Old Saint Basil's Cathedral in MoscowJohnson's Russia List title and scenes of Saint Petersburg
Excerpts from the JRL E-Mail Community :: Founded and Edited by David Johnson
#19 - JRL 2007-102 - JRL Home
Date: Thu, 3 May 2007
From: Michael Hammerschlag <mkham6@yahoo.com>
Subject: Death of a Bear... from Moscow

MOSCOW: April 25- I never saw the distant doddering sickly man he became, but Boris in his prime in 1991-94 was vibrant, lusty, fearless, brazen, and decisive; a bear from the Urals. He was simply a great man- and his failings were in many ways, the failings of many Russians themselves: the scheming, the flakiness, the imperiousness, the corruption. He was a man of the people. When he spoke into the camera on TV he connected in a deep visceral way with people who had never had any leader connect at all, just recite Communist homilies and stiff gibberish. He projected a sense of overwhelming decency and honor- hed seen all the brutality and cruelty of the system, and he wasnt abiding it anymore. Even his drinking, so unfairly lampooned in the foreign press, was a source of strength- Russians loved to drink and he was one of them.

To do what he did during the 91 Coup, get up on the tank and rally the whole country to defy the Putchists, took almost unimaginable courage- he was turning on the Party itself, which was the politics, economy, and religion of this country; and had murdered 20 million people. He wasnt immune- in fact the assassination order had already gone out, but the Alpha commandos had had enough with corrupt old men ordering people to die- some actually joined the Yeltsin side, and some tankers turned their tanks around to face outward. Such was the inspirational force of Yeltsin. When I arrived in Nov 91, the country was in a state of absolute euphoria, Yeltsin had just shut down the Communist Party, but there were still many ways they could destroy or kill him. A month later, he secretly met in the woods and unilaterally dissolved the empire borne of 1000 years of blood and imperialism, probably his biggest mistake. He somehow thought the problem was the Soviet Union and that Russia could be divorced from its crimes, but it was a Russian Communist empire, and an integrated economic whole that was shattered by the separation. On Christmas he took power in the Kremlin, Gorbachev swept away by the tidal forces hed unleashed, and within a week Yeltsin freed prices that had been set by government for 70 years.

There was no guide to changing a corrupt completely command economy- it had never been done, and in the shock therapy, he was ill served by American advisors, some of whom hoped Russia would fall to its knees. Thinking was hastened by the fear, the conviction that the Communists would come back, and there may be a limited window to change the system. They did in the Supreme Soviet, attacked Yeltsins every proposal, undercutting and undermining him at every turn, forcing him to dump liberal Prime Minister Gaidar in Dec 92. Hack Gerashchenko at the Central Bank printed trillions of unsupported rubles, and the insatiable hunger for dollars to do business and to safeguard wealth led to a devastating hyperinflation. That more than anything caused 5 years of misery, as the entire country was pauperized, but its not definite that others could have avoided it. Allowing the oligarchs to loot the country wasnt a fair charge- the exhausted state had to shed itself of obsolete industries and only the oligarchs had the money. They should have been sold in dollars, rather than the ridiculously undervalued ruble, to foreign companies, but that would have understandably aroused the ire of nationalists. As for corruption, he was personally pretty clean compared to the fortunes current cronies have accrued, and the good times now are directly attributable to Yeltsin dragging the country, kicking and screaming, into the free market and outside world. Boris never had the sky high oil prices that have fueled this booming but distorted economy.

For me, the struggle came to a head in March 1993, when the Congress forced Yeltsin into a referendum where he pledged to resign if he lost- a popularity test of reforms that had impoverished everyone in the country. The struggle had grown incredibly vicious- in Russia proteges dont eclipse their mentors they destroy them (like Yeltsin did Gorbachev): his own Veep and former ally Speaker of the Congress had turned against him. A few days before the vote, Yeltsins mother died, worn out by 6 months of apocalyptic tension- it had become a Greek tragedy. No one knew what the numbers were, and most thought Boris wouldnt survive, and I stayed up all night doing a talk show with Seattle and writing and recording a radio commentary. When the poll numbers came in that morning, Boris had crushed them 2 to 1, and I almost cried with relief and exhaustion. The hope would continue, and the people had not lost faith. Again and again they returned to endorse Yeltsin, because he had led them out of shadows so dark theyve still have never been explored... or avenged.

Later there was the economic mismanagement, the careless Machiavellian firings of his government, the 98 collapse, and finally the last terrible appointment of tough guy Putin to protect him (ironically because of the virulence of his enemies, which Putin simply doesn't allow). But when Yeltsin was President, this country, and the media were free, and we didnt have to worry that the goons coming to hurt you came from the government. He presided over the collapse of the greatest empire on earth, which really was in many ways an evil empire; and he did so swiftly, decisively, courageously... with almost no bloodshed. No empire has ever collapsed without terrible wars. He, with Gorbachev, peacefully demobilized the nuclear standoff that could have killed 500 million people. That made him a historical giant, and it should be Yeltsins legacy. Godspeed, Boris.

Michael Hammerschlag spent 2 years in Russia 1991-1994 writing for every English language paper, and just returned. His commentaries + articles have appeared in Seattle Times, Providence Journal, Honolulu Advertiser, Columbia Journalism Review, Media Channel, Capital Times; and Moscow News, Tribune, Guardian, Times, and We/Mui. His website is HAMMERNEWS.com.