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Thursday, April 26, 2007

Remembering Yeltsin II: Zaxi Blog

The billingual Zaxi blog offers the following reflections on Boris N. Yeltsin:

Boris Yeltsin’s rickety heart finally failed him Monday at the age of 76 – Russia’s misbehaving first president outliving both doctors’ prognoses and the wilted fruit of his democratic revolution by nearly a decade.

Perhaps no other major world figure’s passing was easier on newspaper editors. More or less each has had a Yeltsin death package waiting since 1996 and it may be a shock that none actually made it to print amid the endless rumors of his various critical ailments. Not much happened to the burly man after Russian bankers used US aid funds to rig the media and carry him to a second term in the face of a Communist threat that year. He hid from view as the economy crumbled and his “family” pilfered. Yeltsin passed the baton on to Vladimir Putin amid chaos as Russia’s most blamed and ridiculed figure – a caricature of incompetence whose ultimate goal was to avoid jail. His last policy statements were watched not for content but coherence. One speech ended when Yeltsin nearly tipped over while standing next to Alexander Lukashenko. Another stopped in mid-sentence when Yeltsin clearly had no comprehension of what he was reading.

“What, is that all?” he asked while twisting the little booklet with his speech every which way and looking for more words to read. An aide rushed over to point at the final period. “That’s all,” Yeltsin added apologetically to confused silence. He read the closing sentence fragment one more time and the Kremlin hall scattered into applause once reserved for Brezhnev.

It is telling that both episodes aired on national television news. Yeltsin was reviled so much in part because Russia was still free to witness its leader’s failings while he bumped into Kremlin walls in his boozy haze. He somehow managed to shed both 10 pounds and 10 years once the burden of the presidency lifted.

zaxi met the man for a day in the summer of 1998 when Yeltsin was enjoying a spurt of vigor and his entourage was mulling a rewrite of the Constitution to keep itself in power past 2000. Yeltsin was wheeled out a few hundred miles east to test the waters in Kostroma. The sleepy city’s electricity was fully restored for the occasion that week. Every surface was repainted – except for a road-sign marking the exit from town that had been spray-painted to indicate “An end to Yeltsin.”

He was led into a linen factory to the awe of the apron-wearing ladies inside. One could not contain her excitement and stepped toward Yeltsin with open arms and a shriek of “Boris Nikolayevich.” Yeltsin’s expression convulsed into horror and he backpedaled several steps in fright. He eventually regained his composure to demand curtly why the machines were not all the same size. The quick-witted director replied that some were made to weave children’s clothing. “I guess that’s alright then,” Yeltsin said gruffly.

He later quizzed a quivering man over how many calves were born per 100 cows on his dairy farm. The man whispered 88. Yeltsin asked why not 99. The man started stammering into the television cameras. “Don’t give me your excuses,” Yeltsin said. “I heard those from the Bolsheviks.” The man did not stir for several minutes after Yeltsin’s entourage had spun off.

Boris Nikolayevich Yeltsin was not a compassionate tsar.

He ruled – health permitting – with the purpose and intimidation of a Urals construction site boss and Communist apparatchik. Yeltsin bullied his enemies and set potential rivals off against each other by surrounding himself with opposing clans while the country sputtered. He changed governments like dirty socks to avoid blame and eventually left state affairs in his daughter's hands.

Yet Yeltsin’s stubbornness also made the world into a safer place – permanently changing the map of Europe – and offered Russians their first taste of choice and self-determination.

Yeltsin separated the world into good and evil like a child and let no one convince him otherwise. Communism was a devil that had to be quashed by any and all means possible. A free press was a cherished ally whose existence justified itself. The Soviet economic corpse had to handed to the young for resurrection and the West was a partner whose friendship had been forbidden for so long.

He braved coups and potential death for treason by letting the Soviet republics go their own way and removing nuclear weapons from large swathes of the globe.

And Yeltsin embraced a world that only knew Moscow for its succession of senile geriatrics. He spanked the disbelieving leaders of (West) Germany and Japan with birch tree branches in Siberian banyas. Yeltsin flirted with the Queen of Denmark and once promised Europe in a fit of passion that Russia would no longer point nuclear arms its way.

The fact that Russia had no longer been doing so for a number of years confused matters and briefly put the West on heightened alert. But Yeltsin’s heart was in the right place even if his upbringing prevented him from measuring words or consequences.

And Yeltsin fell into depressions like a child when things did not work out as planned. His need to abandon Anatoly Chubais and Yegor Gaidar as the pain of shock therapy took hold left him with no natural alternative to “good” reforms not working. Yeltsin’s decision to shell parliament’s Communists with tanks in 1993 and simultaneous introduction of an autocratic Constitution through a falsified vote left his democratic credential in question.

His resulting policy void and mental anguish was filled by hard drinking old KGB buddies and army generals who eventually tempted Yeltsin into “a small victorious war” in Chechnya aimed at resurrecting his standing. He was struck by his first secret heart attack the week Russian tanks rolled to their fiery graves in Grozny in December 1994.

From then on his power rested in the myth of his larger than life image – a barely walking icon propped up by an increasingly anguished West and abused by ever more savage robber barons that Yeltsin gifted with the Red Directors’ industries in return for support.

“I want this guy to win so bad it hurts,” Bill Clinton said as Yeltsin – suffering another heart attack – lay hidden from public view by a bought-off media days before the 1996 election.

Many reporters later said they would have supported Yeltsin even if their bosses were not now the oligarchs who fought the actual battle for survival. And therein lay the mystery of Yeltsin’s charisma. He nurtured a free media so that it could abuse its privilege in the name of what it saw as a greater cause. His turn from Communism was so radical that it left the country’s economy hostage to the whims of the few who rallied around Yeltsin in its place. And his natural appeal to the people eventually scared and embarrassed a president who intrinsically felt that he had let the nation down.

His mental state was severely impaired by the time Yeltsin left the fate of Russia’s democracy to a KGB man on December 31, 1999.

Thus a shade of Russia’s innocence passed with Yeltsin – but it expired long before his death.

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