by Michael Hammerschlag
MOSCOW: April 25 I never directly saw the distant doddering sickly man he became, but Boris in his prime in 1991-94 was vibrant, lusty, fearless, brazen, and decisive; a bear from the Urals. He was simply a great man- and his failings were in many ways, the failings of Russians themselves: the scheming, the flakiness, the imperiousness, the corruption. He was a man of the people. When he spoke into the camera on TV he connected in a deep visceral way with people who had never had any leader connect at all, just recite Communist homilies and stiff gibberish. He projected a sense of overwhelming decency and honor- he’d seen all the brutality and cruelty of the system, and he wasn’t countenancing it anymore. Even his drinking, so unfairly lampooned in the foreign press, was a source of strength- Russians loved to drink and he was one of them.
To do what he did during the 91 Coup, get up on the tank and rally the whole country to defy the Putchists, took almost unimaginable courage- he was turning on the Party itself, which was the politics, economy, and religion of this country; and had murdered 20 million people. He wasn’t immune- in fact the assassination order had already gone out, but the Alpha commandos had had enough with corrupt old men ordering people to die- some actually joined the Yeltsin side, and some tankers turning their tanks around to face outward. Such was the inspirational force of Yeltsin. When I arrived in Nov 91, the country was in a state of absolute euphoria, Yeltsin had just shut down the Communist Party, but there were still many ways they could destroy or kill him. A month later, he secretly met in the woods with Ukraine and Byelorus leaders and unilaterally dissolved the empire borne of 1000 years of blood and imperialism, probably his biggest mistake. He somehow thought the problem was the Soviet Union, but it was a Russian Communist empire, and an integrated economic whole which was shattered by the seperation. On Christmas he took power in the Kremlin, Gorbachev swept away by the tidal forces he’d unleashed, and within a week Yeltsin freed prices that had been set by government for 70 years.
There was no guide to changing a corrupt completely command economy- it had never been done, and in the shock therapy, he was ill served by American advisors, some of whom hoped Russia would fall to its knees. Thinking was hastened by the fear, the conviction that the Communists would come back, and there may be a limited window to change the system. They did in the Supreme Soviet, attacked Yeltsin’s every proposal, undercutting and undermining him at every turn, forcing him to dump liberal Prime Minister Gaidar in Dec 92. Hack Gerashchenko at the Central Bank printed trillions of rubles, and the insatiable hunger for dollars to do business (ruble was not convertible) and to safeguard wealth led to a devastating hyperinflation. That more than anything caused 5 years of misery, as the entire country was pauperized, but it’s not definite that others could have avoided it. Allowing the oligarchs to loot the country wasn’t a fair charge- the exhausted state had to shed itself of obsolete industries and only the oligarchs had the money. They should have been sold in dollars, rather than the ridiculously undervalued ruble, to foreign companies, but that would have understandably aroused the ire of nationalists. As for corruption, he was personally pretty clean compared to the fortunes Putin cronies have accrued, and the good times now are directly attributable to Yeltsin dragging the country, kicking and screaming, into the free market and outside world.
For me, the struggle came to a head in March 1993, when the Congress forced Yeltsin into a referendum where he pledged to resign if he lost- a popularity test of reforms that had impoverished everyone in the country. The struggle had grown incredibly vicious- in Russia proteges don’t eclipse their mentors… they destroy them (like Yeltsin did Gorbachev): his own Veep and former ally Speaker of the Congress had turned against him. A few days before the vote, Yeltsin’s mother died, worn out by 6 months of apocalyptic tension- it had become a Greek tragedy. No one knew what the numbers were, and most thought Boris wouldn’t survive, and I stayed up all night doing a talk show with Seattle and writing and recording a radio commentary. When the numbers came in that morning, Boris had crushed them 2½ to 1, and I almost cried with relief and exhaustion. The hope would continue, and the people had not lost faith. Again and again they returned to endorse Yeltsin, because he had led them out of shadows so dark they’ve still have never been explored... or avenged.
Later there was the economic mismanagement, the careless Machiavellian firings of his government, the ’98 collapse, and finally the last terrible appointment of tough guy Putin to protect him. But when Yeltsin was President, this country, and the media were free, and we didn’t have to worry that the goons coming to hurt you came from the government. He presided over the collapse of the greatest empire on earth, which really was in many ways an evil empire, and he did so swiftly, decisively, courageously; with almost no bloodshed. No empire has ever collapsed without terrible wars. He, with Gorbachev, peacefully demobilized the nuclear standoff that could have killed 500 million people. That made him a historical giant, and it should be Yeltsin’s legacy. Godspeed, Boris.
Michael Hammerschlag spent 2 years in Russia 1991-1994 writing for every English language paper, and just returned. His commentaries + articles have appeared in Seattle Times, Providence Journal, Honolulu Advertiser, Columbia Journalism Review, Media Channel, Capital Times; and Moscow News, Tribune, Guardian, Times, and We/Mui. His website is HAMMERNEWS.com