Yeltsin’s Legacy

Who was Boris Yeltsin, recently reposed Russian ex-president, the man whose name is associated with one of the most dramatic and turbulent times in Russia’s history.

Indeed, he was a historic figure, but how successful was he after all?

Born and raised in the Soviet system he reached high administrative positions within the Communist Party. In mid-1980’s he allied himself with Gorbachev and his “reformist” crew, disparately trying to save and reform already un-reformable Soviet Union.


Having strong political instincts he sensed soon that the Soviet empire was doomed for inevitable collapse and quickly started to distance himself from the whole Communist bureaucracy, much hated and ridiculed by people in the second half of 1980’s.

He began to style himself as a democrat, people’s man, ready to fight for newly baked liberties in the collapsing empire. Nevertheless, as big name democrat as many believed he was by then, he has never been heard when in late 1980’s on the orders of Gorbachev Soviet tanks ran over peaceful anti-Soviet protestors in Baltics, in Georgia and in Azerbaijan.

During 1991 August Coup Yeltsin jumped on the tank and rallied people against the putsch’s organizers, composed of old guard Communists and military men. This was Yeltsin’s finest hour that turned him into a national hero in the eyes of millions of Russians, so disparately looking for a leader in the dismal years of Gorbachev rule. He brought Gorbachev back to Kremlin, only to depose him from power after four months. Gorbachev resigned in December of 1991 and with it died the Soviet Union. But Yeltsin did not kill it, he just happened to be there when it died. He rarely helped to bury it when in small town of Novo Ogarievo he signed a treaty with Ukraine and Belarus creating Russian dominated Commonwealth of Independent States, thus abolishing the Soviet Union.{mosimage}

Yeltsin had won fierce political battle with Gorbachev. He took the power and became the first democratically elected president in the Russian memory, inheriting the country with almost no democratic traditions and institutions.

As proved by the history in the 20th century, released from totalitarian rule, Russia rapidly devolves into anarchy. 1990’s were not exception. The country literally plunged into chaos in the aftermath of the Soviet collapse. And Yeltsin largely failed to stop it.

Notorious Russian privatization, cynically named as the expression of “wild capitalism” in Russia, in fact had nothing to do with capitalism-wild or civilized-at all. It was armed redistribution of state wealth, mercilessly carried out by well connected and well armed former Communist bureaucrats and former felons, released from jails. In fact, Yeltsin, by his tacit approval, became a midwife of the birth of degenerate social group called “oligarchs” (where the family of his daughter had enrolled rapidly), ready to sign any deal with any political system to keep its robbed billions.

Yeltsin’s broadly advertised reforms, aimed to create liberal market economy in Russia had the affect of shock therapy. It caused hyperinflation and sent the country into deep economic crisis. Sadly, those reforms never turned Russia into real Western style open market economy.

Under his rule corruption flourished in all aspects of social life. Birth rate dismally fell. Drug addiction, alcoholism, Aids and HIV ravaged the country. Large portion of the population lived close to or below poverty line on the background of super-rich group of oligarchs, barely consisting 1% of the whole population.

Contract killings of journalists and businessmen became the part of every day life and battles among gangs took to the streets of Russia.

It is true that in Yeltsin’s Russia hundreds of new newspapers, magazines, NGOs, TV channels and radio shows came to existence, allowing the criticism of the government. Indeed, Yeltsin never cracked down on them in the manner as his predecessor Putin did. But it has to be mentioned that if Yeltsin was democrat, than he was no less pragmatist not to see that in that case Russia would definitely lose billions of dollars of Western financial aid, the money that saved devastated country from the final collapse in 1990’s.

{mosimage}It is ironic that Yeltsin twice stood up against radical, imperialist forces in Russia. First, during 1991 August Coup against old guard Communists and the second time in October of 1993 against his rebellious parliament and far right forces in it, when he ordered tanks to fire on Russian Parliament building. However, he never entirely set himself free of old style neo-imperialist spirit. During entire 1990’s his Russia was heavily involved in bloody military coups overthrowing nationalist presidents in Georgia and Azerbaijan, supporting Moscow’s marionette regimes in devastating civil wars of post-Soviet republics. Yeltsin era Russian military machine was always on the first place in relatively short but ruinous ethnic-separatist wars in Transdniestria (Moldova), Abkhazia, South Ossetia (Georgia) and Karabakh (between Azerbaijan and Armenia) supporting separatists against Western looking newly independent states. The wars ransacked these countries and left all sides involved in the conflict under Russia’s heavy military, economic and political influence. This is from where so called “frozen conflicts” had originated.

The war in Chechnya has been one of the biggest tragedies of the 20th century. Russian military machine, unleashed by Yeltsin on breakaway Chechnya, killed more than 100,000 Chechens and displaced about 400,000 people, laying whole region to waste. Overall, Yeltsyn era post-Soviet wars (where Russia was directly or indirectly involved) killed some 200,000 people and turned into refugees several million citizens.

After Yeltsin’s death a lot was written about his legacy praising his historic role in the transition of Russia from Communism. But transition from Communism to where? To Putin’s semi-authoritarian Russia? Indeed, Yeltsin’s failures gave birth to Putin’s authoritarianism, with most of Yeltsin era problems still intact and unresolved in today’s Russia.

A man with drinking problems and at times erratic as he was, he embarrassed his country many times in the world. But the most unfortunately for all, he failed to create durable democratic institutions in Russia. His free press disappeared under Putin’s iron hand. His praised “liberal reforms” did not produce liberal market economy in the country and his predecessor Putin is rapidly consolidating all strings of economy in state’s hands, more and more increasing government intervention in heavily subsidized Russian economy, so dependent on gas and oil resources.

Yeltsin era looks more like a period of chaos that gave necessary time to disorganized post-Soviet KGB to regroup, reorganize itself and come back to power in the face of Putin with more determination and ferocity.

{mosimage}Yeltsin’s legacy for Russia and for former Soviet Union is dismal. As time passes by it will be clearer what could be done to avoid the post-Soviet chaos of 1990’s. But it already can be seen that very sadly for Russia and for the rest of the world Yeltsin missed the historic chance to create truly democratic, free and prosperous Russia.

As saying goes, may he rest in peace. But most probably, people in the former Soviet Union will not be able to live in peace still for quite long period of time, inheriting the Yeltsin's ruinous post-Soviet legacy.


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