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The Real Boris Yeltsin: Democratic Reformer Or Brutal Dictator?

 "I suppose it all depends on whether or not you see your Vodka bottle as half-empty or half-full."

This post first appeared on Russia Insider

 In a few days Russians will mark 25 years since the fateful “August coup” in Moscow that would catapult Boris Yeltsin to world-wide fame and executive power.

Coincidentally, at the time Yeltsin was standing on top of a tank declaring himself as a defender of political reform, I was in Chicago“defending” my doctoral dissertation. Little did I know that only one year later I would be reporting Russian news as a broadcast journalist in Moscow and interviewing key players involved in the conflict between anti-Yeltsin pro-communist figures and pro-Yeltsin democracy advocates. Because of my position as a journalist in Moscow I was able to learn a great deal about “the real Boris Yeltsin”.

<figcaption>It was the worst of times...</figcaption>
It was the worst of times...

So let’s get to the key questions on this metaphysical matter…

 “Wasn’t Boris Nikolaevich an ethical, anti-corruption reformer?”  

Well…his humble origins are fairly well-known, but not many people outside of Russia are aware of the fact that hard-drinking Boris was a big-time Communist party boss out in Sverdlovsk in the 1980s where he did virtually nothing to hinder the activities of the local mafia. I learned from an article by Artyom Troitsky, that this was the most powerful mafia in the country and that Yeltsin essentially “looked the other way” as the local organized crime group engaged in massive illegal activities. 

This rather startling piece of news was supplemented by an even more surprising revelation from the loose lips of Elizabeth Susskind who was then Director of Estee Lauder in Russia. At a dinner/drinking party on the terrace of her elite apartment overlooking the Kremlin, Elizabeth confided to me that she had serious doubts Boris Yeltsin was actually the one calling the shots in the country. She told me of lines of black limousines with “Sverdlovsk license plates” entering the Kremlin gates late at night. Some years later I even heard the BBC Moscow correspondent openly doubting whether Yeltsin was “running the show”, specifically raising the issue of a covert shadow government on early morning radio.

If you add to the aforementioned the fact that Yeltsin not only allowed, but encouraged the now infamous sell-off of Russia's natural resources to pre-selected buyers at ridiculously low prices you probably arrive at a very uncomfortable conclusion.  Not to mention the “biggest robbery of the century” privatization scam.

“Wasn’t Boris the first democratic leader of Russia?”

In 1993, President Yeltsin – by now hostile to any and all opposition - aggressively confronted the democratically elected Congress of People’s Deputies which he saw as “obstructionist” despite the fact that the body passed nearly 80% of the bills Yeltsin put forward. (Note: an 80% passage rate would be an American president’s wet dream)

On September 21st Yeltsin would issue an executive act worthy of a very undemocratic Russian Tsar: Ukaz number 1400. This decree unilaterally abolished the legislative branch of government. Just to be clear – this is the equivalent of President Obama signing an uber executive order making the entire Congress disappear from the face of the earth.  The Supreme Court deemed the decree unconstitutional and so Yeltsin simply suspended the Judicial branch of government as well.

Eventually, Yeltsin would send in tanks and fighters to oust the protesting deputies and supporters holed up inside the congressional building. Eyewitnesses reported deaths in the hundreds although official figures hovered between 50 and 100. The American journalist Peter Khlebnikov published a stunning article about bodies piled into “bread” lorries and carted off to a monastery where the corpses were quickly cremated.

 In the end, Western governments approved of good old Boris’ actions. Bill Clinton – ejaculator-in-chief and president of the beacon of democracy – even applauded.

 “Wasn’t Boris the “defender of freedom” and liberator of oppressed republics?”  

For the Soviet republics- yes. But in December of 1994 Yeltsin autocratically and very unwisely unleashed a war against the “Russian republic” of Chechnya. This was not anything like the recent anti-terrorist operations that take place in the Caucasus.  In fact, over a two-year period up to 50,000 people died - most of them civilians! Not surprisingly, Chechens who suffered because of this war or who had friends and relatives killed by Russian bombs and missiles vowed revenge. To this day, Russia and Putin have had to deal with the terrorist blowback from this ill-thought out war intended to crush the spirit of freedom. Instead of the “defender of freedom” label the journalist Thomas de Waal suggested the title “butcher of Grozny”. Not all journalists were critical, however, as throughout Yeltsin’s early tenure some spoke of “creative destruction”. Was Chechnya just another broken egg to be added to the omelet?   

Looking through the glass prism of Russian history, then, how should we ultimately view the legacy of Yeltsin?  I suppose it all depends on whether or not you see your Vodka bottle as half-empty or half-full.

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