Tuesday, April 24, 2007

nрощальное Boris

Given my very long hours working at the moment (midnight is a good time to finish and start again at 0830), I am saying not much, but it is important to comment on Boris Yeltsin, because he hammered in the last nails for the coffin of the Cold War.
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Baroness Thatcher said "He deserves to be honoured as a patriot and liberator.” She is correct. His passing isn't mourned by the leader of the current Russian Communist Party and wont be mourned in Pyongyang or Havana. Indeed neither of the monopoly news agencies in those countries have reported his death yet, the official (and only legal) viewpoint no doubt not finalised yet. That was how the USSR once was, and that is all that is left of its legacy thanks, in part, to Yeltsin.
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Yeltsin was a reformer, who believed in more freedom. By and large he did not censor the Russian press, unfortunately that has been a short period of freedom in Russian political discourse that is now somewhat suppressed (although current Russian authoritarianism still pales compared to life before Gorbachev). Yeltsin is responsible for confronting the bullies who orchestrated the "putsch" against Gorbachev in August 1991, his courage in doing so brought the downfall of the USSR. Citizens of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, now citizens of the European Union instead of the Soviet Union can thank Yeltsin for his determination, because the Baltic States gained their liberty shortly thereafter. Unfortunately, the rest of the Soviet Union has not fared so well, ranging from some liberty in Ukraine to totalitarian madness (now easing) in Turkmenistan.
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His strength was his firm belief that Marxism-Leninism had no future, and that setting Russians free from the shackles of that oppressive system was a priority. His weakness was in not being able to build up the institutions needed to replace it. The justice system, without adequate protection of property rights, contracts and with enormous corruption in the police force saw the excesses of the Soviet state transferred in part to organised crime. His willingness to privatise and dismantle state monopolies was not matched by the patience to establish a means to privatise the behemoth of Soviet businesses in a way that gave all Russians a fair stake in those businesses. The crisis in the rouble, the fiscal crisis of the Russian state (unable to pay wages on a regular basis, providing another route for corruption) saw "firesale" privatisations that clever Russian entrepreneurs took advantage of. Desperate Russians sold their privatisation vouchers for cash, while the shares of major energy, media and telecoms concerns went for excessively low prices (remembering that foreigners were not entitled to buy them).
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It is tempting to focus on his shortcomings such as alcoholism (which was more an embarrassment than anything else), the disaster of Chechnya (which should simply have been granted independence and been left alone) and effectively anointing Putin as his successor. Putin is a disaster for freedom, but he offered Russians the order and control that they yearned after Yeltsin failed to build the core state institutions needed under liberal democracy. Sadly liberal democracy seems largely absent from modern Russia, but most Russians are more pleased with the order under Putin (and the growing economy largely due to the high price of oil and gas) than the lurches from crisis to crisis in the 1990s under Yeltsin.
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However Yeltsin should be seen as, on balance, a hero, although like most, a very flawed one. Had he not stood up to the putsch in August 1991, the old Soviet Union could have at best been plunged into a civil war, at worst back to the dark ages of authoritarianism and confrontation with the West (albeit without much of its lost empire). It is that he should be thanked for. Sadly it was a lost opportunity, probably because seventy years of an oppressive, brutal, anti-life, single-minded, irrational system built and sustained on lies that could only be challenged at one's peril, stripped the spirit of individual initiative, responsibility and genuine community from generations of Russians. A people, most of whom were used to be told what to do, where to go, what to buy, what to produce and expected to do their work and be grudgingly happy, or else. A soulless system based on telling other people what is good for them, scaring them into accepting it as it is, and damning those wishing to do better for themselves, worshipping those who sacrifice themselves.
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Yeltsin stood for something better, it is a shame he didn't appear to know what it was, other than it wasn't what he had experienced under the Communist Party.
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FOOTNOTE: It is notable how the UK papers have responded to this news:
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The Times reported on its front page that Yeltsin buried communism and what was most notable was how his death was not reported as the death of previous Russian leaders "Television screens in Russia did not go blank yesterday. The music of Tchaikovsky did not play. The greatest legacy of Boris Yeltsin’s extraordinary life was the ordinary manner in which his death was announced. " Anatoli Chubais noted that "He brought us from captivity into freedom. He took us from a country of lies . . . to a country which tried to live in truth"
and this quote from Michael Binyon rings true "Yeltsin tore his country away from its crippling past and offered it the chance to become a respected moral member of the world community. Russians have still not found their place there. But without Yeltsin the search could not have begun. "
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The Daily Telegraph also reported his death on the front page, with John Kampfner noting "out of the chaos that often epitomised the 1990s, something has grown that I believe has not been extinguished. Thanks to Yeltsin, and, to a lesser degree, Gorbachev, a whole generation of Russians has become used to international travel. Much has, rightly, been made of the "Cartier, Courchevel and Chelsea" set, as they call themselves, but foreign travel and foreign influences are not just the preserve of the super-rich. Many ordinary Russians now live lifestyles that are similar to those in the West - holidays in, say, Cyprus, trips to Ikea, that sort of thing." What we in the West take for granted, is now becoming accessible to more and more Russians. Daily Telegraph obituary here.
The Guardian, apologists for the Soviet Union's apologists said Yeltsin was a destroyer not a builder. Which is largely true, but he did destroy the most evil empire of the 20th century.
The Independent continues its fetish on global warming, pointing out an apparently new island appearing off the Greenland coast. Nothing on Yeltsin on its scaremongering front page.

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