demonstrators successfully protected the White House as Russian KGB officers (who had previously left the Soviet KGB) and military officers loyal to Yeltsin's Vice-President, retired Air Force General Aleksandr Rutskoi established an improvised operations centre from which successful resistance to the coup was organised.
At the time of the coup attempt, some western media commentators such as Paul Murphy, the then compere of SBS's Dateline programme, belittled Yeltsin's heroic stance, and said that he might be able to mount a tank and oppose a coup but was generally incapable of running Russia. The innacuracy of this analysis became apparent during the aftermath of the abortive coup when Yeltsin rose to the challenge of breaking with the totalitarian past, while Gorbachev conspicuously failed to. The Soviet leader might have managed to cling to office as Soviet President and ensured that the Soviet Union continued on in some more devolved form, had he denounced the CPSU. Unfortunately Gorbachev's nature was such that he could not bring himself to disassociate from the CPSU or come to grips with the fact that its key figures (many of whom owed their positions to Gorbachev) had betrayed him. Instead it was Yeltsin who consequently moved into the void by banning the CPSU, sequestering its considerable assets and skillfully engineering the Soviet Union's peaceful dissolution at the end of 1991.
Yeltsin in Full PowerPresident Yeltsin's first choice as acting Prime Minister for post-Soviet Russia in january 1992 was the incorruptible, courageous but unfortunately inappropriate free-market fanatic Yegor Gaidar. His decision in early 1992 to remove price controls and to apply economic "shock therapy" led to hyper-inflation and deepened the impoverishment of millions of Russians.
By the end of 1992, Russia's Supreme Soviet forced Yeltsin to dismiss the by now despised Gaidar and to appoint Viktor Chernomyrdin, the former supremo of the Soviet gas indistry and a scion of the old Soviet nomenklatura, as the new Prime Minister.
The failure of the August 1991 coup was due to a section of the Russian nomenklatura siding with the popular Yeltsin against the CPSU. This section of the old elite through its control of the Russian Supreme Soviet now sought to reduce Yeltsin to the role of figurehead and in so doing to preserve and to enhance their privileges. Presdent Yeltsin was not prepared to play such a role and in the ensuing crisis, the Russian leader attempted to preserve his presidential prerogatives, while attempting to reach a compromise with the legislature. Unfortunately, neither Vice President Aleksandr Rutskoi nor his guiding hand, parliamentary Speaker Ruslan Khasbulatov were prepared to make such a compromise. It was they who determined to crush Yeltsin and to ensure that their 'People's Socialist Party' obtained the bulk of the CPSU's sequestered assets.
The western media generally portrayed the dispute as one between a democratically inclined 'Parliament' attempting to valiantly stifle a would-be dictator. The subsequent shelling of the White House in October 1993 by the Yeltsin regime was in response to the Khasbulatov/Rutskoi forces attacking the Moscow Mayor's office as they commenced their coup attempt against Yeltsin. The president's narrow military victory over the rebels enabled him to decisively break with the Soviet era institutions and repudiate those officials that had been spawned by them.
Constitution and ElectionsThe adoption of a new Russian constitution in December 1993 and the holding of the first parliamentary elections since those held in 1912 during the Tsarist era, were giant steps towards Russia becoming a constitutional democracy. The western media tended to negate the milestones by critiquing the powers that the constitution bestowed upon the president.
It should not be forgotten that Russia's totalitarian legacy was far more extensive and entrenched than in the former Soviet bloc countries of Central and Eastern Europe. Consequently Yeltsin's capacity to enact reform was constricted by the absence of a strong civil society and Russia's lack of a democratic society. In this context, the realistic possibility of a Weimar fate should not be understated. Yeltsin had to survive coups from the Left and see off a challenge from Vladimir Zhirinovsky's neo-fascist 'Liberal-Democratic Party' (sic) when it won a plurality in the December 1993 Duma elections. The legacy of three generations of totalitarian rule had left Russia in such a parlous state that it made it difficult for a democratically inclined political party to do well. The post-Soviet inheritance that was bequeathed to Yeltsin was a poisoned chalice that was tailor-made to destroy the political career of anyone who hazarded to lead Russia. Consequently and paradoxically the provision of a strong executive presidency has been a necessity for safeguarding Russia's transition toward becoming a fully fledged constitutional democracy.
Following the December 1993 parliamentary elections President Yeltsin appointed Anatoly Chubais as deputy Prime Minister. President Yeltsin placed Chubais in charge of privatising Russia's massive State sector.
Between early 1994 and late 1995 Chubais oversaw the biggest sell-off of state assets in history. Unfortunately, senior bureaucrats and those with privileged connections were able to buy the bulk of Russia's assets at ludicrously low prices. This privatisation frenzy regrettably spawned a class of tycoon which became the new dominant elite in Yeltsin's Russia. These tycoons became the primary pillars upon which Yeltsin relied in order to survive for want of a strong democratic government. The subsequent emergence and rapid growth of a powerful Russian Mafia (much of which was drawn from the ranks of the defunct KGB/GRU) has been a blight on Russian society. Another persistent problem has been the collapse of the taxation system's revenue base and the State's subsequent inability to pay its employees their wages.
The socio-economic travails connected with Russia's transition to a market economy provided considerable grist for the western media to vigorously attack Yeltsin. The western media generally lambasted Yeltsin and subtly implied that Russia would have been better off had the Soviet Union continued. Yeltsin's subsequent travails were often portrayed as a type of poetic justice that was his due for having destroyed the Soviet system and to imply that Russia's break with communism had been a mistake.
However Chubais' privatisation plan was a necessary evil because it enabled Russia to finally cut the Gordian Knot and break with the legacy of the Soviet command model of economy. Therefore the potential now exists for Russia to move toward having a more socially just and economically prosperous future. For all the justified criticisms that were levelled against Chubais, his overall economic reform programme enabled Russia to overcome the scourge of mass unemployment and hyper-inflation that would have eventuated had Gaidar been left in charge.
ChechnyaPresident Yeltsin's resort to military force to keep the republic of Chechnya in the Russian Federation, was relentlessly attacked. The two periods during which Russia undertook bloody military action in Chechnya between January 1995 and July 1996 (which ended in defeat for Russia) and from late 1999 to the present, were unequivocally denounced by the western media, with some commentators portraying Yeltsin as a blood-stained ogre. The hypocrisy of these attacks from the media is apparent when one considers their relatively mute to tame criticism of the carnage the Soviet Union wrought on Afghanistan (1979-1989).
President Yeltsin's decision to order military intervention in Chechnya, in order to stifle its succession from the Russian Federation, presented him with an accute dilemma; how to sustain unpopular military action (in the 1995-96 period) whilst overseeing Russia's transition to a democracy. The nature of this balancing act was analogous to President Abraham Lincoln's ultimately successful struggle to keep the United States together in the 1860s whilst safeguarding American democracy.
It should not be forgotten that the chechen dictator, General Dudyuev, supported the August 1991 coup attempt by CPSU hard-liners and in the wake of its failure expelled Soviet (soon to become Russian Federation) forces from Chechnya. President Yeltsin was prepared to implicitly acknowledge the reality of de facto chechen independence. Dudyuev's uncompromising insistence on de jure independence placed President Yeltsin in an impossible bind because it set a dangerous precedent that could have precipitated the unravelling of the Russian Federation and the consequent collapse of a democratic Russia (which is probably what Dudyuev intended).
For all the unfortunate carnage that characterised the first, unsuccessful period of Russian miltary intervention (1995-1996) in Chechnya there were some beneficial (if unintended) outcomes in relation to the evolution of a Russian federal State. The havoc that Russia's first military campaign (1995-1996) unleashed, served as a warning to other non-Russian constituent republics within the federation to remain within the fold of Russian unity. In return for the regions making this fundamental concession, the Yeltsin regime felt secure and confident enough to grant them considerable autonomy without endangering Russian unity. The emergence of a more devolved Russian State augers well for the consolidation of Russian democracy.
Re-electionNot only did Boris Yeltsin play an important role in establishing a democratic Russia, but also in maintaining it against adverse odds. The historical absence of a Russian democratic tradition, the subsequent weakness of Russia's democratic movement (up until the results of the 1999 Duma elections) and public disillusionment caused by the massive problems associated with communism's collapse, created a plausible scenario in the mid-nineties, which could have resulted in the election of an extremist, anti-democratic government of either the left or the right. Consequently as President Yeltsin approached the mid 1996 presidential election, the prospects for Russia's continuance and consolidation as a democracy hinged upon him winning re-election. With credible opinion polls (released in January 1996) placing President Yeltsin's approval rating at a mere 8%, members of his entourage, tycoons and senior ministers secretly urged him to abort the presidential election, suspend the constitution and to impose martial law. President Yeltsin refused to follow such an unethical course of action, despite the threat posed by both the extreme left and right.
The western media's coverage of Russia's July 1996 Presidential election was generally hostile towards Yeltsin, who was portrayed as someone who had passed his use-by date. The subliminal message that the western media projected was that Russia's break with communism had been a mistake and that this was borne out by President Yeltsin's personal inadequacies. In hindsight however President Yeltsin's re-election was a major milestone in consolidating Russia's emergent democracy because a moderate, i.e. Yeltsin, was able to win re-election in the midst of political polarisation. President Yeltsin's re-election campaign was predominantly financed by tycoons and the campaign itself was secretly directed by a group of American political/media consultants. The Yeltsin camp's key campaign strategy was to polarise the electorate by waging a fiercely anti-communist campaign and to stress the theme in its intensive media blitz. To counteract the Communist Party's organisational strength, President Yeltsin, despite severe health problems, undertook a gruelling campaign schedule by touring the regions. Yeltsin garnered 35% of the vote in the first round on 16th June (against the Communists' Gennady Zyuganov's 32%). Having qualified for the Presidential run-off on 3rd July, Yeltsin's re-election hinged on co-opting the support of the third placed Aleksandr Lebed (a retired General who received 14.5% of the vote). Defence Minister Pavel Grachev (without whose support Yeltsin could not have survived the October 1993 coup attempt) was adamantly opposed to any accommodation with Lebed and tried to bully Yeltsin into suspending the constitution. The president held his ground by dismissing Grachev (thus ensuring that the tradition of civilian political supremacy over the military was maintained) and appointing Lebed Secretary of the powerful Security Council. Yeltsin was subsequently re-elected with 53% of the vote. (President Yeltsin was later to dismiss Lebed as Secretary of the Security Council in October 1996, because he had used it as a platform to attempt to become Russia's strongman.
Second TermPresident Yeltsin's second presidential term was not a happy one due to his chronic ill-health (Yeltsin is thought to have survived a massive heart attack in July 1996) and the gravity of the political challenges that he faced. Despite the vast presidential powers that the Constitution conferred on the President, Yeltsin's capactiy was stifled by the extremist parties' majority in the Duma. A pattern of government subsequently emerged by which the president allowed the competing figures in his entourage to administer (or in some cases pilfer) the state whilst he arbitrated amongst these different power blocs. Due to chronic ill-health, Yeltsin often withdrew into prolonged convalescences which normally ended with the president dismissing a senior official in order to keep everyone off balance. Naturally enough, the western media lambasted Yeltsin's performance without taking into account the adverse conditions in which he operated.
Due to President Yeltsin's ill health Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin emerged as the nation's principal administrator. Chernomyrdin was a competent, if stolid, bureaucrat in old style Soviet mould, who had utilised his position to enrich himself (he is reputed to be a billionaire) and to corruptly build up his war chest to financed his planned bid for the presidency in 2000. While President Yeltsin was prepared, out of necessity, to rely upon and utilise tarnished figures such as Chernomyrdin or Grachev in order to survive, he was not prepared to surrender Russia's destiny to them and thus extinguish Russia's prospects for becoming a democracy. Consequently the president dismissed Chernomyrdin as Prime Minister in March 1998 (thus inaugurating a dizzying period during which Russia went through seven governments up to and including Vladimir Putin's appointment as Prime Minister in August 1999). During this period, in September 1998 in the midst of the rouble's meltdown in value, President Yeltsin yielded to pressure from the communist-dominated Duma to appoint Yevgeny Primakov as Prime Minister. Primakov was a former KGB spymaster and a Soviet apologist who established a tacit relationship/alliance with Zyuganov's communists. It is noteworthy to contrast the generally sympathetic treatment that Primakov received in attempting to address Russia's massive problems with the contempt with which Yeltsin was treated by the western media.
CohabilitationPrimakov's elevation to the position of Prime Minister represented the nadir for President Yeltsin as he withdrew into semi-retirement. During this period Yeltsin was dismissed as a has-been and was subjected to a concerted campaign for his resignation as the Russian Communist Party regained its former position (if only in a de facto context) as Russia's "power party". From Yeltsin's perspective Primakov's tenure as Prime Minister was a positive one in that it facilitated a degree of co-operation between the executive and legislature which enabled Russia to avoid a catastrophic financial collapse and to rein in Russia's tycoons.
President Yeltsin was not prepared, however, to succumb to the communists by giving way to Primakov. The president (and his daughter and chief confidante Mrs Dyachenko) struck back in June 1999 by dismissing Primakov as Prime Minister despite howls of outrage from the western media.
The dismissal was effected by the president despite his weakened political position due to the support that he received from Vladimir Putin, the director of the FSB - the successor to the KGB - which had been a principal source of power for Primakov. In August 1999 in another shock move, he elevated the obscure Putin to the position of Prime Minister, and shortly thereafter designated him as his successor.
The western media predictably condemned President Yeltsin's rapid turnover of governments as a glaring vindication of their perspective that the Russian leader had been profoundly unfit to rule Russia. However, the positive ramification of Yeltsin's action was that they effectively (and ironically) discredited the extremist parties in the Duma. While communist parliamentary deputies vehemently and publicly denounced Yeltsin, they more often than not capitulated to the president by confirming his various nominees for prime minister. This malleability was due to the fact the communists' self-interested deputies were overly keen to avoid early parliamentary elections and subsequently forego the very generous financial benefits and perks that came with parliamentary office. By calling the communists' bluff (and Zhirinovsky's Liberal Democrats' (sic)), Yeltsin was able to discredit and hence marginalise them.
PutinThus when parliamentary elections were held in December 1999, Russians at last took advantage of their democratic franchise by voting for a moderate political party, the Kremlin backed 'Unity' Party. This new party's strength was based on the support that it received from regional leaders in return for Kremlin patronage. Unity's electoral success gave Yeltsin the confidence to resign in favour of Prime Minister Putin (who became Acting President upon Yeltsin's resignation). Putin's recent election in March 2000 to the Presidency of Russia was due to the popularity he acheived for his handling of a relaunched campaign in Chechnya3 and represents a final triumph for Boris Yeltsin.3 For example, Putin visited Chechnya on his first day as Acting President, 1st January 2000. In comparison to the complete failure of Soviet leaders to visit the troops in Afghanistan for several years, this is another demonstration of the level of responsiblity and sense, unprecedented since 1917, which democracy brought to Russia.
As Russia's new president, the challenges that Putin faces are formidable. These challenges include breaking the power of the tycoons and subsequently moving Russia away from an oligarchic capitalist crony dominated economy toward a genuine market economy and rooting out the scourge of Mafia-generated gangsterism. Furthermore President Putin will have to overhaul Russia's collapsed taxation system, thus enabling the state to service its financial commitment and to commence a genuine agrarian reform programme that finally dismantles Stalin's collective farm legacy. As an official who is not drawn from the Yeltsin era's tycoon/crony class, President Putin is subsequently free of the restraints which had impeded Yeltsin, to continue the reform process and lead it to a beneficial conclusion.
Boris the GreatGiven the media's relish for ridiculing Yeltsin by highlighting his alcoholism, perhaps he should be named 'Boris the victim of the media'. 'Boris the Great', however is simpler and snappier, moreover more accurate, because Boris Yeltsin demonstrated that the essentials of statesmanship are vision, and the courage and determination to implement one's vision. Like Charles de Gaulle, his political hero, Yeltsin refused to surrender his country. What Yeltsin has accomplished for Russia, is as profound as what de Gaulle, Churchill, Roosevelt and Adenauer did for theirs. And by virtue of them being big powers, they have had global implications.
Although it didn't sparkle, Yeltsin took Russia to democracy and consolidated it. He was prepared to stay on at great personal cost to his health, and risk to his political reputation and place in history. Accused of becoming obsessed with holding power, Yeltsin was in fact the first leader in Russian or Soviet history to relinquish power voluntarily.

David Bennett was the co-editor of Serendipity, in whose pages this article was originally published. David holds an MA in Industrial Relations.
Links on Boris Yeltsin
  • Boris Yeltsin website on Geocities (a comprehensive tribute/fan site)
  • Yeltsin biography from 1996 Presidential Elections on the University of Indiana 1996 Election Page.
  • "National News Service" (Russia) Boris Yeltsin biography
  • CNN Biography of Yeltsin
  • Who2 Biography of Yeltsin
  • Encarta entry on Yeltsin
  • Infoplease Timeline of Boris Yeltsin's life and career
  • Infoplease Yeltsin Biography
  • University of Toronto biography of Yeltsin
  • Guardian Unlimited Yeltsin Biography
  • PBS Newshour 4th July 1996: Elizabeth Farnsworth talks with two experts about what the surprising re-election of Boris Yeltsin means for Russia, Eastern Europe and America.

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