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Analyses of Yeltsin's Achievements, Failures and Place in History
photo of Strobe TalbottStrobe Talbott

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He is U.S. Deputy Secretary of State and has specialized in Russia affairs in both his government and journalism careers.
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 frailties.

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.

photo of Boris FyodorovBoris Fyodorov

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He is a former Russian Finance Minister (1993-1994).
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. ...

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.

photo of thomas grahamthomas graham

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He was Chief Political Analyst at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow from 1994-1997.
What has Russia become in the last decade?

It has become a very weak country that in many ways resembles, I think, feudal Europe.

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 time.

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.

photo of E. Wayne  MerryE. Wayne  Merry

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He was Chief Political Analyst at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow from 1990-1994.
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 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 it.

photo of Lilia ShevtsovaLilia Shevtsova

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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.
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?

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 biologic one.

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 animal.

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 decline.

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 vindictive.

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.

photo of Pavel VoschanovPavel Voschanov

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He was Boris Yeltsin's press secretary from 1991-1993 and was a journalist with Komsomolskaya Pravda.
...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 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 realities.

Jonas Bernstein

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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.
What has Russia become in these ten years?

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 system.

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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