A taste of freedom

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Boris Yeltsin, the first president of Russia, has passed away. His death draws a final line beneath the turbulent era of radical changes in our country – the period now known as the Yeltsin era. The patriotic forces usually condemn the Yeltsin years for “the breakdown of statehood,” while liberals wax nostalgic for “the flowering of democracy.” As RBC Daily notes, however, hardly anyone would deny that Yeltsin has already become part of Russian history, ranked alongside other great reformers of the state order.

“Freedom” has become the key word in assessments of Yeltsin’s personality and political merits. Novye Izvestia says: “He left no one indifferent, because he managed to awaken not only a great country, but each and every one of us as well. And for the first time in many decades, we started feeling truly free.”

Nezavisimaya Gazeta is even more specific: “He may not have given our society real freedom and democracy – but he did give it a taste of freedom and democracy. That taste can never be forgotten.”

At the funeral reception in the Kremlin, President Vladimir Putin also spoke of freedom: “Very few are granted such a fate: to become free yourself and lead millions of others to freedom as well. To inspire the Fatherland to some truly historic changes, and transform the world in doing so. Boris Yeltsin was able to do that, never backing down, never bending, and never betraying the people’s choice with his conscience.”

Novye Izvestia agrees with Putin, stressing that Yeltsin “never changed his views, even when his opponents kept marching in the streets calling for his prosecution,” and “similarly, he did not permit himself to restrict freedom of the press.”

Novye Izvestia recalls how harshly he was criticized for Chechnya, for the voucher system, and for the default of August 1998: “The pens of our finest observers smoked from their sarcasm. Kusko the artist filled this newspaper with acerbic, hilarious cartoons of Yeltsin.” In response, Yeltsin “presented this newspaper with the most prestigious professional award, the Golden Pen of Russia, handing it to our best journalist, Otto Latsis,” and “admitted that he collected cartoons of himself.”

Meanwhile, the Vedomosti newspaper points out that most of the Yeltsin era’s achievements – democratic elections, free speech, decentralization of government, privatization, and the state’s withdrawal from the economy – are now being called into question. Citizens hold diametrically opposed views on Yeltsin’s legacy, depending on their political preferences – and the majority have come to think worse of him in recent years.

The Public Opinion Foundation (FOM) reports that when asked to assess Yeltsin’s role in history, 57% of respondents see it as negative and 25% see it as positive (compared to 67% and 18%, respectively, in early 2000). The Levada Center reports that when asked to assess the results of the Yeltsin era, 67% of respondents in 2000 and 70% in 2006 took a negative view, while positive responses were 15% and 13% respectively.

Vedomosti maintains that the clearest expression of how citizens feel about Yeltsin’s reforms is not their overall negative attitude, but Russia’s present-day movement in the opposite direction, which meets with just as much enthusiastic approval as Yeltsin’s policy course at the very start of his political path.

The All-Russian Public Opinion Research Agency (VTsIOM) reports that in a 2005 poll, only 1% of respondents said they would like to live in the era of Yeltsin’s transformations, while 39% preferred present-day Russia.

Yeltsin’s place in history can be ascertained more easily by comparing him to his predecessor and his successor.

RIA Novosti has this to say about Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin: “These typical members of the Soviet nomenklatura, these classic regional Party committee secretaries, may not have been born reformers – but their will to power and political flair drove them to carry out reforms.”

In an interview with Newsweek (translated into Russian at Inopressa.ru), former deputy US secretary of state Strobe Talbott observes: “Neither would have been entirely possible without the other. They were a duo that really did in what was worst about the Soviet Union.” Talbott maintains that in the case of Gorbachev, who only tried to reform the Soviet system, this was done “unwittingly.” But Yeltsin did intend to destroy the USSR when he became the democratically-elected president of Russia.

In Talbott’s view, while Gorbachev and Yeltsin saw each other as comrades at first, their relationship later came to resemble the “Boris Godunov” opera: “Gorbachev turned Yeltsin from a good communist into an outcast. And hell hath no fury like a big proud man who’s been snubbed. So once he bested Gorbachev, (Yeltsin) went on not just to be president of Russia but also to drive a stake through the heart of the old Soviet Communist party.”

RIA Novosti notes that “neither Gorbachev nor Yeltsin really had a choice: in a certain sense, they were hostages to their times and doomed to transformations… they both moved History, but as a result, History moved them much more… they were its hostages, its weapons – means, not ends.”

Vedomosti remarks on Yeltsin’s contradictory personality, characterized by “a full complement of our national flaws – impulsiveness, dependence on those around him, susceptibility to flattery and slander, cronyism, a tendency to let things slide and hope for the best – along with a complement of our national virtues – persistence in working toward goals, generosity of spirit, receptivity to new ideas.”

According to Vedomosti, Yeltsin’s contradictory personality was suited to that moment in history: “Yeltsin proved to be the kind of passionary figure that history’s drastic turnarounds require.”

RIA Novosti maintains that Gorbachev and Yeltsin’s role as “History’s hostages” became the reason for their unpopularity in Russia, because “majority opinion, as measured by opinion polls, doesn’t like changes and doesn’t like the leaders who personify those changes.”

RIA Novosti notes that “majority opinion, as measured by opinion polls, is inclined to overestimate the individual’s role in history and underestimate the logic of objective historical processes.” However, “neither Gorbachev nor Yeltsin fully appreciated the magnitude of the consequences their decisions would have.”

RIA Novosti goes on to say: “Gorbachev was sincerely convinced that a hybrid could be created: free-market socialism. Yeltsin sincerely believed that the problems and difficulties of the reconstruction period would be left behind as soon as 1992 – Russia would only have to tough it out for a few months after liberal reforms were launched.”

Gazeta.ru notes one trait that Gorbachev and Yeltsin had in common – a rare trait in Russian political culture: they had “sufficient courage to refrain from exterminating their opponents – using solely political methods to fight them.”

They displayed the same nobility when leaving office. RIA Novosti observes: “For all their colossal will to power, both Gorbachev and Yeltsin made worthy exits – with no hysteria, no attempts to cling to power at all costs, and with an awareness of their own place in history.”

Power was handed over to Vladimir Putin on December 31, 1999. As Kommersant recalls, Boris Yeltsin said he was leaving Russia to “a new generation of politicians” under whose rule the country “will never return to the past.”

Andrei Illarionov, former economic advisor to Putin, writes in Yezhednevnyi Zhurnal: “Yeltsin spent all the years of his presidency trying to choose a successor… not for himself, but for his beloved Russia.”

Up until August 1998, he sought that successor among the “young economists.” All of them – Yegor Gaidar, Anatoly Chubais, Boris Nemtsov, Sergei Kirienko – failed the test, one after another. After August 1998, the search shifted to the “young siloviki” (security and law enforcement people). Bordyuzha, Nikolayev, and Stepashin failed the test even faster. Vladimir Putin’s candidacy looked better than any of the others.

Kommersant argues that in his seven years as president, Putin has shown that Yeltsin made the wrong choice: direct elections for regional leaders have been abolished, Duma election rules have been tightened, many civil rights have been restricted, and practically all influential media outlets have been taken over by the state. Many opposition activists believe that Yeltsin’s greatest mistake was “appointing” Putin as his successor.

An article in The Daily Telegraph (translated into Russian at Inopressa.ru) maintains that Putin has made government in Russia more stable, but only at the cost of civil liberties – in the media, the parliament, and elsewhere. He has also shown himself to be a typical representative of the special services apparatus, reacting with paranoid intolerance to opposition at home and with predictable hostility to the West’s interests abroad, whether the matter concerns Iran or Kosovo.

According to Illarionov, “it didn’t take long” for Yeltsin’s “first doubts to grown into questions, and the questions to grow into objections.” Illarionov describes Yeltsin’s pained response to the dawning reactionary era: “All the hard-won gains, everything that such sacrifices had been made for – everything that he, Yeltsin, had created for the sake of freedom in Russia was being systematically, methodically destroyed.”

Yeltsin never criticized the Putin administration publicly. However, as Vedomosti recalls, in September 2004 the Moskovskie Novosti newspaper requested Yeltsin to comment on the consequences of the Beslan school hostage siege and the possibility of regional leader elections being abolished. The text of Yeltsin’s response contained some unusually harsh remarks: “We shall not permit ourselves to retreat from the letter – and, more importantly, the spirit – of the Constitution adopted by the whole country at a national referendum in 1993; if only because suppressing liberties and curtailing democratic rights would mean a victory for the terrorists.” Then again, Yeltsin noted at the start of the same text that having withdrawn from public politics, he did not intend to “give political commentaries or discuss the actions of those who have come after me.”

He kept to this rule almost completely, even in the interview with Itogi magazine just before his 75th birthday. “I’m glad that I wasn’t mistaken in choosing Vladimir Putin,” said Yeltsin in that interview. When the interviewer asked about current policies, Yeltsin answered: “One always has some remarks to make – it would be strange if there were none. But the most important point is the strategic policy course, and I do support that and consider it correct.”

Andrei Ryabov, an analyst with the Carnegie Moscow Center, maintains that the foundations of present-day “soft” authoritarianism were laid in the late Yeltsin era. In an interview with Radio Liberty, Ryabov talks of Yeltsin’s political evolution: “The Yeltsin of the early 1990s was consistent and active – Yeltsin the revolutionary. But starting from the mid-1990s, or perhaps slightly earlier, he was a politician who mostly aimed to preserve existing achievements, while abandoning radical reforms and seeking a compromise with the remnants of erstwhile ruling groups. To all appearances, the foundations of the present-day system were created in the time of this second Yeltsin – the later Yeltsin.” Ryabov notes: “If we compare this system with the early Yeltsin, we can see not only some serious contradictions, but even a rejection of many undertakings begun by the early Yeltsin.”

Novye Izvestia quotes Boris Yeltsin’s final speech as president on December 31, 1999. For the first time, he asked the people to forgive him – as no other Russian leader has done, before or since.

“I want to ask your forgiveness – for the fact that many of our dreams have not come true. I ask your forgiveness for failing to live up to the hopes of those who believed that it would take only one heave, a single stroke, for us to leap from the dull, stagnant, totalitarian past into a bright, prosperous, civilized future. I believed this myself. It seemed like we could overcome everything with a single heave. But it didn’t work. I turned out to be too naive about some things. In some areas, the problems proved to be too complicated. I want to ask your forgiveness – for the fact that many of our dreams have not come true. In saying farewell, I want to tell each and every one of you: be happy! You deserve happiness.”

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