July 12, 2007
History's First Draft
In Russia's thousand-year history, few of its rulers have contrived to do the country so much damage, in so short a time, as Boris Yeltsin. Nevertheless, however the opposition might have protested, and whatever acute crises the country might have experienced, Yeltsin was forever stepping from the water bone-dry. He got away with everything - the destruction of the Soviet Union, the collapse of industry, a drastic fall in living standards, the lost war in Chechnya, and corruption scandals in his own family. Yeltsin, described ironically as a 'guarantee of instability', proceeded solemnly from defeat to defeat. He reached his 'peak form' in the period between 1991 and 1993. These were the years when he managed to transform himself from a communist reformer into a radical liberal, while retaining a significant number of his supporters. He further succeeded in crushing the opposition of his former allies and trampling on the first shoots of popular power, while preserving his reputation as a 'fighter for democracy'. At this time the career of Russia's first president was still in the ascendant. The shelling of the parliament was the high point of this career, and unquestionably represented Yeltsin's greatest victory. From this point, the trend was downwards. From 1993 Yeltsin was preoccupied mainly with hanging on to power, and his entourage with the question of what would happen to them when the ageing autocrat made his exit.This is what Boris Kagarlitsky wrote in Russia Under Yeltsin and Putin in 2002, which is why it was odd to see this quote from him in the days following Yeltsin's death in an article published in, among other places, The Australian.
Some analysts have also seen Mr Putin as having the same broadly liberal policies as Yeltsin but only pursuing them in different ways and in a markedly changed Russia.Of course, this did sound remarkably like one of those overly qualified responses that border on sarcasm, allowing for some inexact translation. ("Why, yes, Mr Putin has just as much commitment to democracy as Yeltsin ever did.") Kagarlitsky's usual fortnightly column in the Moscow Times had been published shortly before Yeltsin's death, so he never bothered with an obituary in that venue. But a remembrance turned up elsewhere about a week later, suggesting his response to requests for comment in the immediate aftermath of Yeltsin's death was as "tactful" as it appeared.
"Vladimir Putin is pursuing the democratisation policies of Boris Yeltsin. The only difference is that Putin rules in a period of economic growth," said Boris Kagarlitsky of the Moscow-based Institute on Globalisation.
When I learned of Boris Yeltsin’s death, I immediately recalled the old rule: say good things or nothing about the dead. Russia’s first president clearly deserved silence.The dire consequences of Yeltsin's precipitous breaking up of the USSR are now obvious. Far from creating democracy, which is to say building on Gorbachev's reforms, the break-up spawned dictatorships, including some peculiarly nasty ones in Central Asia, ensured "ethnic civil wars erupted in central Asia and Transcaucasia, killing hundreds of thousands and brutally displacing even more, a process still under way" and "shattered a highly integrated economy and was a major cause of the collapse of production across the former Soviet territories, which fell by almost half in the 1990s. That in turn contributed to mass poverty and its attendant social pathologies, which are still, in the words of a respected Moscow economist, the 'main fact' of Russian life today." (Quotes from Stephen Cohen's 2006 article in The Guardian)
But it was difficult to keep silent. The telephone rang constantly as journalists called asking for comments. They had a hard day, as one after another they interviewed experts who took shelter in general and evasive answers. A local journalist would understand their motives, though. It was more difficult to deal with foreigners who could not understand why interviewees were at a loss for appropriate words. Besides, liberal canons required experts to pronounce a ritual phrase, “Yeltsin brought us freedom and democracy,” or something else in this vein. Naturally, several commentators from the Union of Right Forces did say these words, but most others could not.
Journalists kept asking suggestive questions: “Wasn’t Yeltsin's rule associated with freedom?” or “Didn’t Yeltsin give the country pluralism, elections, and freedom of the press?”
No, Yeltsin was not the one. He has no relation whatsoever to any democratic change in the country. It was Mikhail Gorbachev who accomplished all the reforms. Yeltsin just took advantage of new democratic conditions to unseat his former boss. The Soviet Union collapsed as collateral damage – 80 percent of its residents opposed the dissolution at a referendum, and residents of 12 of the 15 component republics, except for Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, wanted to keep living in the Soviet Union.
Democratic freedom reached its peak in the spring of 1991, during the last months of Gorbachev’s rule. From that point, Yeltsin rolled back human rights and democratic freedoms. When he seized power and disbanded the Soviet Union government agencies in 1991 by exploiting the hard-liners’ attempt to topple Gorbachev, the international community hailed it as “a victory over communism,” although it was an act as illegal as anything the coup plotters did.
On the other hand, the newly elected Russian president was very popular at the time. Popularity gave him the moral right to act outside his formal authority in the emergency. But he kept using the same questionable methods to disband the Soviet Union by signing the illegal Belavezha Accords in 1991 and to order an armored assault on the Russian parliament in the fall of 1993, the parliament he had claimed to defend two years earlier.
As support for the president waned, he tightened his grip on power. Ordering tanks to shell the parliament building; attempting to introduce censorship, which met with stern resistance from the media; and adopting an undemocratic constitution that gave the president a wide range of arbitrary powers and reduced the parliament and the Constitutional Court to ornaments were logical steps in the policy that emerged in August 1991 and continues. Compared to Yeltsin, Vladimir Putin may be to blame only for being more consistent and persistent in his effort to eliminate what is left of Gorbachev-era democratic changes.
In 1993, as Yeltsin shelled his own parliament, the one he had famously climbed onto a tank in front of well after the tide had decidedly turned against the 1991 attempted coup, his attack on the "hardliners" inside, a considerably more bloody affair than the earlier putsch, was applauded not only by the liberal intelligentsia of Russia but by both the Russian and Western media. Later, as is so often the case, Yeltsin's crushing of democracy that day became rewritten as a defence of the same, when it was even remembered. Few of his obituaries, even those that managed a passing mention of the economic chaos that marked his term in office, could bring themselves to detail the violent coup that consolidated his power. The doctrinal system that applauded the neoliberal insanity of "shock treatment" that destroyed Russia's economy naturally also prefers not to acknowledge the manner in which those "reforms" were forced past the first democratically elected parliament in Soviet history.
I came across a nice example of this in Steve Coll's book on the CIA's involvement in Afghanistan, Ghost Wars. The book has all the flaws you'd expect in a Pulitzer Prize winner, including a tiresome tendency to bulk up the narrative with novelistic details, such as informing the reader of the job of the father of every person Coll mentions in the book. Amongst the irrelevant vignettes is the story of the last Soviet pilot to be shot down by the mujahideen, and then captured, and how the CIA ensured he was returned unharmed to Russia in order not to jeopardise the Russian troop withdrawal. (OK, that's probably more relevant than most of them.)
Bearden offered some pickup trucks for the pilot, and ISI accepted. Pakistani intelligence interrogated the captive for four or five days. Bearden passed through the usual CIA offer to captured pilots: "The big-chested homecoming queen blonde, the bass boat, and the pickup truck with Arizona plates." But ISI reported the Soviet officer declined to defect. Bearden contacted the Soviets and arranged for a handover.And then Coll's punchline:
The pilot's name was Alexander Rutskoi. Several years later he would lead a violent uprising against Russian president Boris Yeltsin.Why, yes, what an amusingly ironic anecdote. Except Rutskoi was the legitimately elected vice-President and the "violent uprising" was Yeltsin's impeachment by the parliament, swearing in Rutskoi as his successor, after the Constitutional Court ruled that Yeltsin's suspension of the constitution was, unsurprisingly, unconstitutional. If Coll's version is the gist, it's a gist of an interestingly lopsided kind.
(I remember the chill that came over me the first time I read the phrase "newspaper of record", the appalling notion that any newspaper could be so trusted that historians should leave to its journalists the first draft of history. It made me worry about the histories to be written. Robert Fisk recounted in his speeches publicising The Great War for Civilisation how when he had told Israeli journalist Amira Hass that he felt this drafting was the journalist's role she had replied "No, our job is to hold centres of power accountable for their actions." Sadly, most journos appear to have given up on taking either of these tasks seriously. The performance of the world's most famous "newspaper of record" in relation to the excuses for the Iraq War is an obvious illustration, as is their current parrotting of administration claims that the insurgency is armed by Iran. As Fisk quipped in his speeches: "They should just call themselves Officials Say.")
Eventually Yeltsin turned on the media and liberals who had supported him in 1993, as they reacted to the increasing unpopularity of his economic policies, his corruption, and the disastrous war in Chechnya. The courtiers of the media in places like the US might consider themselves lucky that they can belatedly follow popular opinion and start criticising their leaders without being heavied the way the Russian media was, but they should probably take note of where supporting thug and criminal regimes can lead you just for the salutary effect. Here's Kagarlitsky again, with my favourite quote from the book.
History is just. Could people who a year and a half earlier had fought for a hyper-presidential constitution, unlimited executive powers and the use of tanks, really have failed to guess that once this mechanism was unleashed it would no longer stop of its own accord? For some psychologically incomprehensible reason they had been sure that if the parliament were crushed, demonstrators shot down, and the law treated with contempt, this would not affect their own rights. They found nothing reprehensible either in the fact that the armed forces were firing cannon shells in their own capital, or in the situation in which the representative branch had been made a senseless appendix of an executive power outside any form of control. It was only when they saw television news clips of tanks in Chechnya that they became indignant at the violence of the state and the arbitrariness of national leaders.
The paradox lay in the fact that this time, unlike the case in 1993, Yeltsin acted strictly within the framework of his constitutional powers. These powers had been defended in the first instance by the liberals Yegor Gaidar and Sergey Yushenkov. They, of course, had thought all these prerogatives would be used only against Communists and the left. Justice, however, triumphed. It was time at last to understand that all heads are equal before a police club.
Incidentally, in case you were wondering at the decided lack of topicality of this post, I would attempt to blame bouts of illness and weeks of intermittently pole-axed internet connection for the tardiness, but that would leave me exposed to Homer-like shouts of "Hey - that's a half-truth!"