YELTSIN’S LESSONS

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Political analysts discuss the legacy of Boris Yeltsin

Valery Khomyakov: “Yeltsin was never a weather-vane. He shaped politics. It’s hard to imagine anyone else climbing onto a tank in August 1991. While I do respect President Putin, I can’t imagine him standing on the tank.”


Vyacheslav Nikonov, president of the Politika Foundation:

First of all, we should probably extend our condolences to Boris Yeltsin’s family. This is a great loss for them and for many people who regard him as a symbol of an important and significant era. He certainly made his mark on history, and he is among the people whose actions will remain a topic of controversy for decades, perhaps even centuries. Yeltsin was a man of exceptional contradictions – like Russia itself. Remember what our classic philosophers have said: it’s either the cudgel or the icon, either St. Sergei Radonezhsky or Yemelian Pugachev. Boris Yeltsin combined all of these extremes within himself. What he really did lack was moderation and the golden mean. If only his energy had been used for peaceful purposes… He was a man of extremes, more of a great destroyer than a great creator.

Yeltsin won practically all of the political battles he fought, since he possessed an outstanding instinct for power – he could feel it with his fingertips. In terms of his ability to exercise power, he was probably one of the strongest leaders since Stalin. Did he have an instinct for democracy? I think he did, although his power-wielding instinct was much stronger. At the same time, Yeltsin had a great many problems – due to his personality, his presidency, and the results of his rule. It was a period when we lost just about half of our economy. But for a long time to come, we shall live largely according to the rules he laid down, within the political system he established, which is marked by his personality.

Russia’s future rulers can learn three lessons from Yeltsin’s experience. First lesson: it’s very useful for a leader to know the country he rules, to have a feeling for it, and to be aware of the consequences of his actions. I don’t think Boris Yeltsin had that kind of understanding. He clearly idealized the Russian people, regarding them as natural democrats who only needed to be given their liberty, and then everything would be all right. Second lesson: don’t throw away lands and people. Between the day Yeltsin was first elected president and the day he stepped down, our country lost 5 million square kilometers and 140 million residents, including 30 million ethnic Russians. Such things should not be repeated. And as for the third lesson, I’d put it like this: don’t open fire on your parliament. That produces very strong birth traumas for political regimes, with far-reaching consequences.

Valery Khomyakov, co-chairman of the National Strategy Council:

Yeltsin’s experience offers us some positive lessons as well. Firstly, his capacity for dialogue. If Yeltsin hadn’t wanted dialogue, he wouldn’t have let his opponents leave the government building in 1993 – he would have finished them off. Secondly, his ability to forgive political opponents who had done him a lot of damage. In 1994, the Duma voted in favor of an amnesty for those who organized the events of 1993, and Yeltsin released them all – though he could have chosen a different path. In fact, I can’t recall any significant case of political persecution in the Yeltsin era. I can’t recall him persecuting any journalists, although he faced some fairly harsh media criticism in the mid-1990s. So we should learn to forgive, like he did.

(Interjection from Gleb Pavlovsky: “I was one of the few journalists persecuted by Boris Yeltsin in 1994. My home was searched!”)

But the most important lesson we should take into the future is his capacity for repentance. I think we can all remember it perfectly well: he was very sincere in asking forgiveness, as a ruler and as a Christian, when he resigned at the end of 1999.

There’s a certain category of politicians who first check to see which way the wind is blowing most strongly, so they can turn in the “correct” direction. But Yeltsin was never a weather-vane. He shaped politics. It’s hard to imagine anyone else climbing onto a tank in August 1991. While I do respect President Putin, I can’t imagine him standing on the tank.

(Interjection from Nikonov and Pavlovsky: “He would have been inside the tank!”)

All the same, I’d like to see us remain objective as we look back on the Yeltsin era – to avoid confusing either ourselves or our descendants. They will judge our era by what Russia becomes as a result of it. If it becomes authoritarian, they will remember Yeltsin as a democrat. If it becomes a democracy, they will say that it started with Yeltsin and Gorbachev.

(Interjection from Nikonov: “If Russia becomes a democracy, people will hold different views on that score.”)

Gleb Pavlovsky, president of the Effective Policy Foundation:

My own attitude to Yeltsin is very complicated: it’s broken up into the period when I hated him, and the period when I worked with him, from 1996. After the first demonstration attended by Yeltsin in Luzhniki, which I organized in 1989, I suddenly realized that that our country was about to die. I didn’t want it to die. And up until the war in Chechnya, I fought Yeltsin any way I could: using legal methods, writing about him. But I left the camp of the anti-Yeltsinists, because I saw that they were prepared to devour him.

In principle, all of Russia’s political systems since around 1700 have had specific authors. The first was Peter the Great; his system collapsed in 1917. The second was the Soviet system created by Lenin and Stalin. The third is the Yeltsin-Putin system. Back in the 1980s there were many people who talked of a future Russia, but it was Yeltsin who took the first political step toward making it a reality. Later on, in 1993, he had the power to do whatever he wanted. I even believe that he was in an exceptionally blood-thirsty mood up until October 3-4, but by October 5 he had rejected bloodshed. That’s a very rare phenomenon in Russian history. More usually, the first blood makes us hungry for more – unfortunately. Yeltsin turned out to be a different kind of person entirely: he halted the wheel of repression, which could well have started spinning faster.

But Yeltsin was also the one who introduced the demand for usuing force. Because Gorbachev wasn’t anti-democratic, he was perceived as a hopelessly weak loser – people simply wanted him out of the Kremlin. Then Yeltsin launched preparations for his own departure from office, as early as mid-1996. Several years passed between then and 1999. On many occasions, he hesitated, stopped, then pressed on – clearly mastering himself – responding to demand for force. Not force with bloodshed, not catastrophic force, but free force. He introduced demand for state force that isn’t hostile to the individual. If this is combined into one state idea, Russia will survive; if it is not, there will be no Russia.

Alexander Dugin, International Eurasian Movement leader:

From the standpoint of my own world-view and attitude to the logic of Russian history, I have always regarded Yeltsin as my absolute enemy: ideological, political, historical, geopolitical, social, and aesthetic. I condemn everything he did. His era isn’t over – because he didn’t start anything and didn’t finish anything. He was responsible for two fundamental acts of history: he destroyed the USSR, a great country – and I regard this as a historical crime – and he failed to build a liberal democracy, although that was probably for the best. He left us no legacy, because he had no political views.

(Interjection from Nikonov: “But he left us a successor.”)

Yes, he left us Putin – and that’s the start of the most interesting aspect, which might change Yeltsin’s place in history. He did a lot of bad things, but he gave our country Putin, who has led us out of evil and into good – he has already transformed 60% of the evil to good. Yeltsin’s mission is closely linkd to Putin’s mission, and Putin’s actions offer an opportunity to rehabilitate Yeltsin’s historical reputation.

In terms of his political style of governance, Yeltsin was a very rare phenomenon: a truly sovereign ruler of Russia. And that’s why he decided against finishing us off in 1993: a true ruler is not petty or vengeful. But political power offers opportunities to commit the most monstrous crimes, going beyond all boundaries – and there’s the rub, for those who rule. Only irresponsible people seek power without understanding that sooner or later they will find themselves in a position where they have to cross all boundaries. Yeltsin took full responsibility. And I cannot avoid admiring the scope and scale of his actions. He affirmed his political will – rightly or wrongly – but in that sense, he had my admiration and respect. I would point to that as a legacy for future rulers.

Maxim Dianov, general director, Regional Studies Institute:

I never voted for Yeltsin, and I don’t regret that, but I wouldn’t say I’m glad of it either. It’s very hard for me to speak – I only just heard the news… My dislike of him was strongest on December 8, 1991, when the break-up of the USSR was announced. It probably came as a severe shock for the whole country. But the new Russia simply had no other leader available. Yeltsin was able to take charge of it, and then practically everyone agreed that he was the leader. On the other hand, when he won that election in 1991 – that is one of my happiest memories. Yeltsin will be remembered for a long time. He not only changed the fate of Russia – he changed the fate of the world.

Yes, he was tough, even brutal, but he was also Russia’s most charismatic leader in the past two centuries. And I suspect that Yeltsin, like a true charismatic, really did believe everything he said. Even his famous sound-bites – “I’ll place my hand on the rails” or “there will be no default” – were spoken sincerely. Of course, he could have been the greatest actor of all time – but I don’t think he lied deliberately. At the moment when he said something, he believed it. I have no doubt of that.

If Yeltsin had faced a choice between democracy and power, he certainly would have chosen power. But since democracy was helping him achieve power, he chose democracy. Though he didn’t go too far with it – the Constitution adopted in 1993 proved to be so eclectic that in principle, it enables leaders to turn the country in any direction they choose.

Dmitri Oreshkin, senor research fellow, Geography Institute, Russian Academy of Sciences:

The greatest lesson that Russia’s future leaders can learn from Yeltsin is that they shouldn’t let the country deteriorate to the point where it becomes necessary to destroy it in order to save it. Actually, this lesson can be learned from Russia in general, not only from Yeltsin. It’s extremely important to avoid getting the model of governance, the model of social life, and the economic model into a dead-end situation where they can no longer be modified. A fossilized structure, incapable of change, is sure to collapse sooner or later. The name we give to the era of destruction is purely a matter of chance. In this case, it was Yeltsin who became that symbol – and Putin has come to symbolize reconstruction on the new foundations he laid. This seems fair enough, but it’s all too easy to blame all our problems on one individual, retrospectively.

Unfortunately, Yeltsin was largely faced with the unsolved problems of the 1980s. He cleared away the old rubble and enabled Russia to establish the relative prosperity that lets us drive good cars rather than spending ten years on a waiting list for a Zhiguli car. Thus, on the one hand, he was a man of destruction – but he was also the person who cleared the field.

And that is the historic, long-term significance of the Yeltsin era: there is now no need to blame our own problems on the past. We’re living in a free country, where everyone is allowed to do whatever they do. Yet if something doesn’t work out, we’re still blaming Yeltsin. This seems like a boorish position to take – and servile as well. He opened up a window to the future for us, just like Peter the Great once opened up a window to Europe.

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