February the 1st. Boris Yeltsin’s birthday.
It is now considered acceptable and even in good taste to pin the blame on him for every horrible, bad or just unpleasant thing happening in Russia. Putin’s government needs a scapegoat for explaining away their crimes, and the people are happy to accept that one. I predict that, unless there is a drastic change, the history will be even more distorted by grafting the false stories of “The terrible 90s” onto it. Here are some of them:
Yeltsin destroyed Russia.
Yeltsin laid the foundation for the current corruption.
Yeltsin came to power as a result of a putsch.
Yeltsin was a tyrant.
Yeltsin was a no good liar.
Yeltsin was intolerant of the opposition.
Yeltsin was a foreign puppet.
All these are in part funny and in part disgusting to me. So today, on another February the 1st, I’m going to tell you some quite unpopular things which may even shake your worldview a little. I hope they will.
It is my express wish to say “Thank you” to Yeltsin – for myself and for the 90s generation, or at least the part of it lucky enough to have thrown off the shackles of conformity and grown up knowing freedom. It’s not that I don’t think he made mistakes; it’s just that, having learned a lot and thought a lot about the system he created out of USSR’s stinking carcass, I believe most other rulers would’ve done much worse in his place.
So today’s post is not about criticizing that president. It is about remembering the good that he had done – and that most others probably would not have.
This, beyond doubt, is the most important, existential issue. Freedom in and of itself is reason enough to destroy a totalitarian state, even if nothing else had ever happened there. The right to say, read, listen, think, wear, eat, and drink whatever one likes. To quote something I had said a long time ago, “A country which forbids death metal and Freddy Krueger movies has no right to exist; it can be extinguished with no loss to the world”.
To amplify: the destruction of a most thriving and rich country is fully legitimate in my eyes if said thriving was achieved by absurd, unjustified prohibitions and repressive moral taboos. Thus, Yeltsin’s obliteration of the prohibitive Soviet laws was nothing short of a Promethean deed. (So it is only natural that he, like that hero, is now forced to pay for giving the people the flame of freedom by being chained to a rock and devoured by… no, not even an eagle but by mangy, stinking curs).
2. Absence of authoritarian control.
I was very lucky to be born when I was. Growing in the 90s, my self was shaped by that freedom. This in turn gave me the necessary mind adjustment to see the stability, conservatism and other “values” of the zero years (as the beginning of the 21st century was aptly dubbed) for the crap they were. I was aggressive in my love for private life and personal freedom; I had none of the psychological baggage of my elders; I was, not to put too fine a point on it, an epistemological anarchist, treasuring my own free will and self-sufficiency above all else.
Therefore, when I hear stories about the despotism of the 90s I cannot but laugh about it. In these years (and, since the social inertia is quite significant in a country that size, also in the beginning of the zero years), the freedom was absolute. Anyone could do anything – worship or dethrone any deities or devils, follow some crazy health-nut and bathe in an ice-hole while chanting mantras or guzzle rum, follow Baron Samedi around a graveyard at midnight or have hysterics at a Holy Cross. Anyone could love and make love to anyone, anywhere; and if some meddlesome pig of a prude would try to interfere, he (or she) would have their head bashed in, with no protection from the cops. That was how it was – and that was how it should be. Those who dislike freedom should be confined to their musty, cobwebbed closets: the young generation, unburdened by the psychological traumas of the dark past, would build a healthier country without their interference.
3. Freedom of speech.
Looking back, now with the experience of the zero and later years, when it suddenly became wrong to criticize the government, the freedom we had in the 90s – to say and write anything – is even more striking and important than we could appreciate then. Until Putin consolidated power one could say whatever one liked – the state lacked the power and the means to persecute people for their thoughts and for their deeds.
The underground culture of the 90s, which nurtured me and made me what I am was as diverse as it was unruly. It had everything – from radical communism and nationalism to Satanism and paganism and orgies (which were, truth be told, more of a farce than a sex scandal). If memory serves, only two people of the very many I knew had been arrested and made to serve time – one for a grave desecration and cruelty to animals (he tried to drink blood of a still-living cat), the other for an actual murder.
4. Annihilation of totalitarian socialist state.
Yeltsin managed this without a witch-hunt, seas of blood or mountains of heads. For myself I can attest that, without a shadow of a doubt, I would have ended up in a prison or a psych ward. This is not a speculation, but a foregone conclusion: with my rebellious nature I would have chafed under the totalitarian regime, even one as relatively tame, compared to Stalin’s and even Brezhnev’s times, as the USSR in the late 1980s.
5. Building a foundation for a civilized country.
It’s not a coincidence that the effort of destroying Yeltsin’s heritage took years of Putin’s and his lackeys’ efforts. Yeltsin’s system was inherently protected against retro-Soviet corruption.
There is a prevalent – and quite mistaken as I intend to show – opinion that Putin is Yeltsin’s spiritual successor and that his coming to power was pretty much preordained by Yeltsin. This is the type of erroneous thinking of which many historians are guilty: confusing the sequential with the causal.
Putin was no more preordained by Yeltsin than Italian democracy by Mussolini, or the Years of Lead by the democracy. Did Nicholas the 2nd preordain the Bolsheviks, or Kampuchean Monarchy the Red Khmers? No. One should not confuse the events – or the regime changes – which happened one after another with ideological succession.
Putin required years to erode and destroy Yeltsin’s achievements: the federalization system; the independent business practices; and the democratic, opposition-ridden government. He spent a lot of effort on obliterating the civic rights, subjugating the independent regions, and subduing the legal system. This is not “preordained”.
Christina Kirchner succeeding her husband; Medvedev succeeding Putin and stepping aside for his return; Baby Doc taking over Papa Doc; all these are fine examples of causal succession. A dictator taking six years to break down and destroy everything his predecessor created is not.
And yes, I know that Yeltsin named Putin as his heir, and that Berezovsky contributed a lot to the latter’s success. It was a tragic mistake, stemming mostly from the complete lack of more acceptable candidates. At that time, many viewed Putin as a liberal loyal to Yeltsin, a shield against the Communists and the Fascists. Horrible though it was, I don’t see how this could’ve been avoided. So don’t be hasty in blaming Yeltsin: naming a heir is one thing, voting for him is another. The fault lies with pretty much everyone: those who dreamed about the revival of USSR and those who opposed it from either end of political scale; those who dreamed about new GULAGs and Buchenwalds (Russian radical patriotism is always anti-Semitic) and those who used them as a scare; those who voted and those who spread the rumors. Sure and Berezovsky had a lion’s share of blame; but, unlike many, he had already paid the piper.
Sure and there was corruption, and financial schemes galore: Yeltsin’s epoch was ripe with opportunities, including criminal ones. But you know what else was then? Free media criticizing the government and scooping the corruption scandals. All-powerful ministers falling from their thrones as a result. Journalists crying bloody havoc over bribes on all levels. Strikes and demonstrations not opposed by the troops or the police.
Not enough? Show me how you would’ve done better.
6. Capitalism and the mood of living one’s life.
Growing up in that atmosphere, I was then ready to face life anywhere in the world. I’m as comfortable in Spain as I’m in Mexico, in Great Britain or in Brazil. Wherever there is freedom of speech and freedom of economy, I feel right at home.
There was none of today’s hatred in the air. Don’t believe anyone who would tell you otherwise. Anyway, the same people who would tell you about the fear and loathing in the 90s, would in the next sentence laugh and throw insults at the “sub-humans” (meaning, depending on the speaker, any of the minorities, either sexual, racial or otherwise). That’s because these people confuse lack of adulation of the authorities with generic widespread hatred. Unable to believe in free criticism, they see no reason for an active opposition.
These kind of people were a despised minority in the 90s. They were, then, unable to either denigrate the underground artists, or laugh dumbly about Stalin’s victims and Nazis’ concentration camps: if they did, they would’ve received their share of well-deserved unmeasured response from the then-free people. And so now they take their revenge, by spreading vicious lies about the “terrible years” full of hatred.
7. Desanctification of Government and Power
Lots of serious bespectacled experts are trying to work out why Yeltsin is so popular among the young people. They will never get it, I’m afraid, for their frame of mind is completely different. But there is no mystery about it. He was a cool dude, Yeltsin was. He was an uncle – or a grandfather – every youngster wishes for. He laughed and sang and skipped and didn’t care about preserving his saintly dignity, and if, at times, it was maybe a bit too much, it was still just what the doctor ordered – an overdose of fun after long, dark, dreary decades of “Sacred Governments” and “What are you smiling ats”.
Just like a country waking up after years of religious fanaticism can do with a healthy injection of libertinage, destruction of religious values, herecies of all kinds and legalization of everything imaginable; so did Russia in its post-Soviet years require someone like Yeltsin as a volks President. Someone for normal people to freely joke about; someone for conservative idiots to foam at the mouth about; someone so non-authoritarian as to be a complete opposite of figures like Stalin or Ivan the Terrible.
In that Yeltsin was the true revolutionary. He trampled the totalitarian ways of thought and brought down the horrible long-adulated idols. He was great at not being Great – and that was truly, unbelievably great!
8. Lack of archaic symbols.
Yeltsin didn’t let Russia fall into the worst ways of medieval thought. It was unthinkable for a journalist to beg pardon of a region’s chief for a series of articles criticizing his party. It was unimaginable for an ethnic or an ideological minority to rule by fear, by scaring the populace into submission. What, is this Russia or Syria, Europe or Iraq? We lived then in a civilized country which, unlike some backwater Rwanda, was not yet ruled by clan elders.
Yeltsin saw himself as a Russian ruler, flesh of Russia’s flesh and responsible to it and to its people. He had no need to rule by fear. Putin and his cronies, on the other hand, see Russia as their own private colony with themselves as a colonial administration.
9. Not giving in to dictatorship urges.
I’ve left the most important point to the end, precisely because it is of paramount significance and now I will do my best to get through to you, even if I have to chew your ear off doing so.
It is a widespread, almost official notion among the high and the low to blame Yeltsin’s style of governing for all that is wrong with the country. He, such people say, broke the back of democracy and created a cleptocracy. He organized a putsch. He way a tyrant, however you want to look at it.
Listen, I’ll tell you a story. Once upon a time Salvador Dali had been contacted and asked to intervene with Franco on behalf of five communists awaiting execution. Among the powers who asked for his help was even Vatican. And, just so that you understand, Dali was known for his sympathies for Franco, whom he have met many times, so his word whispered – or shouted – into the right ears could have made a difference. The artist did nothing, and when, later, asked to comment on these communists’ deaths, he said: “They should have killed three times as many”.
So trust me on this: if ever there was something I wanted to criticize Yeltsin on, it would have been for not killing enough. If there ever there was something he did wrong, it was not trying hard enough to destroy the secret police and other similar structures left over from the Soviet times. Because these structure, despite whatever some people want you to believe, never went away. They went underground to some degree, but not for long; for they knew they would be needed again. They thrived.
If ever… yes. But I won’t. I won’t criticize him even on this point, and here is why. My childhood was not spent in a Soviet dictatorship; and I would not have wanted to spend it in an anti-Soviet dictatorship either. Any state which allows itself to vanish its subjects is hell-bent on catastrophe and well along its way to tyranny. A leader cannot murder people without trial, cannot declare any group of people as enemy, and remain anything but a Soviet- or Nazi-type tyrant. Don’t believe me? Review early Bolshevik history with their paranoid fantasies about “enemies of state”.
Remember the story about an immortal dragon, where in the end it turns out that whoever kills the dragon turns into one? Yeltsin didn’t want to turn into a dragon, so he didn’t kill his own. Violent struggle, Stalin-purges-style, against his own colleagues didn’t appeal to him. Instead, he played them off against each other, directed their poisonous hatred inwards and let them weaken the repulsive structures themselves. Which is, indeed, yet another reason to be grateful to him: he was wise in declining violence that would undoubtedly have brought a post-totalitarian country into a bout of dictatorships.
Yeltsin had to maneuver between the left opposition demanding another Stalin to put the country to rights (with them choosing whom to shoot, obviously); and the right opposition demanding a Pinochet (not a real one, but their own image of one: strict anti-Soviet tyranny with an Orthodox spiritual guidance and sanctification of the privatization process). The crazy thing? Neither the left nor the right were actual radicals – they were both serious, bespectacled, suit-and-tie wearing experts, earnestly discussing the way into the future.
What the country needed, what Yeltsin’s policies – unofficially, for he was unable or unwilling to actually legalize this principle – were based on, was simple enough: “Forbid forbidding”. The people openly discussed such views and ideas as:
Finding a new Stalin/Hitler/Gaddafi/Pinochet/Trotsky/Lenin/Ivan (the Terrible)
Dethrone and hang Yeltsin and “his” oligarchs (if possible, without bothering with legalities)
Introduce the French/Chilean/Singapore economic/political models
Federalize the country / let the minorities run the country / recreate the Holy Russian Empire
Rebuild the USSR / turn Lenin’s Mausoleum into a public toilet
…and so on.
So, you see, what the president did was force the people to shout, snarl, crack knuckles, scratch and even bite – all the while keeping them from returning to the lethal drug of totalitarianism, the poison which had kept them under for decades. He told them stories and amused them with his antics, but what he really did was wait and wait and wait – for the withdrawal to pass, for the country to get better.
It took me a while to understand just how great a politician Yeltsin was, to be able to keep the country safe from reverting to the socialist plague of either Marxist or Fascist variety. That it happened in the end (and it did happen, Putin’s government rhetoric is a mix of Russophile twaddle and Soviet nostalgia) is not his fault. For years he managed the impossible. Hiding behind a facade of a drunk clown was a brilliant politician and diplomat who walked the tightrope above a pit full of slavering monsters, safeguarding his country’s freedom.
One of the most outrageously ridiculous things he was called was a ‘usurper’. The reason for this was his ability to dodge and weave and avoid being hit – and forcing his opponents to spend their strength fighting shadows.
If he was a usurper or a dictator, he was one of a kind: dictator of nothing, usurper of void. One of his greatest achievements was to create a power vacuum in which the post-Soviet Scylla and Charybdis, ravenous for dominance, could thrash and bite and devour one another, without getting any closer to getting real domination. His dictatorship, if that’s what you want to call it, was in keeping an actual dictatorship an empty threat – even though it would have become quite real in a ‘democratic’ election. He was the last and the only stronghold, a lonely fortress rising out of the crags on the shore of the sea riddled by the post-Soviet scum, against his might beat and broke the waves of communism, fascism, nationalism and more. He stood and did little more than dream and creak and reminisce and evoke and affect – and be.
To quote Salvador Dali again: “The best way to govern a country is with anarcho-monarchism, when the ruling monarch serves as a guarantor of anarchy”. This principle, whether he knew it or not, was Yeltsin rule of thumb.
I believe that in the future in which there is a normal Russia and a normal Russian government, Yeltsin will proudly take his place in the pantheon of the Founding Fathers of Progressive Russian Rulers, side by side with some of the reformist Tsars and others of their caliber. I believe also that Yeltsinism – more an idea than a movement – would become a guideline for the Russian politicians. If this does not happen, if this part of Russian history keeps being perverted and abhorred, then there is little hope for Russia to become a civilized country. For a country to move forward it must have a strong foundation. The only way to create such a foundation is to remember history as it was, not as it might have been or ought to have been. The Americans have deep regard for their Foundation Fathers, despite certain controversial opinions they had. The Brits are in no hurry to renounce monarchy. The Argentinians hold on to an idealized image of Perón (who was, no doubt, a dictator and the originator of their particular version of the “inflationary economy”). So should the Russian stop denouncing Yeltsin and start thinking about him as a symbol of the new democracy, short-lived though it was. Just as the Tsars, the Bolsheviks or the post-Soviet oligarchs, Yeltsin has a place in Russian history; denying this is lethal – this way lies madness.
Yeltsinism can serve quite well as a national basis. And that is how we should look at it. But in our hurry to drown in the muck of the archaic traditionalism, we burn the bridges to our own past, forget and distort past events; and we suffer for this. We treat each twist and turn of history as yet another “historical upheaval”; but the more there are of those, the shorter our memory gets, and the smaller our chance at reflecting upon and understanding our past. For tyrannical governments – the one currently in control as much as the one we collectively think of the Soviet Union – this is a good thing: they fight against analyzing history, extinguish other points of view and put bans on discussions.
So on February 1st let’s just try and remember our controversial president as he was. Without hatred. Without arguing. Without foaming at the mouth or bashing in of heads.
Maybe this will become the first small step out of the Russian totalitarian nightmare. God knows it had been going on long enough.
I certainly hope so.
Kitty Sanders, 2016