Blip- free Boris isn’t the full deal
Boris Yeltsin and Russia’s Democratic Transformation By Herbert J. Ellison University of Washington Press, 313pp, $ 59.95
‘ LIBERATOR’’ is the title Boris Nikolayevich Yeltsin deserves. So concludes emeritus professor Herbert Ellison, whose book sets out to restore the reputation of the first president of Russia.
Most of the obituarists who wrote after Yeltsin’s death in April would agree. But they also recalled Yeltsin the buffoon and the drunk. These are traits Ellison skates over. He is interested in the democrat and policymaker, committed to freedom and constitutionality and sovereignty. He sidesteps Yeltsin’s impulsive personality. The scowling bear of a man who lost two fingers smashing a hand grenade with a hammer, who loved to dance and drink, hardly appears in Ellison’s analysis.
Nor do some of the other blots on the Yeltsin landscape. While Ellison calls the wars in Chechnya tragic, they are not explained. The reader is given no sense of the bitterness that conflict caused at home and abroad: how it galvanised Russian mothers to demonstrate in the streets against sending their sons into battle; what opprobrium it drew from human rights activists and journalists.
Ellison details Yeltsin’s transformation from Communist Party boss to liberator, showing how he did what Mikhail Gorbachev could not: break out of the Soviet straitjacket and embrace democracy. It is still necessary to remind people in the West of Gorbachev’s failings, his blindness to nationalist sentiment and refusal to abandon the communist creed. Ellison does that in his first chapter. He also documents how the revolution of the 1990s started in a remarkably orderly fashion, thanks in large part to a mistake. Those bumbling leaders of the August 1991 coup failed to arrest Yeltsin when they had the chance. He was free to rally the masses from atop a tank. From then on Yeltsin was in charge. It was he who steered the Soviet Union to its quiet demise.
Then came the challenge: to rebuild the Russian state, so long subsumed in the Soviet Union, and to find its place in the world. Ellison examines Yeltsin’s political, economic and foreign policy reforms in separate chapters. This structure is the book’s flaw, for while the author reminds us from time to time that the reform process did not happen consecutively, by treating it this way he fails to convey the headiness of it all, the anarchy that reigned and the extent of the popular disillusionment that set in.
Ellison is steadfast in his argument that Yeltsin’s blueprint was always for a constitutional democracy and a market economy. But in 1993 Yeltsin had to resort to force to overcome opposition, using tanks to dissolve the Russian parliament. That confrontation took 178 lives. It also saw Russia become a presidential democracy. Only thus could Yeltsin counter his political opponents for, unlike his hand- picked successor Vladimir Putin, the liberator could not build a parliamentary bloc to support him.
Some of the flaws in the Yeltsin presidency are acknowledged. Ellison records how Yeltsin mobilised the media and dispersed serious money to his backers to shore up his position in the 1996 elections.
This compromised Yeltsin’s reputation as the champion of the free press and saw him enter the murky world of Russian corruption. That murkiness was everywhere in the privatisation process instigated under Yeltsin. Ellison explains the process well but glosses over the inequities caused by this aspect of transforming the socialist economy. More needed to be said about how ‘‘ shock therapy’’ resulted in ordinary Russians enduring circumstances worse than those of the Great Depression.
Ellison’s recurring theme is that Yeltsin could not realise his ambitions because of the implacable opposition from communists and nationalists to every aspect of restructuring the economy and to building democratic institutions.
Another obstacle, the erratic nature of Yeltsin’s rule, emerges only incidentally.
The chapter on foreign policy shows why Russia still matters in the world. Ellison makes a strong case for more sensitive treatment of Russia. He shows how Western actions, such as the eastward expansion of NATO, failed to understand the entrenched Russian sense of itself as a great power.
The analysis of Russia in Asia reveals the development of a new relationship with China, based on reduced military tension, arms exports, energy co- operation and the shared objective to counter US domination as a single superpower. A gap in the chapter is an examination of Russia’s renewed engagement in the Middle East, spearheaded by Yevgeny Primakov, who was foreign minister and prime minister in the second Yeltsin republic.
Ellison set out to counter the tendency in recent years to ignore the ‘‘ mammoth act of liberation’’ Yeltsin undertook. In doing so, he has not said enough about the things that marred Yeltsin’s presidency. Perhaps the reason for this myopia is Ellison’s devotion to instilling in his students a love for the people and regions of the former Soviet Union. His book will help them understand more about policymaking in the Yeltsin era but it is not the whole story of this maverick Russian. Francesca Beddie worked at the Australian embassy in Moscow during the early 1990s.
Hiccups: The flaws of Boris Yeltsin’s rule are glossed over