The memory of President Yeltsin that I will carry with me all my life is of a
proud, powerful man who not only was willing to undertake big fights, but was
almost eager to do so, who threw himself into major struggles, having to do
with the most fundamental issues about what was going to happen to his country.
He was a man who led a hard life, in many ways. And he was very hard on
himself, in lots of ways. And his career, including the way in which it gets
played out publicly, contained plenty of reminders of some fairly basic human
He is U.S. Deputy Secretary of State and has specialized in Russia affairs in
both his government and journalism careers.
But, proud and powerful are the two words that still come to my mind when I
think about President Yeltsin. And he made a mockery, a total mockery, out of
the confident pessimism of a lot of the commentators who wrote him off, on any
of a number of occasions. He had resilience of an extraordinary kind.
...It's quite amazing, when you think about it, that a man who by all accounts
and all public opinion polls, was one of the least popular figures in Russian
political and public life towards the end of his Presidency, could pick out of
relative obscurity, Vladimir Putin and say, not only is this guy my Prime
Minister, but he's going to be the next President of Russia. ...
Moreover, he got to that position through the workings of the Constitutional
process. It was an orderly and democratic conclusion of the transfer of the
power that President Yeltsin had set in motion.
And quite a number of the things that he did were intended to make sure that
the communists did not come back to run that country. That's very important.
Quite a number of the things that he did with Bill Clinton as the President of
the United States have made this a safer world than it would be otherwise.
...I think that in many respects, the Russia that President Yeltsin passed onto
his successor President Putin has come a very long way. It hasn't been an easy
or straight road. And it's not going to be an easy or straight road into the
future. But it's a very different Russia than the one that Boris Yeltsin grew
up in, the one where he was a potentate of the Soviet Communist Party. And in
many, though not all respects, it's a better place.
In what ways is it a better place?
It's a better place among other things because it's a democracy. Now, it is
not the most advanced democracy on the face of the earth, but the Russians have
gotten into the habit of voting. They now choose their legislators, the people
who make their laws. Unfortunately not always very quickly and not always the
right law, but nonetheless, they go to the polls, in levels of participation,
that is, voter turnout, that would be the envy of other countries, to elect the
legislators. And they, of course, twice in the post Soviet period had a chance
to elect their President.
It's a much more pluralistic society and political system. There are different
voices, many of which are quite disagreeable, saying ugly things. But there
are other voices that are championing values and ideals that we hold dear, and
that we hope will prevail there over time. They have a free press. A whole
universe of difference, in terms of the way the press operates from what it was
back during Soviet times.
There is also not anything like the ideological compulsion to lock horns with
the United States and with the West on every single issue, just on principle,
which was the case, of course, when we were ideological rivals on a global
basis. But I want to stress there are lots and lots of problems, reasons for
concern, and reason for uncertainty over how it will turn out.
In my opinion, Yeltsin never understood anything about the economy, aand he
never understood what has to be changed. ... Mr. Yeltsin was just a
political fighter. For him the predominant task was to get personal power.
He is a former Russian Finance Minister (1993-1994).
Dealing with economy, he showed a total lack of understanding, and only when
the problems were most acute...then at these times Yeltsin looked around and
tried to see whether there are anybody who is coming with any recipes for
dealing with the crisis, and that's how Mr. Gaidar appeared and that's why many
other people, including myself, appeared in the government. Not because
Yeltsin understand us or knew us or liked us. He never did that. But clearly,
when in times of need, you really have to fight something, then it's not enough
to have cronies, who probably steal a lot, but don't know what to do. You have
to deal with other people.
And ....most of what happened was haphazard process, unorganized. And
basically the market forces, this invisible hand, ultimately was trying to find
its way through this rigmarole of Russian politics. But unfortunately it was
never a man-made, planned process.
It's clear that these last 8-9 years changed the situation and the country
dramatically. Even the so-called Red directors of enterprise no longer waits
for the old planned system to come back. Nobody believes that tomorrow
Communists will win. ...
It's clear that in these [past] eight years, hundreds of thousands, probably
millions of people, bought their own flats and created their own houses. And a
couple of million new companies were created in these years. And clearly
people work there; they have something to lose. People sent their children to
private schools. People bought their new cars. People now like to go to
restaurants--obviously depending on their means, which restaurant. But it's
clear that there are millions and millions of Russian citizens who probably
will criticize the government while sitting in their kitchen at night and
drinking a glass of champagne or something like that. But still, they have
something to lose. It's clear that the millions have something to lose.
Most of the elite have something to lose. It's a cynical thing, but it's clear
that a lot of even those corrupt officials understand perfectly well that in
the Soviet Union they would have never been able to live the way they do now.
And it's clear that they will have been punished much quicker than they are
punished now. So everybody has a vested interest in preserving it.
And obviously, there are also millions of people, mostly pensioners, who would
like dramatic change, but you cannot go into the same water twice. You cannot
repeat history, and it's absolutely clear that there is not a single country in
the world where the communist planned economy works. And that's why--it's like
turning the time back. That's why I don't think we can go backwards. The
question is: how fast we shall go forward and how quickly we can deal with the
problems which the country faces today.
What has Russia become in the last decade?
He was Chief Political Analyst at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow from 1994-1997.
It has become a very weak country that in many ways resembles, I think, feudal
What we've seen is, I think, firstly, a major socioeconomic crisis. The
economy has declined by half. Public health is in a shambles. Educational
system is in shambles.
What we've also seen, is political power be both privatized and fragmented, and
this is what I think gives it sort of the resemblance to feudal Europe.
Sovereignty and ownership are combined in sort of parcels of this country
across the country. And it's very difficult to recombine these elements in a
way that leads to a sustained, but economic and political development over
So that's what I would call it. .... we have returned to a kind of feudal
Russia. But unlike the feudalism in Europe, it is not based on agriculture
anymore. It's based on an industry.
Well, Boris Yeltsin has many positive qualities. Understanding of modern
economics is not one of them. I don't think anyone could reasonably be under
the illusion that Yeltsin had much grasp of what many people in his team were
doing. I don't think he had more than a fleeting comprehension of the
mechanisms that were being discussed between his reform team and the West.
He was Chief Political Analyst at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow from
He had, I think, a very great faith in many of the younger people who had
supported him during his battle with Gorbachev. I think he had a very deep
perception that the Soviet economic system was not reformable and had to be
junked and had to be replaced. I think he had very little comprehension of the
extent to which some of the mechanisms being imported from the West were going
to work in Russia.
In this regard, he was a man of his generation. I don't think any Russian from
his political background in the Soviet Communist Party could be expected to
comprehend the nature of the economic reforms that were being tried. But as
the elected president, he ultimately, of course, was responsible.
I think the United States came to have a commitment to Boris Yeltsin, which was
almost as much symbolic as substantive, because the people we were dealing with
on economic reform were other people, many of whom, I think, did not tell
Yeltsin very much about what was going on. They certainly never successfully
explained to Yeltsin any of the realities of monetary policy, let alone some
of the realities of the privatization programs and the other so-called reforms
that led to such scandals.
But I think the United States became so committed to the person and the symbol
of Boris Yeltsin that, even when we were confronted with the carnage of the war
in Chechnya, it was very difficult for Washington to try to back away from
At the time after the August 1991 putsch, and the time immediately
thereafter, you've said Yeltsin had all the powers. Did Yeltsin understand what
was needed at that moment?
The author of Yeltsin's Russia: Myths and Reality, she is senior
associate in the Carnegie Endowment's Russian and Eurasian Program, and a
former deputy director of the Moscow Institute of International Economic and
Political Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences.
I doubt that he could have understood the necessity to move to that model of a
liberal democracy which had triumphed in Europe or in the United States of
America. He was a person who had never been abroad. He was from the provinces
- from Ekaterinburg. He was an older man, lacking in new experiences. He was
firmly planted in the past. Thank God he realized the necessity to destroy
Communism and the planned economy. It is now obvious that he couldn't have
moved any further than that by himself. Someone could have moved him, because
then, in 1991, when he unexpectedly formed a government of young people who
were unknown liberals, he sheltered them with his authority.
It seems that he risked his authority, he risked everything, because he wanted
to see a Russia that was part of Europe, a peaceful Russia that was a partner
to the United States. He had ideas that went further, not just economic
reforms but a civilized society.
However, by the summer of 1992, he had in effect betrayed these ideas because
he stopped reforms. He extricated himself from Yeygor Gaidar, and from this
moment forward his goal was not Russia, but his role above Russia. Yes, he
carried out reforms now and then. He was walking slowly, carefully forward,
but only with respect to economics and only as far as it helped him to be on
top--to be a czar. That is, he sublimated reforms and the democracy to one
goal--his own power, his omnipotent power.
So this alien monarch was reelected in 1996. And then what happened?
The monarch is old and depressed. He was constantly falling into depression.
At several times he was on the verge of suicide. He was a man who lost contact
with reality. He stopped watching the news. He heard about the world through
his family and closest advisors. He was beyond this world. He was no longer
adequate for his role. He had already started forming his own mythical regime.
Everything in the regime was mythical, a glass house. Everything about it was
fantasy. It was political nonsense. This regime could not exist, but it
existed. Why? The president was elected democratically, but ruled
autocratically. Moreover, he wanted to prolong his rule through the
appointment of his chosen successor. Just like it would work in a monarchy.
He ruled indirectly because he did not have the strength to rule directly. He
sat in the car, but someone else drove. The steering wheel was in other
people's hands. It was in Korzhakov's, his daughter Tatiana's, Berezovskii's,
his wife's, or even his guard's hands.
When he was incapable, either sick or drunk, he led by delegating power -- and
he had a lot of power, he was above the society, he was God, a typical Russian
czarist tradition. Since he couldn't rule, he delegated power to his family,
to the bodyguards, to the cook, to the doctors --- to his favorites. Then he
started to change his favorites, then the cabinet. It was a very convenient
way of ruling.
He sat in the Kremlin, but more frequently in the rest home or the dacha, and
from there he would pull the strings. It was a conveyor belt of sorts. It was
almost like under Stalin, though Stalin controlled everything. Yeltsin did not
control anything at this point. When people came to visit him at the Kremlin,
he sat as his desk looking at blank paper. He sat there and did nothing. He
would sit like this for hours. He knew he was in Russia, but nothing else.
Nothing interested him. He went to Sweden, but thought he was in Finland. He
reoriented the rockets, he talked other nonsense, the only thing he did
remember -- he didn't know who he was, but he knew he was a leader. This was
the only thing that he cared about. He changed from a political animal to a
Nonetheless, he did have some clear moments. He would start mumbling but then
say realistic things. This meant that he cleared at times. In a sporadic
fashion, in those moments he exhibited a real peasant wit and had an almost
animalistic sense of power. He knew when you had to cast aside rivals. As
soon as someone felt himself equal, he was immediately destroyed. This
inadequate Yeltsin, with an almost artificial heart, who couldn't think with
any distinctions, he knew there was power and he was clinging to it like an
He had many positive traits. He really wanted to change things, in the
beginning he was an exterminator. And to end it all in such a way, sick, with
a 1% popularity rating, with people who were just waiting to seize his power
and to discard him. He wasn't a regular guy or an ordinary personality. He
couldn't live up to expectations. He left the country in the very depth of
As he declined, he took the country with him.
Yes. It is a very tragic thing to say, but we have to dig ourselves out of
the hole he found himself in. However, I think things are not this simple. I
view him in an impressionist way. I appreciate that he had wishes, motives,
good reasons to do things. I think in 1991 he took a risk and showed courage.
He made a big change in this country. There was something else. Up to the
end, he was criticized harshly. Even the most supportive newspapers wrote
horrible things about him. He should have, even if he never read these papers,
known of these criticisms.
But, he never closed newspapers. He never punished a journalist, He never
allowed himself to be vindictive. He had many favorites, and he changed them
as gloves. But he was never vindictive. This is amazing, that he was never
He led like a Czar, but he did not turn the country into a dictatorship. He
started the war in Chechnya, but when he saw he had made a mistake he tried to
get out of it. He was looking for a compromise. He didn't want bloodshed.
I'm sure he wanted to sign a peace agreement. I think he probably didn't have
what it took to be a real autocrat.
He left Russia humiliated, but with a lot of freedoms that still exist.
...One may charge Yeltsin with many wrongdoings - corruption, economic chaos,
a huge bureaucracy - all this is true. But Yeltsin's main crime lies in the
fact that he has discredited the very idea of a democratic society. This is the
biggest loss of the last 10 years. It is hardly possible to restore it over the
next 5 or 10 years. It'll take a long time. We are doomed to live in a very
strange political system for a number of years. We are going to live under a
"party-less" authoritarianism, with some elements of democracy.
He was Boris Yeltsin's press secretary from 1991-1993 and was a journalist
with Komsomolskaya Pravda.
He was in love with himself. He would see everything through the lens of his
ego. That's how - through this lens - he formed his circles. ... Back in 1985,
we were trying to change the situation, where everything in our society was
controlled and determined by the "special service" - the KGB. We came full
circle to the same situation when KGB people determine and control everything
in Russian society, control everything that people say and do.What's different
is the purpose of this control. If in the past the goal was to defend the
ideology, now the goal is different - to protect private property. But the
essence is the same - a total control over society by the KGB.
...In the Kremlin there was one way to get rid of an undesirable person. It
worked 100% of the time. All one had to do was to say a few times to Yeltsin:
"Boris Nikolayevich, you hired so-and-so. You know, everyone says only good
things about him, everyone has a high opinion of him. Last time so-and-so
traveled around Russia, he was welcomed enthusiastically by people. Many say -
look, what a great successor to Boris Nikolayevich!" Two or three comments like
this were enough for this person to be gone from the Kremlin for good. Many
used this method and Yeltin's weakness - his ego. The last words I heard from
Yeltsin were: "Go and do what the tsar ordered." Tsar!
...For Yeltsin, the most important thing was to become a member of the club, to
make sure that the West liked him more than they liked Gorbachev. Yeltsin
genuinely thought that after that, all of Russia's problems would be solved,
gold rain would pour down on us, the borders would open and foreign goods would
start pouring in and our goods would be exported to the West - all because
Yeltsin was on friendly terms with the other leaders, because he had been
meeting with them without ties, without tuxedoes, even shirts. That's Yeltsin's
primitive thinking and his primitive perception of the world's complex
What has Russia become in these ten years?
He is a senior analyst for the Jamestown Foundation and writes from Moscow on
Russian domestic affairs. He was a writer with Voice of America and has worked
as a business columnist with The Moscow Times, and as Moscow
representative and program officer for Freedom House.
It's a peculiar thing. I think there's several ways of looking at it. On one
level, it's become something very much resembling a Third World
quasi-authoritarian corrupt regime, sort of a regime that resembles Latin
American regimes of old. Number two, it's a highly criminalized system. In
other words, the power of organized crime, which sort of merges into the
regional bosses, and governments, and local governments, this mish-mash of the
security services and organized crime is a salient feature of the new
On the other hand, I think that people underestimate the degree to which
there's great continuity between this system and the old system. One thing
that's often overlooked is that the Yeltsin Kremlin basically nationalized
billions of dollars worth of property owned by the Soviet Communist Party. It
held on to it. It made the Kremlin administration one of the biggest property
holders in the country--billions of dollars worth of property--and uses this
property to provide the 12,500 top officials of the Russian state with basics
like apartments and transportation and rest homes, and vacation resorts. This
is exactly the way the Soviet Communist Party nomenklatura operated. Just that
aspect of it always astounded me. Why doesn't anybody bring this up?
Shouldn't this [have] been a subject of demarche by Washington or Western
governments? But it was overlooked.
What about ordinary people?
I think that for a lot of ordinary people, the situation either hasn't changed
or it's gotten worse. I think there are pockets where it's probably gotten
better. At least before the 1998 crash, [they] shuttle-traded because the
borders were open, people could travel abroad, buy cheap textiles in Turkey or
in the United Arab Emirates, order goods there, bring 'em back, sell it. So
there was a lot of moonlighting going on. There was a huge underground economy
and so a lot of people had more than they would appear to have on the surface.
Of course a lot of people were decimated by what happened, by inflation, first
of all, in the early '90s, and then the crash in August 1998 reduced people's
standards of living by 30 percent or more in one fell swoop.
However you do the math, at the end, I think it's a really sort of pathetic and
sad result, that even if it's slightly improved over the Soviet Union, that it
only came this far in ten years. And I would add that in certain ways it's
already moving backward. In other words, I would say that the area of press
freedom is worse than it was during the late Gorbachev period now, and the
trend line appears to be moving in an even worse direction. So it's a mixed
picture, at best.
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