This podcast is the first in my series on US-Russia relationships.
Steven Sabol is an Associate Professor in the History at North Carolina University in Charlotte specializing in the history of Russia and Central Asia, imperialism and colonialism and the American West. He’s the author of “The Touch of Civilization” Comparing American and Russian Internal Colonization published by University Press of Colorado.
Donny Hathaway, “Little Ghetto Boy,” Live, 1972.
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By Sean — 11 years ago
Boris Nikolaievich Yelstin is dead. Many are sure to evaluate his legacy over the coming days and years. Almost universally hailed as “democratic” in the West, Yeltsin’s rule was a complicated mix of democracy, authoritarianism, oligarchy, theft, corruption, crime, and gangster capitalism. It was a time of hope and fear for the average Russian. Gone was the authoritarianism of the Soviet system, but that vacuum also produced an uneasy feeling of what came next. A spirit of democracy quickly filled that vacuum only to flutter out as “western” democracy became associated with the utter destruction of the Russian social and economic base. Time doesn’t permit to cite the relevant statistics on the precipitous collapse of the standard of living in the 1990s.
Yeltsin, among many things, will be remembered for standing on a tank in Moscow thus preventing counter-revolution, bombarding the White House with tanks, shaking his tail feather during his election campaign, arriving to Berlin drunk, and playing tennis.
Yeltsin will also be remembered for the Chechen War. It was hardly a “small victorious war,” as he and his handlers hoped. Russia’s defeat led to a brief d?tente between Moscow and Grozny in the form of a quasi-independent, though not internationally recognized, Ichkeria.
Yeltsin will be remembered for introducing the world of Vladimir Putin. A virtually unknown figure in 1999 when he became Prime Minister, Putin was originally viewed in Russian oligarchic circles as a manageable bureaucrat who would rule in their name. He wasn’t and what Russia looks like today is very much a result of Putin’s efforts to tame the oligarchy. In this sense, present day Russia is also in part laid in Yeltsin’s lap.
Lastly, in thinking about Yelstin’s presidency, one can’t help make analogies to the 1920s. Also an economically chaotic and socially disastrous yet politically and culturally vibrant time, the 1920s was the hope for a new, democratic Russia. Small “d” democracy was too squashed in the 1920s resulting in Stalin. Stalin, like Putin, was also viewed as manageable by the Bolshevik oligarchy. This underestimation ushered in their demise in the Terror of the 1930s.
While I reject any comparison of Putin to Stalin, the similar historical trajectory of the 1920s and 1990s can’t be denied. Chaos begot stability, but stability came with the cost of crushing of democracy. In my view, it is Yeltsin’s role in this historical echo that will stand out as his most enduring legacy.
Obituaries on Yeltsin abound. Here is a tentative list.
More obituaries and analysis are sure to follow in the coming days.Post Views: 534
By Sean — 12 years ago
“Bastards! (сволочи!)” For the last week a women who sits in front of me in the reading room has been cursing documents as she thumbed through files of Komsomol protocols and resolutions from the late 1980s. I finally found out what she is working on the other day.
“They are all thieves,” she told me yesterday during tea. “They stole from me and Russia. During Komsomol meetings they were diving up the property of cooperatives, allocating money for projects and themselves.” The “they” are Russia’s oligarchs, many of which have fled the country as exiles. “Khodorkovsky’s name is everywhere,” she told me pointing to a document from 1991 that details funds going to one of the oil cooperatives and banks he “owned.” The protocol in the document allocated to him over a million dollars.
“You know,” I told her “many in the United States consider people like Khodorkovsky are considered heroes of democracy.” “Well, here they are all thieves.” And it was no wonder, she added, because Khodorkovsky was tied to American banks in the early 1990s.
This woman is working on an article she hopes to publish in Der Spiegel. The story of how leading cadres in the Komsomol allocated property to themselves is a fascinating story. It is a perfect picture of what might call primitive capitalist accumulation with all the theft, swindle and blood that goes with it. Everybody knows how elites the Communist Party, like Gazprom’s Viktor Chernomyrdin became instant billionaires. What is less known is how Communist Youth League cooperatives were used in the 1980s as a means to marketize the Soviet economy.
Gorbachev’s idea was good natured but na?ve. By rehabilitating the ideas of Nikolai Bukharin, Gorbachev hoped to revitalize the executed Bolshevik’s slogan “Enrich Yourselves!” and his ideas about socialist competition. Like in the 1920s, Komsomol cooperatives of the 1980s were subjected to market principles to foster competition with state enterprises. The competition, it was believed, would increase productivity and production quality. It is now called Komsomol capitalism.
Komsomol cooperatives were based in two industries: construction and technology. But archival documents might reveal a much wider breath of entrepreneurship. From the few documents, I was shown, the Komsomol was allocating funds to oil, banking, and publishing, all of which were run and later owned by key Komsomol cadres. This of course wasn’t Gorbachev’s idea. His idea was that using the Komsomol to experiment with market reforms was politically safe. The Party pumped funds into the organization for it to set up cooperatives. In the case of technology, it was hard currency since Komsomol members would buy old computer equipment from the West and refurbish it for big profits.
By the time the Soviet system collapsed, the now redundant Komsomol was awash with cash. The players in the organization quickly appropriated it and set up the first banks, and therefore were the first ones that had the ability to give credit. The Komsomol oligarchs also made out big in the privatization scandals of the 1990s where they took privatization shares for loans. The result was that many, like Khodorkovsky, became the owners of recently privatized state enterprises.
“I’ll take these documents to court if I have to,” the woman told me with hopes that an article based on archival documents will bring some justice. In fact, some of the documents she’s looking at were used in Khodorkovsky’s conviction. “The strange thing is that he didn’t believe he was guilty. This is why he didn’t flee to Israel or America like the others. But how could he think he was innocent!? His name is all over these documents. And there were laws on cooperatives that prevented their privatization. And the Komsomol was after all a social organization and therefore not theirs to take.”Post Views: 1,005
By Sean — 9 years ago
Richard Feynman, famous American physicist, atom bomb maker, father of nanotechnology, and Tuva lover. Feynman discovered the remote region and its nomadic people from stamp collecting during the dark days of the Cold War. Feynman began a long correspondence with one of its residents. Feynman wanted to visit Tuva, but never did. The Cold War prevented him from getting a visa which he documented in the book Tuva or Bust. In pure Soviet bureaucratic fashion, the his visa approval arrived the day after he died.
Feynman didn’t make it to Tuva, but his daughter Michelle did. BBC Radio’s Ilona Vinogradova chronicled her incredibly emotional journey, Feynman’s fascination with Tuva, and the life, customs, and hospitality of the small province on the Mongolian border. Never did Michelle think that she would be slaughtering goats in her father’s honor.Post Views: 444