A few months ago I asked a Kremlin grandee, who worked with both Boris Yeltsin and Vladimir Putin, which president of Russia he preferred. I expected him to favour the warm but shambolic Yeltsin rather than the competent but icy Putin. I was wrong. ‘The difference,’ he explained, ‘is that Yeltsin was a capricious Tsar; Putin’s a practical politician.’ But who, I asked was the more lovable? ‘Putin,’ he replied, ‘because he’s always direct and he keeps his word.’ His words returned to me when I heard on Monday that Yeltsin had died. Yeltsin’s style of tsardom — impulsive, bombastic, secretive, drunken — meant inconsistency and insecurity for even his closest aides, never mind his own people.
Yet for all his flamboyance and recklessness, and for all the colossal mistakes, Yeltsin was a giant. He was a contradictory caricature of the Russian peasant, a sort of proletarian populist Peter the Great who also veered between impulsive reform and alcoholic buffoonery, but with this difference: Yeltsin, a decent man raised and promoted by communism, truly believed in liberal democracy. The tragedy is that he undermined his own beliefs.
The West is pathetically naive about Russian reformers. We long to believe they are real liberals, but no liberal will ever rule Russia. Peter the Great was a reformer — but a brutish tyrant too. So-called ‘experts’ in the West even believed Stalin was a prisoner of Politburo hardliners. We embraced the hardline Leninist Khrushchev (whose crude clownery and decent instincts sometimes resembled Yeltsin’s). When the KGB chief Andropov became leader, his love of jazz made him a ‘liberal’ in our eyes. Gorbachev remains the West’s favourite brand-name, but even he was not a liberal. His reforms aimed to make communism efficient, but he failed because he lost control. Historians will judge that Yeltsin was of a similar stature to Gorbachev. Both are reviled in Russia today, and they hated each other. Yet together in 1989–93, they ensured there would be no civil war — no terror as there was after 1917. That was no mean achievement.
In the early 1990s, during adventures in the ex-imperium, I encountered some of the different sides of Boris Yeltsin. In the autumn of 1991, Moscow vibrated with his oversized charisma after his courageous performance defending the Parliament from the top of a tank during the failed August coup by communist hardliners. I got to know the oligarchs to whom Yeltsin carelessly handed fabulous fortunes, and I experienced the wild Babylon of Moscow’s plutocratic decadence. But I also came to know the new journalists and historians who were permitted to mock the President himself and to reveal the most outrageous truths about Stalin’s dictatorship: press freedom was Yeltsin’s last legacy.
On a gorgeous day in September 1993, I perched on top of one of Yeltsin’s tanks as they bombarded the White House Parliament full of armed Red–Browns. The bombardment was necessary. In that same autumn, I flew with the Georgian president Eduard Shevardnadze to Moscow to see him beg Yeltsin to stop playing war in Georgia. I saw Yeltsin greet the Georgian in the Kremlin: a massive athletic physique, Tartar eyes, cheekbones — and the imperial swagger of a Tsar who relished power over his Georgian vassal. In late 1994 I was in the surreal dystopia of Grozny on the brink of Yeltsin’s Russian invasion, which poisoned all his other achievements and made possible today’s authoritarianism.
The tragedy of Yeltsin is that his haughty, capricious, drunken side meant that each of his projects was ruined by hasty, bungled, corrupt execution. Nonetheless, the achievements were grand. As was the case with Gorbachev, his penurous youth planted a latent disdain for Leninism. His father was arrested by Stalin’s NKVD in 1934. Nonetheless he joined the Party — the only route to success for an ambitious young man, appointed as Moscow boss and non-voting Politburo member by Gorbachev in 1985. In 1987, Gorbachev sacked this populist showman. By this time, and long before Gorbachev, the bombastic melodramatist understood communism’s obsolescence. The flaw in the USSR was the power of the Russian Federation: in August 1991, Yeltsin became its first elected president. When bungling communist hardliners tried to seize power a few weeks later, Yeltsin revealed his twin impulses for democratic freedom and personal power: he stood decisively on that tank to save democracy. Gorbachev and Soviet power were already tottering, but Yeltsin’s opportunistic energy designed and accelerated their downfall. On Christmas Day 1991, the USSR vanished.
President Yeltsin’s instincts were decent: he encouraged the marketplace, the press flourished and everything started to open, even the KGB archives. Yeltsin reburied Nicholas II. Free from Soviet anti-semitism, he surrounded himself with Jewish capitalists and advisers who returned to public life for the first time since the 1920s. Even the KGB seemed altered. The flipside was that the economic reforms and the privatisation campaigns were rushed, chaotic, corrupt and controlled by Yeltsin’s courtiers, the so-called ‘Family’. Poverty, corruption, gangsterism, insecurity and disorder debilitated and alarmed Russians, discrediting Yeltsin’s democracy.
The Chechen war of 1994 was as savage as it was incompetent: this was (paraphrasing Talleyrand) ‘not just a crime, but a mistake’ — even Yeltsin admitted it was his worst blunder. The Chechens defeated the Russian army, re-taking Grozny, forcing Yeltsin to recognise a shambolic, semi-gangster Chechen fiefdom. The billionaire oligarchs helped Yeltsin win re-election in 1996, though the vote was fairly free. After that, though, sclerosis set in, political and cardiac. Having failed to reform the ex-KGB, those disciplined, merciless knights of the state were ready to fill the vacuum.
Yeltsin’s addiction to power-games and to vodka caused many mistakes. His televised, drunken-peasant buffooneries — manically conducting a Berlin orchestra, goosing a female staffer — were national humiliations. Ironically, it was Yeltsin’s courtiers and oligarchs who in August 1999 chose ex-KGB Lt-Colonel Putin to be the next president.
Putin waged pitiless war on Chechnya. He diminished the freedom of the press, emasculated Parliament and broke the oligarchs, while using the riches and political-economic muscle of an oil-boom to restore Russian power. But the reinvigorated secret-police, successors of Lenin’s Cheka, Stalin’s NKVD and later KGB — ruthless, intolerant, xenophobic — became the enforcers of stability and the managers of economic and political power alike. A recent study shows 25 per cent of today’s elite are ex-secret-policemen, 78 per cent connected to them.
Russians are happier with strong rule — 80 per cent approve Putin. Whether he changes the Constitution to remain President or leaves for one term to return later, Putin will dominate for years to come. But his success is based on Yeltsin’s achievements, and failures. Yeltsin was Russia’s first democratic leader, possibly her last. No one can take away the experience of Yeltsin’s freedoms, but Russian democracy will never follow Western models: other authoritarian ‘controlled democracies’ — Turkey, Taiwan, Mexico — ultimately developed into democracies. But it took
In retirement, Yeltsin feared dictatorship. Russia is not a dictatorship yet, but the signs are not encouraging. Yeltsin was admirable but flawed, noble but tainted, but in his own negligent grandeur he undermined his own real achievements — and accelerated their ruin.
Young Stalin by Simon Sebag Montefiore is published on 17 May.