Yeltsin: the West’s hero-turned-scapegoat

From ‘warrior for democracy’ to drunken buffoon: the former Russian president’s reputation was made and broken by Western pundits.

James Heartfield

Topics Politics

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For all the claims that Boris Yeltsin, the former Russian President who died yesterday, led Russia towards a new dawn of democracy, in fact in the 1990s Yeltsin’s reputation was continually made and broken by Western pundits.

Having loyally served the Soviet state, Yeltsin became an enthusiastic supporter of First Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev’s reforms in the 1980s. Seeing that Gorbachev was too close to the old order, Yeltsin resigned from the Communist Party and created his own power base in the Russian Federation. When the outgoing Communist leaders attempted a coup to prevent the breakaway of the Baltic republics, Yeltsin seized the moment and defended the Russian parliament while Gorbachev was held, impotently, under house arrest. Yeltsin’s advice to the Soviet Republics to seize as much independence as they could put the seal on the collapse of the USSR, and began the modern era of Russia, part of a looser Confederation of Independent States.

Yeltsin’s embrace of market reforms and collaboration with the West endeared him to then US President Bill Clinton, but did not secure the support of the Russian people. In 1993 the Russian parliament voted to impeach him, and rallied popular support, but the military – and decisively Western leaders – backed Yeltsin. The point made in the obituaries published today is right: Yeltsin sold off the Soviet state’s assets at giveaway prices, creating a new breed of ‘Oligarchs’. These chancers enriched themselves by taking advantage of the fact that with so little capital available for investment, the flotation of state assets would always go for bargain prices. Generally, it was whoever could establish sufficient trust to secure Western investment that won the pitifully small auctions. But while the price of assets was collapsing, the price of consumer goods went through the roof, and millions were impoverished.

This was the outcome of ‘shock therapy’ – the immediate imposition of market reforms on top of a so-called command economy. Today Yeltsin gets the blame for the disaster that arose. But top Western advisers like Jeffery Sachs and Anders Aslund were sent by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund to tell Yeltsin how to institute the market. He was their creature.

Liberalisation under Yeltsin was liberty hall, but the freedoms that were won had little consequence. Policies were simply unimportant, because the economy was in free-fall. Yeltsin tried to re-establish order by launching a war against the Chechens’ eccentric republic – but he managed even to lose that war.

He was, as many said, a drunk. But Yeltsin’s buffoonish character suited those Oligarchs, and Western politicians who needed a weakened Russian president to achieve the re-negotiation of international relations in the 1990s. Only when the disastrous impact of Russia’s decline began to hurt them were Yeltsin’s problems – already well-known to the Russian people – acknowledged by the elites here and there.

Yeltsin created the Oligarchs like Khordokhovsky (now in jail), Gusinsky and Berezovsky (exiled in London and currently a darling of the Guardian). But he also paved the way for his replacement Vladimir Putin – who had proved himself as an able administrator in St Petersburg. The superficial judgement on Yeltsin in London and Washington is fond indulgence because the West misses having a Russian president they can dictate terms to, yet very quickly they turn to blaming him for the problems they helped to foster in the new Russian republic.

James Heartfield is a writer based in London. Visit his website here.

Previously on spiked

James Heartfield argued that anti-Putin campaign group ‘Another Russia’ may have commanded the front pages of the Western press, but had failed to impress the Russian people. Brendan O’Neill discussed the international reaction to the 2002 Chechen rebel siege of a Moscow theatre in Russian to conclusions and explored Beslan: the real international connection. Julia Svetlichnaja and James Heartfield recalled their final interview with Alexander Litvinenko in Caught up in a new Cold War. Or read on at spiked issue Russia.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics


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