The era of Boris Yeltsin, who died in April, was a time of lost opportunity. Yeltsin led the revolution that overthrew the Soviet Union. But his attempt to build democracy in Russia was a failure, in no small measure because, mesmerized by the success of the West, he was determined to create democracy by force.
In some respects, Yeltsin was one of history’s great benefactors. Expelled from the party leadership after he made a speech in 1987 denouncing the slow pace of Soviet reform, he became a martyr in the eyes of the public. And with the help of the first free elections, he emerged as the leader of the opposition to the regime. The movement he led brought a peaceful end to 73 years of communist rule.
The fall of communism, however, was only one of the goals that faced Russia in the 1990s. The second and equally important goal was the creation of a reliable democracy. Amid the fall of communism, Yeltsin put himself in charge of an existing movement that had swept the whole country; in building what came next the decisions he made were his alone. And those decisions ultimately spelled disaster.
It is this failure that explains why Yeltsin will be little mourned in Russia; his popularity rating at the end of his second term hovered around 2 percent. When Russians are asked to explain Vladimir Putin’s popularity today, they inevitably refer to the chaos and criminality of the Yeltsin years. This also explains why they have lost faith in “democracy,” a loss that places a huge burden on Russia’s dwindling band of human rights activists.
The country that Yeltsin inherited after the fall of the Soviet Union was spiritually disoriented. After 4,000 years of civilization, the communists rejected not only God but any intuitive sense of right and wrong. “Right” was what served the working class. Under those circumstances, Russia’s most pressing need was to re-establish the authority of universal moral values, which could be achieved only by establishing the rule of law.
Yeltsin, however, and the small group of economists who advised him, decided that Russia’s most urgent priority was to put state-owned property immediately into private hands, even if those hands were criminal. In this, they were fully supported by the United States. The result was the pillaging of the country and the rise in Russia of the present KGB dictatorship.
Foreigners, viewing Russia from the outside and impressed by the country’s new freedoms, were often unaware of the crime and wrenching poverty that overwhelmed ordinary citizens. All property was in the hands of the government; money was in the hands of black-market operators and gangsters. Without legal safeguards, criminals acquired property by bribing state officials. The biggest criminals became oligarchs and, with their newfound wealth, pillars of the government.
Russians watched with astonishment as the wealth created by the combined efforts of the entire population was parceled out to well-placed insiders on the strength of corrupt connections. The new owners proceeded to strip the assets of the factories and mines they had acquired, and the economy collapsed. In 1992–98, the Russian gross domestic product fell by half. This had not happened even under Nazi occupation.
One consequence was that Russians stopped receiving their wages. By January 1, 1998, wage arrears had reached 13 percent of the total money mass—$8 billion at the official rate of exchange. Official statistics even introduced the heading “wage arrears”; to ward off starvation, factory workers who had gone months without salaries began growing their own food.
Perhaps most important, the spiritual crisis in Russia deepened. Communist ideology was based on a set of antivalues designed to facilitate state-sanctioned murder and justify totalitarian rule. At the same time, however, those values defined a worldview that gave each individual a sense that he was working for the good of humanity and that his life had meaning. The revelations of glasnost showed that the communist worldview was based on lies, but offered nothing to take its place. After the fall of the Soviet Union, people hoped for democracy; instead, they found themselves ruled by bribe-takers and gangsters. The result was widespread despair.
From 1992 to 1994, the rise in Russia’s death rate was so dramatic that Western demographers did not believe the figures. The toll from murder, suicide, heart attacks, and accidents gave Russia the death rate of a country at war; Western and Russian demographers now agree that between 1992 and 2000, the number of “surplus deaths” in Russia—deaths that cannot be explained on the basis of previous trends—was between five million and six million.
Under these circumstances, Yeltsin became an unpopular and even hated figure in Russia. But even in light of the disastrous toll of reform, one could argue that, in his policy decisions, Yeltsin had good intentions. No such argument is possible about the means by which Yeltsin and his entourage engineered the choice of his successor.
By 1999, it had become clear that barring extraordinary events, no candidate associated with Yeltsin had a chance of being elected president. This meant the results of the dishonest division of property in the country would almost certainly be re-examined. For those close to Yeltsin, this promised not only the loss of their ill-gotten gains, but prison or worse.
As it happened, events intervened. In September 1999, four apartment buildings were blown up in Moscow, Buinaksk, and Volgodonsk, killing 300 people as they slept. The explosions were attributed to Chechens, and, with the public galvanized in support, the authorities launched a new invasion of Chechnya. Putin, the virtually unknown former head of the Federal Security Service (FSB) who had been named prime minister, was put in charge of the campaign.
The war achieved some early gains, successfully diverting Russians’ attention from the pillaging of the country. Overnight, Putin became a national hero and was elected president. His first official act was to pardon Yeltsin and the members of his family for all crimes committed in office and to announce that the results of privatization would not be reconsidered.
A fifth bomb, however, was planted in a basement in Ryazan, southeast of Moscow. In that case, the bomb did not go off. Quick-thinking residents called the local police. The bombers were arrested and were found to be agents of the FSB.
Yeltsin, a man of boundless energy and determination, was a contradictory figure. His fight against the Soviet system was motivated not only by a personal desire for revenge but also by a vision of a better life. At the same time, however, he shared the core assumption of the communist worldview—that the individual has no value compared with the goals of the state. This was what undercut the democracy he hoped to build and prepared the way for the KGB-FSB government that exists today.
In the aftermath of Yeltsin’s death, many, particularly in the United States, have tried to draw a distinction between democracy under Yeltsin and authoritarianism under Putin. This distinction is false. Democracy implies a rule of law that did not exist under Yeltsin. Moreover, Putin was Yeltsin’s handpicked successor. He never would have become president were it not for the criminality of the Yeltsin years and the apartment bombings that led to the second Chechen war.
The emancipation of Russia and its descent back into authoritarianism are both part of Yeltsin’s legacy. Fate put him at the head of a movement that did great good—but he proved incapable of guaranteeing his country a better future. In the end, his life is a sober illustration of the necessity of uprooting the communist inheritance in Russia and of how deep that legacy runs.