Michael Hammerschlag: Death Of A Lion
Death Of A Lion
by Michael Hammerschlag
MOSCOW: I never saw the remote doddering sickly man he became, but Boris in his prime in 1991-94 was vibrant, lusty, fearless, brazen, decisive. He was simply a great man- and his failings were in many ways - the failings of Russians themselves: the scheming, the flakiness, the imperiousness, the corruption. He was a man of the people, and the most honest and decent leader I've seen. When he spoke into the camera on TV he connected in a deep visceral way with people who had never had any leader connect at all, just recite Communist homilies and stiff gibberish. Even his drinking, so unfairly lampooned in the foreign press, was a source of strength- Russians loved to drink and he was one of them.
To do what he did during the 91 Coup, get up on the tank and rally the whole country to defy the incompetent Putchists, took almost unimaginable courage- he was turning on the Party itself, which was the politics, economy, and religion of this country; and had murdered 20 million people. He wasn't immune- in fact the assassination order had already gone out, but the Alpha commandos had had enough with corrupt old men ordering people to die- they actually joined the Yeltsin side, some tankers turning their tanks around to face outward. Such was the inspirational force of Yeltsin. When I arrived in Nov 91, the country was in a state of absolute euphoria, Yeltsin had just shut down the Communist Party, but there were still many ways they could destroy or kill him. On Christmas he took power in the Kremlin, Gorbachev swept away by the tidal forces he'd unleashed, and within a week Yeltsin freed prices that had been set by government for 70 years.
There was no guide to changing a corrupt completely command economy- it had never been done, and in the shock therapy, he was ill served by American advisors, some of whom hoped Russia would fall to its knees. Thinking was hastened by the fear, the conviction that the Communists would come back, and there may be a limited window to change the system. They did in the Supreme Soviet, attacked Yeltsin's every proposal, undercutting and undermining him at every turn, forcing him to dump liberal Prime Minister Gaidar in Dec 92. Central Bank hack Gerashchenko printed trillions of rubles, and the insatiable hunger for dollars to do business (ruble was not convertible) and to safeguard wealth led to a devastating hyperinflation. That more than anything caused 5 years of misery, as the entire country was pauperized, but it's not definite that others could have avoided it.
For me, the struggle came to a head in March 1993, when the Congress forced Yeltsin into a referendum where he pledged to resign if he lost- a popularity test of reforms that had impoverished everyone in the country. The struggle had grown incredibly vicious- in Russia students don't defend their mentorsâ€¦ they destroy them. A few days before the vote, Yeltsin's mother died, worn out by 6 months of apocalyptic tension- it had become a Greek tragedy. No one knew what the numbers were, and most thought Boris wouldn't survive, and I stayed up all night doing a talk show with Seattle and writing and recording a radio commentary. When the numbers came in that morning, Boris has crushed them 2½ to 1, and I almost cried with relief and exhaustion. The hope would continue, and the people had not lost faith. Again and again they returned to endorse Yeltsin, because he had led them from shadows so dark they've still have never been explored.
Later there was the economic mismanagement, the careless Machiavellian firings of his government, and finally the last terrible appointment of tough guy Putin to protect him. But when Yeltsin was President, this country, and the media were free, and we didn't have to worry that the goons coming to hurt you came from the government. He presided over the collapse of the greatest empire on earth, which really was in many ways an evil empire, and he did so swiftly, decisively, courageously; with almost no bloodshed. No empire has ever collapsed without terrible wars. That should be Yeltsin's legacy. Godspeed, Boris.