I’ve seen several people repeat verbatim a weird talking point about Yeltsin, so I want to clarify what he was because I was there when it all happened.
Gorbachev and Yeltsin were the best thing to happen to Russia since Stolypin. Gorbachev, with all of his massive mistakes (see earlier post) made the collapse of the USSR possible. He clearly didn’t want it to happen but he set it in motion unwittingly, and for that I will be eternally grateful. Not having to live in the USSR is worth anything.
Yeltsin was an alcoholic. Being a raging drunk is a big defect for any human being but for a politician who controls the nuclear codes of the world’s second largest nuclear power it’s unforgivable. He also falsified the election, which created an enormous cynicism towards the democratic process. He did it for a great cause – to prevent Communists from coming to power again. But the ends don’t justify the means, and he sowed the tempest that eventually destroyed his life’s work.
Still, with all these gigantic flaws, his presidency was an enormous gift to Russia and to the world. Contrary to today’s propaganda, the 1990s were an amazing time for Russia. (And less so but still great for Ukraine, too). Yes, the transition from socialism to capitalism was painful. How could it possibly not have been? How easy can it be to get 260 million people to accept individual responsibility and learn self-reliance? How do you easily teach them to make money when they hadn’t had to do it for several generations? When everybody with a whiff of entrepreneurial spirit had been physically exterminated? Of course, it’s going to be painful and harsh and dispiriting.
But with all that. . . Oh, the freedom. There was finally freedom. All of a sudden, there was the life of the mind, right in the open. I happen to think that being able to read, write, speak, worship, and argue freely is the most important thing ever. I don’t think that “bare life” (which means the capacity to keep yourself functioning on a primitive biological level) is really life. It’s better than being dead but it’s a sad, miserable existence.
When nobody can do things to you against your will because suddenly you are entitled to have a will of your own – it’s a magical, magical transformation. I have tears in my eyes as I write this because this memory will never fade. Being able to say, “I don’t agree” or “I’m not going to do it and you can’t make me” is a wonderful gift that nobody should take for granted. Unfortunately, many people get so maimed by captivity that a guaranteed portion of stale bread is more valuable than the freedom to make your own bread, butter, and caviar. Those are the people who complain about the post-Soviet nineties.
Russia’s creative class is so much more intelligent and profound and sarcastic in the best possible way than any other creative class I have seen anywhere else. These folks are deep. And erudite. And when in the 1990s they were finally allowed to speak freely, gosh, it was good. The intellectual effervescence was contagious. Even I considered, for a short period of time, emigrating to Russia and not the West because it was just so. . . alive. Ukraine was a suffocating hellhole clinging to the relics of the Soviet era at that time. It was still a million times better than during the USSR, obviously, but it would take until 2013 for the democratic Ukraine to be born, and that was much earlier than I expected.
Yeltsin believed in democracy and civil liberties. He wanted Russia to be a modern, democratic country. However, the oligarchy had already been created before he came to power. There were seven oligarchs, all put in place by the Soviet secret police. They didn’t like Yeltsin because he was unpredictable and hard to control. They had something on him because they were the ones who had helped him falsify the election. But still, he was an impetuous, hard-headed person and a drunk. He had to be removed.
Once Yeltsin was pushed out, the oligarchs installed a figurehead, a weak, mousy fellow with no charisma, no personality, and no ideas. That was Putin. Eventually, the seven oligarchs started in-fighting. One wanted the other one’s properties, and so on. The stronger oligarchs made Putin get rid of the weaker ones, and then instead of the initial 7 there were 4. Then 3. Then a new one came in the mix. And so on.
The important thing to remember is that they are all figureheads to a large extent. Several years ago, I wrote a series of posts about these oligarchs, demonstrating that they had all worked for the KGB in small, insignificant roles. Just like Putin himself. They were chosen to pose as “oligarchs” and “president” because they were already KGB pawns and because of their ethnicity (most oligarchs were Jewish and Putin is Russian). They are all nothing burgers who serve to hide the real powers behind the scenes. If you are a Russian speaker, listen to Putin speak and you’ll know in two seconds that he’s an uneducated, low-IQ pawn. He’s not a grey eminence. He’s a grey non-entity.
At the behest of their handlers, Putin and the oligarchs have been advancing a globalist, neoliberal agenda. If you want to make a lifelong enemy, tell a Russian nationalist that you believe Putin to be a nationalist. Russian nationalists detest him. He’s an open-borders mass-migration president like no others. Over half of first-graders in Moscow don’t speak Russian. Can you guess how that happened? Yes, Putin wouldn’t establish a visa regime with South Asia because he likes to drag around a docile, cheap labor force. Remind you of anything?
The freedom of speech or of protest or of association has been violently destroyed in Russia. Intellectuals were killed, maimed, silenced, or driven out of the country. There’s no more free press. And gosh, did they have an amazing free press in the nineties, or what. You have no idea how great it was.
Sorry for a long post but I get carried away when I think about the fall of the USSR. It was the most important good event of the twentieth century. It was everything. But it got pissed away pretty darn fast. Please think twice before you crap all over the people who demolished it. And twice more before you praise those who want to bring it back.
8 thoughts on “Yeltsin and Putin”
This brought tears to my eyes, too. Thank you.
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It’s also kind of scary to consider that we are losing our freedom. Handing it away out of neurotic fear. What a mistake.
Once again, I truly appreciate your perspective on the fall of the USSR and the affect it had on countries like Ukraine. I am strongly supportive of our freedoms yet still find myself taking them for granted at times. Could you recommend a book (in English…) that documents the fall and the effect on the Soviet or Ukrainian people?
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Im glad you liked it!
I never read any books about it because I lived it, so there’s no need, you know? Maybe somebody here can recommend?
Was there any great Russian literature from around that time?
No, absolutely nothing. Not in Russian, not in Ukrainian. It was too soon after totalitarianism.
What a beautiful post — I enjoyed it so much, and second the request for the book. If no one else, you should write it for your next book project 🙂
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Thank you for the lesson, very interesting and much appreciated. I had forgotten about Yeltsin but not Gorbachev.
It seems like it’s open borders (or near to it) all the way down unfortunately. Australia has been running mass migration since the ’90’s no matter which party held power. It was how we had our “amazing” 30 years without a recession – GDP always up, GDP per capita always down.
Also slave labour and votes.