Vienna, April 23 – Two years after his death, Boris Yeltsin, whom many Russians blame for their problems, is being politically rehabilitated by the Kremlin, a reflection of what the first Russian president in fact accomplished and of the desire of some in the current leadership to distance themselves from the policies of Yeltsin’s hand-picked successor, Vladimir Putin.
When Yeltsin died on April 23, 2007, he was one of the most hated men in Russia, routinely blamed by Russians and their leaders for the demise of the Soviet Union, their own country’s loss of status, and many of their own problems. And even now he remains a divisive figure whom many in that country dislike (newsland.ru/Polls/Detail/id/359800/).
But now there are indications that some in the Russian elite are reconsidering his role, either because they recognize what Yeltsin did and did not do in a most difficult time or because they, like Russian and Soviet leaders before them, are seeking a basis for legitimacy even as they distance themselves from some of the policies of their immediate predecessor.
Gleb Pavlovsky, the president of the Foundation for Effective Politics and someone close to the Kremlin, said this week that “Yeltsin was able to do all that was necessary so that Russia did not follow a Yugoslav scenario in the development of events after the Soviet Union ceased its existence” (www.vesti.ru/doc.html?id=278174).
“And in this,” Pavlovsky continued, undoubtedly is Yeltsin’s great contribution. … He came to power, after having destroyed the Soviet state but he left his post as president without having destroyed Russia. Had he been more in love with power, [Russia] certainly would not have been able to avoid a civil war.”
Yeltsin was thus a president “without blood” on his hands, the Kremlin political technologist and commentator said. And in the history of Russia, both before and after his two terms in office, that is no small achievement, however much many would disagree, given Yeltsin’s own launch of the war in Chechnya.
Aleksey Malashenko of the Moscow Carnegie Center agreed. Under Yeltsin, he told “Vesti,” what should have been destroyed was and what should have been put in its place began to be. And the Carnegie expert pointedly noted that if Yeltsin had enjoyed the oil prices Putin did, “Russia in the 1990s would have been able to avoid many economic difficulties.”
In many ways, this apparent decision of the Kremlin recalls Nikita Khrushchev’s anti-Stalin campaign, a major if not always remarked feature was his call for the country to return to the principles of Vladimir Lenin, the founder of the Soviet state and the man who clearly inspired Khrushchev’s own youth.
That is how Stalin’s successor sought to distance himself from Stalin’s most egregious crimes while protecting himself and his system by appealing to the man Stalin replaced – even though as many historians quickly pointed out to Khrushchev’s horror, much of what Stalin did was simply carrying out Lenin’s teachings.
And that unwelcome “discovery” ultimately became the basis for the ouster of Khrushchev and his replacement by Leonid Brezhnev, who recognized that the Soviet system was in terrible trouble if its own leaders suggested that the man who had dominated it for most of its existence was a bloodthirsty tyrant.
Consequently, even implicitly attacking one’s own immediate predecessor by building up his predecessor can be a high risk game politically because such an approach can lead some to conclude that the system itself is the problem since the person being built up is the one who chose the one implicitly or in some cases explicitly being criticized.
And just as Khrushchev’s attacks on Stalin ultimately led Soviet citizens to reflect that Lenin had appointed him and that the system itself rather than any one man was the problem, so too it is at least possible that any rehabilitation of Yeltsin could lead some to conclude that the first Russian president’s greatest crime was in fact his selection of his successor.
But however that may be, today, friends and colleagues honored Yeltsin by attending a service at Moscow’s Novodeviche cemetery. Yeltsin’s widow came together with her daughters and they shook hands and spoke with those in attendance, thus displaying precisely the kind of modesty so often lacking in such circumstances (www.vesti.ru/doc.html?id=278316).