That bizarre incident from the 90s was recounted in books by Strobe Talbott and Taylor Branch in 2002 and 2009 respectively.
You might think this hard-to-believe tale is the scandal I'm writing about. Actually, it's only an insignificant part. The mother lode is tied to the date of October 4. On that day in 1993, a violent constitutional crisis was underway in Moscow.
The elected parliament had fired Yeltsin. In response, Yeltsin fired the parliament. And when members refused to go, he fired upon them with tanks.
Ironically, October 4 also is the date when in 1957 Moscow announced to the world it had launched Sputnik, the world's first artificial satellite. Times had certainly changed.
Just last month, noted Russian journalist and media expert Alexei Pankin reflected upon a conversation he had with German colleagues back in 1993. They tended to support Yeltsin's actions. Pankin tried to explain that Yeltsin had overstepped his authority when he fired parliament and then launched the attack on members. With incredulity they remarked that if all that were true, "our media is engaged in disinformation."
And that's the scandal here. It is the Western press' inexplicably lenient treatment of Yeltsin's presidency, especially in contrast to the exceptionally harsh coverage given to Vladimir Putin, his successor. Why the difference?
Over the years, Yeltsin has been characterized variously as a hero who brought down communism, as the foremost proponent of Russia's transformation to democracy and a market economy, and as a stalwart of Russia's free press. Putin, on the other hand, is regarded as a dictatorial tyrant who opposes democracy.
Beyond the popular imagery about Yeltsin, however, there was a less attractive face. Aside from shelling the parliament, Yeltsin also presided over a looting of state assets, thus creating a circle of newly-minted tycoons that helped to protect the president. Somehow he was able to win reelection in a contest where he held roughly a 5-percent approval rating going into the election season. Ultimately, Yeltsin led the country into a financial collapse near the end of his presidency.
Yeltsin is nevertheless used in many media accounts and in political discourse as a standard of accomplishment against which his successors are being compared. Notably, Putin is criticized widely in the media for rolling back the democratic gains of the Yeltsin era, for reversing the course Yeltsin had taken away from Soviet-era autocratic rule, and for clamping down on Russia's free press. Typical headlines include "The Rollback of Democracy in Vladimir Putin's Russia" (Washington Post) and "How Putin Muzzled Russia's Free Press" (Wall Street Journal).
According to my analysis, media accounts seem generally to advance a Yeltsin persona that combines hero, fierce democratic and market reformer, and relatively harmless drunk. President Bill Clinton has been quoted as observing, "We can't ever forget that Yeltsin drunk is better than most of the alternatives sober."
Putin's persona in the press, however, is more that of a suspicious, power-hungry autocrat who will stop at nothing, not even murder. On the PBS News Hour with Jim Lehrer, Senator John McCain once accused Putin's Kremlin of instituting a "state-run kind of Mussolini-style government."
As a case-in-point, I examined the New York Times coverage of Yeltsin's shelling of the parliament in 1993. That was one of Yeltsin's most egregious acts. The Times ran a story entitled "SHOWDOWN IN MOSCOW: Tactics; Yeltsin Attack Strategy: Bursts Followed by Lulls." Here are some excerpts illustrating how the Times covered the story:
"The assault on the Russian Parliament building today was a textbook example of the decisive application of military power...
"And as the daylong assault went on, it was clear that Mr. Yeltsin's commanders had decided on gradualism...
"The Russian troops were looking for Bolshoi Devyatinsky lane ... where the defiant lawmakers had maintained their headquarters...
"With the outcome of the battle never in doubt, the clear preference of the military was to scare the anti-Yeltsin demonstrators into surrendering and to limit casualties...
"The only question was the number of lives that would be lost. And that was largely left up to the rebels as they were alternately bombarded with shells and appeals to surrender."
Just note how soft this coverage is. I'm not taking sides on whether Yeltsin's actions were appropriate or not. But, the Yeltsin side is characterized as valiant and measured. The other side is characterized as defiant and to blame for its own fate. The story has a factual basis. The president really did launch a tank assault on the parliament. However, the circumstances clearly seem to be spun in a way that tempers that stark reality.
Wasn't that a puzzling response to Yeltsin's tank attack? Think about that event for a moment. The leader of a country attacks the elected legislature with tanks. Over a hundred people are killed. Many more are injured. How would Americans feel if Obama did something like that? It would terrify Americans. What would be the world reaction if Putin did the same thing today? He would be widely condemned. Threats of boycotts would be rampant. But for many, Yeltsin's actions were accepted as just.
The difference between reactions to Yeltsin compared to Putin lies in their respective reputations. Yeltsin was generally regarded in the West as a good guy. Putin is regarded as a bad guy. That is a reputation that was created for him by his enemies. In my book, The Phony Litvinenko Murder, I documented how Boris Berezovsky and his cronies actually fabricated the entire story of Putin ordering Alexander Litvinenko's murder in London. In contrast, the facts show that the coroner hasn't to date even ruled Litvinenko's 2006 suspicious death to be a homicide.
Now we're really talking media manipulation. And that's just one example.
Inexplicably, Putin and his PR troupe have never set the record straight, never foiled the political enemies that slimed him.
But in light of Putin's recent role in seeking a solution to the Syria crisis, he is being talked up in Russia as a good nominee for the Nobel Peace Prize. It looks like Putin's inattention to his international reputation over the years may come back to bite him now. Will the Nobel Committee overlook it and award him the prize? Or will his long dark history spoil his chances?
The Committee actually will not begin to consider candidates until after the February 2014 application deadline. That means Putin still has a chance to attempt remediating his reputation. It would take a vastly different approach and a new PR team to pull this one out of the bag, though. The old troupe has a track record of failure. Time is short, but there's still a possibility to start cleaning up Putin's image.
There's another alternative. Iosef Kobzon, a Duma deputy, reportedly has remarked that Putin is certainly more deserving of a Nobel Peace Prize than Barack Obama was. Indeed, Obama has stated that he does not feel he deserved the award. The Nobel Committee selected Obama for his efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between peoples. That sounds like a promise that's yet to be completely fulfilled by the recipient. Maybe Obama should just give his prize to Putin!
It would be only just. After all, Yeltsin got his reward. Remember his drunken pizza escapade? What was the outcome? According to Bill Clinton, "Yeltsin got his pizza."