Yeltsin has gone mad

R.W. Davies

  • Midnight Diaries by Boris Yeltsin, translated by Catherine Fitzpatrick
    Phoenix, 409 pp, £8.99, April 2001, ISBN 0 7538 1134 0
  • Post-Soviet Russia: A Journey through the Yeltsin Era by Roy Medvedev, translated by George Shriver
    Columbia, 394 pp, £24.00, November 2000, ISBN 0 231 10606 8
  • Zagadka Putina by Roy Medvedev
    Prava cheloveka, 93 pp, US $8.00, March 2000, ISBN 5 7712 0126 X

Yeltsin’s first volume of autobiography, Against the Grain (1990), showed how he emerged from obscurity as a defender of democracy and social justice. In March 1989, against the wishes of Gorbachev and the Party bosses, he was elected Mayor of Moscow with nearly 90 per cent of the vote. In his second volume, The View from the Kremlin (1994), Yeltsin described how in June 1991 he became the first elected President of Russia. In August of that year – his greatest moment – he stood triumphantly on a tank outside the White House in defence of Gorbachev and democracy against the coup plotters. But over the next two years the struggle between President and Supreme Soviet culminated in his use of the military to suppress the members of the Soviet holed up in the White House in October 1993.

These were stirring times, and Yeltsin was at the centre of the stage. The latest volume of his autobiography begins with the State Duma elections of December 1995 and ends with his resignation from the Presidency four years later, a period known in Russia as ‘The Time of Troubles’, after the period of anarchy and foreign intervention in the first decade of the 17th century. By December 1995, Yeltsin’s fortunes were at a very low ebb. Production had already declined under Gorbachev; under Yeltsin the decline became a crisis. By 1995, in the course of the lurch towards a capitalist economy, national income and industrial production had fallen to about half their levels in 1990.

The privatisation of industry which accompanied this decline is graphically described by Roy Medvedev. At first, vouchers were issued, which were supposed to give every citizen an equal share of state property. This merely led to the transfer of industry into the hands of its old managers. Yeltsin then launched the so-called ‘monetary phase’ of privatisation. Its architect was Anatoly Chubais, the darling of many Western economists, but within Russia the most unpopular of all public figures. Yeltsin characterises him in retrospect as ‘an absolute Bolshevik in his temperament and approach’, while Medvedev dismisses him as an insolent and shameless ‘card sharp’. Chubais frankly stated that ‘the creation of private property was an absolute goal.’ By the end of 1995 most state industry had been sold off to a handful of financiers of doubtful origins. Yeltsin admits that ‘property was sold at bargain-basement prices,’ but claims that ‘privatisation had to be done quickly … in order to create a class of property owners.’ Boris Berezovsky, one of the most brazen of the financiers, described this achievement as ‘the rule of the seven bankers’ (semibankirshchina). This is a grimly amusing play on the notorious ‘rule of the seven nobles’ (semiboyarshchina) during the earlier Time of Troubles – the seven noble boyars took over the state from the Tsar in 1610, and were soon themselves thrown out by the invading Poles.

The rule of the financial ‘oligarchs’, as they are now universally known, was not benevolent. Yeltsin acknowledges that their rise took place in a climate of ‘corruption and theft’. Huge amounts of Russian capital were transferred to the West, and total investment in Russia fell by two thirds. Yeltsin’s first term as President saw a precipitate drop in the standard of living, a very sharp increase in social inequality and a marked decline in life expectancy. According to Chubais, the inequality was inevitable and even desirable: ‘you cannot expect everyone to live a comfortable, pleasant life,’ he declared. When he was accused of improperly accepting while in office a large honorarium for a book on privatisation, he contemptuously described it as ‘a paltry one hundred thousand dollar advance’. And Yeltsin, who had become popular as candidate for Mayor because he mixed with ordinary people on buses and tube trains, now lived like a king.

Yeltsin’s approval rating in the polls fell to 3 per cent. The Communists and their allies secured a majority of the seats in the December 1995 elections. Almost every observer thought that Yeltsin’s political career was over. Yet he was elected President for a second term in July 1996; and four years later secured the election of Putin, his chosen candidate for the Presidency. Midnight Diaries presents Yeltsin’s view of this political double miracle. The book is an exercise in self-justification, but provides much revealing information along the way.

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