Autopsies for the USSR

Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Fri Jan 12 09:56:23 MST 2001

[Dusko Doder is an anticommunist skunk, but I suppose that is par for the
course at the Nation Magazine nowadays.]


BORIS YELTSIN: Midnight Diaries

PETER REDDAWAY AND DMITRI GLINSKI: The Tragedy of Russia's Reforms: Market
Bolshevism Against Democracy

ROY MEDVEDEV: Post-Soviet Russia: A Journey Through the Yeltsin Era

PAUL KLEBNIKOV: Godfather of the Kremlin: Boris Berezovsky and the Looting
of Russia

Russia's Potemkin Leader


Modern Russian history, as taught by Clinton Administration spin doctors
and Op-Ed pundits, holds that Boris Yeltsin dismembered the Soviet Union
and set Russia on a historic path to democracy and a market economy. The
Russians were eager to follow their first "duly elected" leader. They
idolized ;the West and they willingly surrendered their values and their
dreams--at least the "new Russians" did, a term that apparently is confined
to a segment of the newly rich Muscovites. Year after year we were told
that Yeltsin's reforms were changing the face of his land--witness the
number of Mercedes and the evidence of breathtaking conspicuous
consumption. A few years ago, shortly after I checked in to one of the new
luxury hotels in Moscow, I was told that each Friday I could avail myself
of fresh lobster flown in from Canada that very day! Western experts
advising Yeltsin's "young reformers" on how to proceed were optimistic. I
was given a stern lecture by one of them, an economist from Sweden, for
suggesting that conditions in the country appeared catastrophic in
comparison to the days of Communist rule.

The Yelstin legend took hold; he was Clinton's icon for a new Russia. From
the moment he stood on a tank in August 1991 to face down an attempted
Communist coup, Yeltsin was championed by the West as Russia's great hope.
He was an appealing figure, athletic, always neatly dressed. He publicly
boasted of his friendships with Bill Clinton and other Western politicians.
He was a man to do business with, the Kremlin leader whose government was
no longer a threat, whose human failings were on display for all to see.
Who could forget Clinton's uproarious laughter as he tried to defuse
Yeltsin's drunken diatribes during their summit at the Roosevelt museum in
Hyde Park? Or the inebriated Yeltsin snatching the baton from the conductor
of the Berlin Police Band and proceeding to conduct himself? Little
attention was given to Yeltsin's tanks pounding his "duly elected"
Parliament or to his policy in Chechnya. The Clinton Administration
publicly encouraged Yeltsin to disband the Parliament because a solid
majority of deputies wanted to pursue reforms more slowly. Several months
before he actually moved against the legislature, a senior US official told
the New York Times that "if Yeltsin suspends an antidemocratic parliament,
it is not necessarily an antidemocratic act." Later, while Russian planes,
tanks and artillery rained death on the Chechen capital of Grozny, Clinton
saw fit to compare Yeltsin to Abraham Lincoln. Even when Yeltsin's entire
economic reform program came crashing down in 1998, Vice President Gore
voiced the opinion that "optimism prevails universally among those who are
familiar with what is going on in Russia."

In short, the Clinton Administration hitched its Russia policy to Yeltsin's
fortunes. Yeltsin's critics in Russia were dismissed as "dark forces"
seeking Communist restoration or worse. There is a simple explanation.
Heavily dependent on Western loans and subsidies, Yeltsin was always
prepared to render services to Washington, provided he was handled with
great sensitivity and accorded even greater public respect. He proved
accommodating in Bosnia and again in Kosovo.

But for most Russians, Yeltsin's rule was a social and economic disaster.
They viewed him--not without good reason--as being completely dependent on
Washington, where the US Treasury and the International Monetary Fund are
located. These institutions were a primary influence on his behavior and
the often violent and self-destructive course he followed.

When he suddenly resigned on New Year's Eve a year ago, Yeltsin left his
successor an impoverished state with few features of democracy and many
more of authoritarianism. It is too early to assess properly the true
meaning and consequences of his rule. But figures indicate that it wreaked
far greater damage on Russia's economy than the Nazi invasion and World War
II. Russia's gross domestic product between 1991 and 1998 declined by 43
percent, compared with the Soviet GDP decline of 24 percent from 1941 to

Behind this figure lurks a dramatic decline in living standards. An
estimated 40 percent of the population lives in poverty--a tenfold increase
since the collapse of Communism. Yeltsin's policies have had a catastrophic
effect on health, education and social programs. Rising infant mortality,
declining life expectancy and spreading infectious diseases have produced a
negative population growth that is obscured in part by the steady stream of
ethnic Russians returning from the outlying parts of the former Soviet
Union (by 1995, Russia's population had declined by some 2 million).
Agriculture remains comatose--Russia today imports 55 percent of its food
supply. Officially, unemployment is about 12 percent, but the real figure
is estimated to be between 20 and 25 percent (there are about 11 million
Russians of working age who are listed as "missing"). The average daily
food intake today is 2,100 calories, less than the minimum recommended by
the World Health Organization; in the 1980-85 period, the average intake
was 3,400.

None of these troubling issues are to be found in Yeltsin's Midnight
Diaries. Memoir writers of course want to present themselves in the best
possible light, and Yeltsin is no exception. He portrays himself as the
leader who set Russia on a new course, gave it political stability and
secured a peaceful transfer of power. Under his leadership Russia has
joined the exclusive club of the eight most advanced industrial nations in
the world.

What seems most remarkable about this Panglossian version of one of the
most turbulent decades in Russia's history is its tenuous relation to
reality. The disastrous reform program and the failure to introduce the
rule of law, to the extent that they are touched upon at all in this book,
are presented with serene detachment--Yeltsin writes about such things as
though they had nothing to do with him.

Complete review:

Louis Proyect
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