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#13 - JRL 2007: Boris Yeltsin Special Issue - JRL Home
Russia Profile
April 24, 2007
Already A Part of History
Blog by Andrei Zolotov, Jr.

LONDON. The news of Boris Yeltsins sudden death came at the Russian Economic Forum in London in the middle of the session called appropriately for the moment A Look Back Over the Last Ten Years: How Has Russia Changed? Just moments before the announcement, a former British ambassador to Russia, a well-known fiction writer, a glossy magazine editor, a publicity-hungry lawyer and two investment bankers were taking turns giving the audience their mixed picture of Russias perilous progress over the past decades, trying to explain how graphs of economic development and a 72 times capitalization growth rate related to the complaints about shrinking democracy and increasing government control.

After the panelists spoke, it was question time, and Boris Makarenko of the Center for Political Technologies took the microphone and said that he had just received news from Moscow that Yeltsin had died. There was a collective sigh in the hall, but Makarenko continued with his question and, minutes later, only when it was answered by the panelists, the moderator, former British ambassador to Russia Sir Roderick Lyne, asked the hall to stand in silence. We all did, thinking, of course, about the man who left a huge mark on Russias modern history, who affected the lives of us all and whose time in office as Russias first president had been scrutinized during this panel.

Outside the hall, one of Yeltsins favorite young politicians, former Deputy Prime Minister Boris Nemtsov, was already granting interviews both by phone and to the many journalists in attendance here.

He did a lot for me personally, Nemtsov said. And not just for me, but for millions of my compatriots. He let them realize themselves, liberated them from the Soviet lifestyle (sovok), KGB domination(chekism). In this sense, he was of course a great man, and I am convinced he will go down in history as such a great man. He hated censorship and today we have a 100 percent censorship. He tolerated the opposition, today it has been destroyed. He was for the development of the regions and federated relations, and today we have none. He supported local self-government, today it is destroyed too. It is sad, but a fact: His successor has been destroying all that he had worked for. The best tribute of memory to Yeltsin would be if we liberate Russia from slavery.

I felt like asking Nemtsov about what was it in Yeltsin and Yeltsins Russia that led to the post-Yeltsin period. Vladimir Putins Russia has become largely a reaction to the 1990s, a negation of Yeltsins policies. But Nemtsov was clearly moved, hiding his personal emotions behind declarations more fit for an opposition rally, and he swiftly left.

Lyne, who met Yeltsin a number of times as an advisor to former British Prime Minister John Major, offered a more thoughtful reflection.

In the early 1990s, his relations to Western leaders like the prime minister and German Chancellor Helmut Kohl helped lay the foundations of a new stability in Europe. I think one has to recall the huge contribution that he made to the freedom of all Russians, to the ability of Russians to express themselves, to travel, to read what they wanted, to think what they wanted. He himself was very tolerant of personal criticism.

He will go down in history as a man who showed extraordinary personal courage at the time of the 1991 coup. He led the resistance to the last attempt by the old guard of the KGB and the Communist Party to thwart the progress of Russians towards the end of communism, and he could well have sacrificed his life in that attempt. Given his huge legacy, I think he will be greatly respected in the history of the Russian people, and I think his leadership made a very big contribution to the peace of Europe and the peace of the world. And thats a pretty fine record.

Didnt he make mistakes by giving too much to the oligarchs? a journalist from Agence France-Presse (AFP) asked. The situation that he inherited in Russia was perhaps the most difficult situation that any peacetime leader had to face, Lyne answered. You have to remember that it was a country that went from being a superpower of 250 million people to being a bankrupt country of 150 million that had to define a new economic system, a new political system, new relationships with its neighbors, new relations with the rest of the world all at one time, and this was a huge country with nuclear weapons. And to manage this process without any mistakes would be to ask for the wisdom of Solomon.

He managed to steer Russia through this difficult period and, of course, like any leader, he made mistakes. But I think his overall record will be seen as positive because Russia did not fall apart.

In the early 1990s, we were all terrified that there would be a civil war in Russia, that there could very possibly be conflict on a very wide scale along Russias borders that would result in substantial bloodshed. No other empire has ended with so little life lost. And for all that went wrong in the 1990s, this all was managed without major conflict. There were smaller conflicts. I think one of the biggest mistakes Yeltsin made was to get involved in the first conflict in Chechnya. I think he was pushed into it by some advisors of a very hard line type and I think he regretted their advice.

I asked what was it about Yeltsins rule that created not just an alternative, but a clear reaction. This question was emotionally wrong for the moment, but it seemed to me like this was missing in all the eulogizing.

I think to say reaction is right, Lyne said. I think it is partly a continuation. After all, Putins rule takes place under the 1993 Constitution that Yeltsin introduced after the confrontation with parliament. And it is a Constitution that puts absolute power in the hands of the presidency. So when people criticize the absence of democracy in Russia, it is actually a system that Yeltsin brought in reaction to the perhaps excesses of democracy in the early phase of transition. Obviously, the 1990s was a time of massive instability in Russia, when the economy collapsed twice and a lot of regions took too much power in their own hands and were governed very badly. There was anarchy, there was very little respect for law. It was an incredibly difficult period for the Russian people. At the end of it, they were yearning not for what was sold to them under the label of democracy; they were desperate for stability. This was a reaction to the period of great instability. That reaction has probably swung too far in the direction of control and the vertical of power. And I think the pendulum will somewhere in the near future swing back to the middle point.

But I come back again and again to the enormous scale and depth of the transition: the collapse of the empire without a warning. People knew the command economy wasnt working, but they didnt know that the country would collapse. And so it is remarkable not that there was a 10-year period of instability after the collapse, but that the instability wasnt worse, because thats what we all feared in the early 1990s.

It is hard to disagree with Lyne. Yeltsin is indeed a figure of great scale and a real talent, a person who left the biggest mark on our countrys modern history on par with Mikhail Gorbachev. What was interesting here at the forum was that the shock over the news was very short lived. Minutes later, the business talk and salon buzz of who is in and who is out, who is up and who is down and which party to go to went on as usual. It would be wrong to say that the news of the death of the person without whom this entire forum and the very existence of Russian business class would be radically different, has had a major effect on the flow of the Russian elites annual picnic on the Thames. An event whose only diversity this year was a large number of last-minute cancellations by the government ministers in a move widely attributed to negative signals from the Kremlin.

Is this such an insensitive crowd?

Probably not. The answer is likely that by the time of his death, Yeltsin already belonged to history. And, paraphrasing a bit Russian pianist Svyatoslav Richters reaction to the death of the great composer Sergei Prokofiev, we are not shocked by the fact that Peter the Great, Alexander II or Lenin are actually dead.