Goodbye, Boris Yeltsin

He left a very mixed legacy, notably the disastrous war in Chechnya, but no one had ever tried to undo 70 years of insanity before. As the old joke in the waning years of the Soviet Union went, “It’s not hard to turn an aquarium into fish soup. But turning fish soup into an acquarium is rather harder.”

His farewell address as president — the first Russian head of state to leave power voluntarily (and perhaps the last; we shall see) — included an astonishing statement:

“I want to ask your forgiveness for not fulfilling some hopes of those who believed that . . . in one go . . . we would be able to jump from a gray, stagnating totalitarian past into a bright, rich, civilized future. I believed in this myself. It didn’t happen in one jump.”

Here’s David Boaz’s evaluation of Yeltsin’s legacy.

22 Responses to “Goodbye, Boris Yeltsin”

  1. Tom G. Palmer

    He did make disastrous errors, those two being almost certainly the worst. But he didn’t do those things (which he seems to have bitterly regretted later) in order to advance his own power. And he did something remarkable: he left power on his own, without being deposed, and he apologized for the disastrous mistakes and failings of his administration. Those things deserve mention.

  2. Adam is mistaken that Yeltsin “laid the groundwork” for Putin. To the contrary, Putin has been dismantling Yeltsin’s groundwork. Yeltsin himself publicly criticized Putin’s crackdown on free speech and press.

    (1) gave up state control of the “commanding heights” of the economy,
    (2) greatly weakened the control of the country by bureaucrats and apparatchiks,
    (3) guarded freedom of speech, press, and other media, even when criticism was directed at him.

    Yeltsin wasn’t by any means perfect, but he’s the best leader Russia has had, and they could use another like him. I posted a short piece on my blog on this, and plan to post something longer soon, since I lived in Yeltin’s Russia for a short time and can contrast it to Putin’s Russia, and Kuchma’s Ukraine from that perspective.

  3. Adam Allouba

    Charles, what I meant was that so much of what Yeltsin did failed so spectacularly that he discredited the value of freedom in the minds of many Russians. This in turn paved the way for a leader like Putin.

    Frankly I think it would probably have been better to keep the economy in state hands for a while than to privatize it in such a blatantly corrupt way. Yes the state became less powerful, but really, what is the difference between the state and the mafia to which he ceded control? As for the question of freedom of the press, I’d refer you to the article I link to above (not because it’s the final word but because I’m poorly equipped to comment on that issue).

    I firmly believe that Putin (whom Yeltsin appointed his successor, don’t forget) would not be able to get away with half of what he does had Yeltsin not made liberty synonomous with penury and thievery in Russia. Yeltsin wasn’t a dictator but I’ve never seen any real evidence that you could count him among liberal democrats.

    In passing, could we also count Gorbachev as a leader who left voluntarily? Granted he didn’t resign out of the blue like Yeltsin, but he wasn’t exactly purged like Khrushchev, either. Just a thought.

    – Adam

  4. Adam Allouba

    One last addition on the issue of freedom of speech: Yeltsin had the Russian parliament shelled in 1993. It’s hard to reconcile that with his image as a liberal reformer.

  5. Adam, I disagree that what Yeltsin did “failed so spectacularly.” Keeping the economy in state hands for a while would have meant failing to strip the hardline communists of power while giving them time to reorganize themselves. This would have doomed all reform efforts. Joe Stiglitz endorses this strategy, but he explicitly agrees it would have preserved the old socialist institutions, behaviors, and power structure — which he finds desirable. Economists who actually favor a market system (e.g. Anders Aslund) have dissected Stiglitz’ position and show it to be entirely ignorant of the political situation Yeltsin faced, as well as pro-communist.

    I’m tempted to lay out here an an entire theory of economic transition, as well as history of Russiahistory of Russia here, but I suppose that would be a bit much for a blog comment.

    Suffice it say that Yeltsin consistently permitted public dissent and media criticism (all directed against himself) when some of his advisors told him to crack down. I lived there, and even during the much-hated (by nearly all Russians) NATO intervention in Kosovo there was public debate & press coverage of opposing views. Similarly, I attended anti-Yeltsin rallies, and there wasn’t even a hint of police intimidation.

    As for the economic collapse, everyone in Russia supposed that ending central planning would bring universal prosperity overnight (in part because Jeff Sachs and his ilk told them so); their wildly unrealistic expectations, not the failure of Yeltsin’s policies, are what have discredited freedom in Russian eyes.

    Unrealistic enthusiasm followed by unrealistic despair and fatalism is a characteristic of Russian culture, as is a tendency to then accept an authoritarian ruler, as many Russians themselves have repeatedly pointed out. It’s simply wrong to pin blame on Yeltsin’s policies for this — *no* transition policy can correct such, it requires years (generations?) of learning new ways…the sort of activity Cato promotes.

    What amazes me about Yeltsin is that he did *not* try to set himself up as the new dictator, and really did try to undertake fundamental reform in Russia. For all his flaws, confusions, and corruptions, he was a great hero.

  6. Re the shelling of the Parliament: You consider communist violence “free speech?”

    The communist hardliners being shelled were not being shelled for speaking freely, but for trying to organize armed resistance to Yeltsin’s reforms. One of my Moscow students, who was pinned down with his family during the fighting, gave me a little tour to show me where the opposing sides were positioned. “Free speech” indeed.

  7. Who will give to Putin immunity for all of his crimes, all committed in the full knowledge of their criminality? We had a chance for freedom, but it is being taken away day to day.

  8. Tom G. Palmer

    The discussion above is an important one. I’d just add that there were no templates or models for the transition from over 70 years of totalitarian madness to civil society. Yeltsin blundered in a number of ways, but there was no trail for him to follow. To my points above, I should add that he allowed, expected, and encouraged great freedom of the press and discussion and showed none of the dictatorial spirit that motivated those who preceded and those who followed, who cannot tolerate criticism.

  9. Adam Allouba

    Charles, I agree that to my knowledge, Yelstin was the most liberal and democratic leader Russia has ever had. But that’s such faint praise that it is meaningless. A classic example of the one-eyed man in the kingdom of the blind.

    I’m not claiming to be an expert on this, but I have taken a graduate seminar on post-communist transitions (taught by a professor who calls herself a Goldwater Republican, so not a communist sympathiser). The kind of shock therapy that Aslund, Gaidar and others endorsed doesn’t appear to have worked out at all. Sure people had high hopes but as I recall by 1993 GDP had fallen by about 50% – that’s not just falling short of unreasonable expectations, it’s a disaster. I don’t think Yeltsin’s economic program was a success by any reasonable standard or expectation. Maybe success was impossible.

    As far as the shelling of the Parliament, if people are plotting violent insurrection then you have them arrested. You don’t send tanks against what’s supposed to be the assembly of the representatives of the people.

    Tom’s right. I don’t know what would have worked but I do know that what was tried didn’t. I still don’t think Yeltsin is a hero – on he basis of the war in Chechnya alone I would say he’s more akin to a tyrant.

    There were other republics that emerged from the USSR that were more successful, such as the Baltics. Other post-Soviet states, especially the Czech Republic, have done quite well for themselves. Even China seems to have become a more attractive model for many people than Russia, which is quite sad. I think the debate is over whether Yeltsin failed despite his best efforts or because he was a genuinely bad leader.

  10. Tom G. Palmer

    It’s easy to find differences and similarities, but let’s look at the differences between the Baltics and Russia: additional decades of communism. The Baltics, like Czechoslovakia, had less of the experience of communism and thus more living memory of non-communist systems.

    With regard to Chechnya, consider that a different leader could have had the same attitude with regard to the other republics of the USSR. It was Yeltsin, over the strong objections of others, who said that they should be let go. Chechnya was (is) a part of the Russian Federation and he thought that was different. He *should* have let Chechnya go. But a different leader would have waged, not one, but dozens of wars, and possibly with nuclear weapons, as well. If that is the baseline of comparison, Yeltsin looks quite good. I think it is a reasonable baseline.

  11. Adam: blackboard theories spun from a classroom expert on how transition should have been done are useless. They have nothing to do with the political struggle that Yeltsin and the reformers were caught in. There was no opportunity for a nice blackboard gradualist transition. A gradualist approach would not have improved living standards, and certainly would have failed to institute any privatization at all, leaving everything in the state’s hands. Problems such as the ruble overhang and the massive malinvestment simply do not have a painless solution. ANY transition from the mess that was the Soviet Union will be painful, but a “shock therapy” approach at least gets some reforms in place before reform’s opponents can rally to stop it.

    Your answer regarding the 1993 conflict is idiotic. The communists barricaded in the White House declared Rutskoy the president, had their own arms, and were trying to organize a mass uprising and overthrow of Yeltsin.

    Czech Republic was never a part of the Soviet Union. The problems — economic and political — faced by the Czech republic are so different from those of Russia that comparisons are meaningless; so too for comparisons with China. Of the non-Baltic ex-Soviet Republics, in the 1990s, none did better than Yeltsin’s Russia. The Baltics are a special case; Russia could never have followed a “Baltic model.”

    I’m not a supporter of the Chechen war, or the way it was conducted, but the situation is not black and white. Chechnya was a center for violent criminal gangs that plagued Russia, and Chechen separatism, if unchecked, would likely lead to similar movements in many other parts of Russia. Russians fear, not unreasonably, that a breakup of Russia would look something like the Yugoslav disaster — bloodshed on a far worse scale than Chechnya, leaving a collection of basketcase ethnic “states.”

    You have no idea what would have worked. No one else does, either. Yeltsin at least consistently worked to increase freedom, when everything — his training and background, his advisors, his country’s traditions — should have caused him to do otherwise. He’s a hero.

  12. One more thing: the 50% GDP drop is meaningless. I am not sure what time period you mean, but Russian GDP did not fall 50% in two years.

    GDP comparisons in this period are a mess, because Soviet production was overstated, and post-Soviet GDP understated (in large part because of the shadow economy).

    The USSR was 70 years of bad monetary policy and malinvestment with no inflation or business cycle to correct things. It was inevitable that there be a reckoning, and blaming it on Yeltsin makes no sense.

  13. Adam Allouba

    Charles, “blackboard theories spun from a classroom expert” are pretty much how many people would describe Russian policy post-1991.

    In any event, once someone calls me an idiot I prefer to end the discussion.

  14. Nathalie I. VOGEL

    Mais personne ne vous a traité dâ??idiot, Adam. Bien au contraire! Câ??est votre argumentation qui peut surprendre. Ne vous formalisez pas pour si peu. NV

  15. Adam: No one called you an idiot. But you began by describing the assault on the White House as a violation of free speech. Then, called on it, you changed it to overreaction against an insurrection plot. You have no idea what happened, no knowledge at all of the facts of the case, you are simply making things up. What *should* I call this — intellectual dishonesty, perhaps?

    You are also ignorant of the political circumstances of the 1990s Russian transition. Your communists were not quickly displaced from the central bank, which resulted in the destructive hyperinflation.

    You’re quick to condemn Yeltsin because he doesn’t fit some sort of libertarian ideal. Never mind that it’s literally impossible that such an ideal could have been imposed in the environment Yeltsin found himself. You commit the Nirvana fallacy, and take cheap, uninformed shots at the only people who pushed Russia in the right direction. Then, called on it, you get huffy. Good grief.

  16. Charles – I thought that one of the criticisms of post-communist Russia was that former communists did take control of many of the industries that had been privatized. Maybe they weren’t state owned, but they were commissar-owned