Monday, April 23, 2007


"Human affairs never stand still for long. Innumerable small, everyday and almost unnoticed changes have a way of undermining existing patterns of behavior and belief until a single individual's action or a single public event may suddenly trigger rapid and far-reaching alterations in the public life of millions or, in in our day, hundreds of millions of people. The Oath of the Tennis Court was such an event in 1789; Lenin was such a triggerman in 1917; and now 200 years after the French Revolution, Mikhail Gorbachev has initiated changes that may well tourn out to be comparatively important even though they hav not yet provoked much revolutionary violence".

William Hardy McNeill, "Winds of Change", in Foreign Affairs (Fall 1990).

"Boris Yeltsin, who has died at the age of 76, secured his place in history by precipitating the end of the Soviet Union and becoming Russia’s first elected president. But by the end of his reign, he had fumbled the founding of the democratic, free-market economy that had been his dream.

Boris Yeltsin had the physical and moral strength to bear on his shoulders the colossal burden of a country in a ferment of transition, its economy struggling with the twin tasks of discarding a tenacious old system and adjusting to an unfamiliarly fast-moving new one. At the beginning of his rule he was able to grasp, either instinctively or through a quick intelligence, much of what was required. But lacking discipline and consistency, he did not set in place, much less sustain, the necessary policies to see his insights through. Increasingly he was forced to observe a country unable, in his period, to reform itself in a coherent way....

For a time Yeltsin really did seem to be, as he once boasted, irreplaceable. By the time he resigned, on New Year’s Eve 1999, he clearly was not. The conflict in Chechnya had not been solved, the rotting away of the military had not been confronted, the power of the oligarchs was untrammelled; and the indiscipline, corruption and inertia at every level of bureaucracy was probably greater than during Soviet days, when the party could sometimes act as a disciplining force. But the failures, which were obvious and grave, must be set against what was a triple breakdown – in the Communist party; in the Soviet central-command economy; and in the imperial boundaries. All three of these sustaining principles and practices crumbled more or less simultaneously: and Yeltsin was, even more than Mr Gorbachev, at the epicentre of the collapse.

It is at least arguable that a stronger hand, wielded in the manner strong hands have always been wielded in Russia, could have been counter productive – inhibiting a destruction that was often necessary, even if necessarily painful. Boris Yeltsin left his successors a constitutional base, the early infrastructure of a market economy and the beginnings of a civil society that he himself had never tried to suppress. He had permitted the flowering of a more or less free media; more or less free travel; and more or less free politics – processes that absorbed many of the energies of active Russians, even if much of this energy was devoted to survival. A man from the people, he rose far above them, appeared often indifferent to them – but probably always wished to improve their lot and broaden their horizons. And he probably did
". 23 April 2007, John Lloyd in

The two quotes are apposite inasmuch as one omits completely mention of the man who passed away today, and, the other one, bearly mentions at all, the man who has not yet passed away. What a difference a mere seventeen years makes in terms of perspective! When the famous American historian William McNeill, was writing for his elite audience, Mikhail Gorbachev was without a doubt the man of the hour. Yeltsin, insofar as he was known at all, was the 'maverick Communist'. An eccentric off-shoot of the Gorbachev revolution from above. Who with his dismissal from the Politburo and Moskva Party Chiefdom, seemd to have become 'yesterday's man'. Such was the consensus, circa the Spring and Fall of anno domini 1990. And, yet within one year's time, it was Gorbachev, who was suddenly, and swiftly shunted aside, as merely 'yesterday's man'. And, it was Boris Yeltsin, who had become the man of the hour. A position which was in essence secured by his heroic stance taken against the opera bouffe coup d'etat, launched in August 1991. Yeltsin's position was further cemented by his whirlwind decision, taken, one may gather, like many of his decisions, in an impulsive and not very thought-out way, to dissolve tout `a coup, Sovietskaya Vlast. Similarly, one may gather, that the decision to proceed with economic 'shock therapy' was approved by Yeltsin, without much in the way of a consideration of the consequences of this momentous decision.

In short, Yeltsin, as a politician, as a man of government (one forbears from calling him a 'statesman'), had the disadvantages of his advantages, and vice `a versa. An instinctual politician, who seemingly at times was able to read the way that the political winds were blowing, in a way that the much more intelligent and disciplined, Gorbachev was not; Yeltsin, singularly failed to carry through, to institutionalize in any seemingly functional fashion, his revolution from above. One hesitates in stating if it was more of a question of incapacity, or perhaps more poignantly, au fond, one of those cases, where the man of action, who has destroyed and defeated his enemies (one thinks of Timurlane), is uttely incapable of building anything positive from his previous victories. Whichever case it was, it was Yeltsin's incapacity to govern the nation, which even apres the end of Sovietskaya Vlast, still covers 1/6th of the earth's surface, which has more than anything else, imprinted itself on the mind of his countrymen. In a way perhaps which is almost beyond comprehension by the Western public, either European or American, the Russia that Yeltsin governed was almost without question, a disaster for the average Russian citizen. Living standards and incomes collapsed, seemingly overnight. Whole industries, were suddenly made redundant. And, of course subsequently, purchased for a song, almost literally. By a small group of men, who prior to 1991, were completely unknown to the entire country. Many of them of them with Polskii last names....

Indeed, by 1996 to all intents and purposes the entire country appeared to have been bought and sold to a small clique of individuals, who notwithstanding the occasional bits of charity and even (later on) idealism, were without a doubt, absolutely ruthless in acquiring both money, and much in the way of political power as well. By this time of course, Yeltsin, was much more of a bystander, of the goings on, in the Kremlin, an object, rather than a subject, acted upon, it would appear rather than acting. Confidence in the government of course essentially collapsed with the Banking crisis of 1998. It only re-emerging with the rise to power of Vladmir Putin in 1999. An event in which it would appear that Yeltsin again played only an indirect role, with it widely supposed that it was the then supreme oligarch, Boris Beresovsky who picked Putin to be Yeltsin's anointed successor. With his surprise New Year's Eve resignation, and simultaneous appointment of Putin to succeed him, it can be claimed that nothing became Yeltsin in government, as his leaving of it...

For the diplomatic observer and historian, what one makes of the Yeltsin era is rather simple: it represented the utter collapse of Russian power, in a way that perhaps only in the aftermath of the treaty of Brest-Litovsk, and, when the troops of Sigismund II Vasa were in Moskva, can it be compared. The colossus of the second Superpower, who seemingly the day before was without question, accepted as part of the diplomatic landscape, suddenly without warning disappeared. Obviously, the beginnings of the debacle began under Gorbachev. What occurred under Yeltsin, was that a retreat, a disorderly and not well-thought out retreat, but a retreat still, became a rout, pur et simple. Postions of Russian power, for hundreds of years, were overnight, given up, without almost anything in the way of a quid pro quo. It is of course true, that in such revolutionary situations, when all appears to be lost, and when the natural inclination is sauve qui peut, that such monstrous changes take place. And, perhaps even a much greater man than Boris Yeltsin, could not have in reality changed matters for the better. However, it is the case that Yeltsin was in (nominally) in charge. And, the policy to windup Sovietskaya Vlast in the late summer and fall of 1991, was very much his handiwork. With results that even at this vantage point, appear to be so momentous, that serious historians have not yet been able to fully absorb them. Notwithstanding which, it was Yeltsin and his foreign minister, Aleksandr Kozyrev, who enabled via their policy of immediate and needless concessions, to convert a world of American primacy, into one of out and out American hegemony. A hegemony which as can be seen in Iraq today, has not been used either wisely or well.

In short, the Yeltsin era of Russian diplomacy, like the Yeltsin era of Russian domestic policy was one of a grand debacle. In which the possibilities opened up, by the needed downfall of Sovietskaya Vlast were neither pursued nor even really attempted. To draw negative conclusions on the day that a man, a renowned man has passed away is never pleasant. One never likes to break with the admonition of: 'de mortius nil nisi bonum', however such is the Yeltsin legacy, that one is inclined to do little else. Especially of course, once his needed work of destruction was completed by September 1991. After that point, Yeltsin's talents were of precisely the wrong variety, and it was this personal incapacity, more than anything else, which pre-determined the agony of the next eight years. Both for himself and for the Russian narod.


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