The drunk who rescued Russia
When Boris Yeltsin stood on a tank outside the Russian parliament in August 1991, he saved his country - and the world - from the last gasp of Soviet totalitarian rule.
For that, he deserves our undying gratitude.
It is easy to forget now how perilous was the moment. The chaotic regime of the dithering, waffling Mikhail Gorbachev had been toppled.
Tanks were on the streets of Moscow, backing a bunch of hard-line Communists who wanted to put the clock right back to the ice age, restoring the Soviet empire at home and abroad. Had they succeeded we would have faced a new Cold War - or possibly a very hot one.
Thanks to the bravery of Yeltsin - who died yesterday aged 76 after a history of heart trouble - in leading the resistance to their putsch, their plot failed.
And when Mr Gorbachev returned from his seaside holiday home, where the coup plotters had held him prisoner, he found Mr Yeltsin in charge.
The Soviet Union was to be wound up, he informed Mr Gorbachev brusquely. In its place would be 15 independent states - including the Russian Federation, until then a mere local government body of which Mr Yeltsin had been the president.
Mr Yeltsin moved into the Kremlin to rule over a ruined country. Communism was discredited, but the democrats had yet to gain any political authority.
Nothing worked. Even Western embassies were unable to get dollars from their bank accounts: every cent had been stolen or squandered. Public servants were unpaid.
The shops were empty. Inflation was raging. Savings had become meaningless numbers in a bank: useless amounts of a devalued currency.
Finland and other neighbouring countries were building refugee camps in case hunger drove millions of Russians to flee the country. Total disaster seemed only weeks away.
Against that background, Mr Yeltsin's achievements as the president of Russia are colossal. They dwarf his failures - terrible though they were.
In a few short weeks, his government of young reformers had laid the basis for Russia's economic survival. They freed prices from state control.
Literally the next day, goods started appearing - first in impromptu stalls on the pavements, then in makeshift kiosks, soon after that in shops.
The invisible hand of the market was able to do its work, for the first time since the Revolution. Many people were furious, claiming that the liberalised prices were extortionate.
Mr Yeltsin - no great economist - agreed, dismaying his government. But he did not order a return to Sovietstyle price control. Russian shoppers have never looked back.
The government privatised much of the Russian economy, too. It was hasty and messy.
A small number of ruthless men commandeered vast chunks of industry, ranging from useless factories that produced unsaleable junk to lucrative enterprises that produced vast mineral riches: oil, gas, gold and diamonds.
Some of these early capitalists disappeared without trace. Others became hugely wealthy, and soon turned their wealth into power. The West soon learned to call them the "oligarchs" - from the Greek word meaning "rule by a few".
Many Russians saw this as little more than looting. They were right to feel disgusted.
But Mr Yeltsin and his government knew that the vital task was to break the power of the "red barons" - the Communist factory directors who held huge amounts of both economic and political power.
Only when business was in private hands was there a chance that Russia's future would follow the laws of the market, rather than the political wishes of the old guard.
Now that Russia's economy is fuelled by high oil and gas prices, it is hard to remember how desperate the 1990s were.
Russia was dependent on bailout after bail-out from the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, the German and Japanese government, and other lenders. Much of it was stolen as soon as it arrived.
The country sank deep into debt, culminating in the default and devaluation of August 1998 - the most critical moment in Russia's post-Communist history, when ordinary Russians found that their savings were wiped out as the rouble plunged in value and the whole banking system teetered on the point of collapse.
"Everything they told us in the Soviet era about Communism was false. But everything they told us about capitalism was true," Russians commented in disgust.
Mr Yeltsin had already given his people plenty of other cause for disgust. He had introduced the virus of vote-rigging into Russia's infant democracy.
A referendum on a new constitution in 1993 was grotesquely flawed. So was his own presidential reelection campaign in 1996, where he trounced the Communist challenger.
Worse, Yeltsin allowed violence to become a political currency. He ordered the army to shell the Russian parliament in 1993, to defeat a bunch of hardline Communist and nationalist deputies who had holed up there.
He unleashed the might of the Russian military on the small breakaway republic of Chechnya, fighting a gruesomely destructive two-year war that ended in a humiliating truce for Russia.
These mistakes were partly the product of bad advice, mainly stemming from his daughter, Tatyana Dyachenko, and her array of cronies. These included manipulative, over-mighty tycoons.
Ordinary Russians were rightly disgusted to see their country run by the president's daughter and her dodgy friends. Mr Yeltsin's own choice of companions was little better: his thuggish bodyguard chief ran a private commercial empire.
Russians were disgusted, too, by their president's shambolic public appearances. During a state visit to Germany, he drunkenly seized the baton from the bemused conductor of a military band and tried to conduct the music himself.
Watching the television reports that mercilessly showed not just that, but also the embarrassed smiles of his German hosts, worsened Russians' fragile self-esteem.
During a stopover in Ireland, en route to America, he was so drunk that his aides were unable to rouse him to meet the Irish dignitaries waiting for him.
That showed a streak of irresponsibility all too characteristic of the Russian approach to life.
Mr Yeltsin was an alcoholic and this led to his quintuple bypass operation in late 1996. Those who knew him well said that he never fully recovered from that.
Mr Yeltsin's gravest mistake, though, was not his tolerance of crooks, but of spooks.
He allowed the KGB to metamorphose into Russia's new security agencies - tantamount to allowing the Gestapo and SS a role in postwar West Germany.
Since that failure to uproot the murderous structures of the past, the agencies of murder, torture and blackmail have entrenched themselves in the heart of the new Russia.
They even managed to get one of their number - Lieutenant Colonel Vladimir Putin - into Mr Yeltsin's own job.
The deal around Mr Putin's rise to power in 1999 marked the nadir of Mr Yeltsin's presidency. He was fearful of impeachment. His inner circle feared for their new private wealth - and their freedom.
They knew that outsiders would subject their business deals and swiftly-obtained riches to the harshest scrutiny.
So the crooks and spooks cooked up a deal. In return for the quiet, unthreatening Mr Putin being made prime minister, and then president, Mr Yeltsin and his family would gain life-long immunity from prosecution.
In retrospect, that seems an appalling mistake. For all his faults, Mr Yeltsin was, at heart, a democrat. He believed passionately in freedom, particularly freedom of the Press, which flowered under his rule as never before or since in Russia.
The sharpest criticism and the most devastating satire could be broadcast - and roused not a squeak of protest from the president.
Even at his weakest and most drunken he would firmly remind his aides that freedom for the media was untouchable. Contrast that to
the recent edict from President Putin that the Russian media was to give at least half of their stories a "positive spin".
Mr Yeltsin's mistakes, and they were many, were ruthlessly attacked by the most powerful media in the land. Mr Putin's mistakes - far more grievous - go all but unmentioned. That, in a nutshell, is the huge and dismal shift between then and now.
Mr Yeltsin's weaknesses and failings are all the more excusable when you consider his background. Given his career in the Communist Party, it is surprising that he understood so much about the workings of a true democracy.
Unlike Mr Putin, a career spy in Russia's foreign intelligence service, Mr Yeltsin had scarcely travelled abroad before taking high office.
Born into a peasant family from the Urals in 1931, Yeltsin's family lived in a one-room wooden hut - his father once spent three years in dictator Stalin's gulag for grumbling at work - and Boris's childhood was blighted when he blew off two fingers on one hand while playing with a live hand grenade.
Despite such setbacks, he went on to graduate as a civil engineer, rising to become a construction manager and joining the Communist Party.
By 1976 he was a local party boss and nine years later, Mikhail Gorbachev, the new Soviet leader, summoned him to Moscow with a mandate to reform the corrupt party system.
But his reputation as a maverick and his growing disenchantment with the old ways led to a swift and final break with the Communist Party when he was sacked from the Central Committee in 1987.
Two years in the political wilderness followed, during which he came to his most fundamental political conclusions.
For Yeltsin did not just believe in free media, he believed in free people. He was convinced that Russians could be democrats just like anyone else.
He wanted them to enjoy the fruits of democracy as far and as fast as possible. And he wanted Russia to be a respected and admired member of the family of free nations, breaking with the Soviet past.
Contrast that with Mr Putin, a man drenched in Soviet-style contempt for the people, and convinced of his own right to manipulate and mislead them. Where Yeltsin sought friends, Putin seeks to instil fear.
Yeltsin denounced the crimes of Stalin; Putin raised a glass to his memory at a public banquet.
Russia-watchers are now waiting in fascination to see how the controlfreaks in the Kremlin will deal with Yeltsin's death. Putin's line is that most of Russia's ills stem from the "chaos" of the 1990s.
Yet as the vice tightens on the remains of Russian democracy, with riot police brutally dispersing opposition demonstrations, and every independent organisation fearing the attention of the secret police, many may miss the anarchic, rough-andready freedoms of the Yeltsin era.
The official line at his funeral will be to highlight Russia's newly acquired financial strength and political stability.
But there is another story to tell too: of Russia's great democratic dreams brought low by the unsuspected weakness of the good, and the unsuspected strength of the bad.
Tuesday, April 24, 2007
The drunk who rescued Russia