Boris Nikolayevich Yeltsin’s lavish funeral in Moscow last week leaves one with a sense of sorrow and mixed emotions. Yeltsin certainly deserves a place in history for bringing down the rotten Soviet Union, though his humiliation of its leader, the well-intentioned but hapless Mikhail Gorbachev, was brutal.
Yeltsin almost didn’t survive the 1991 anti-Gorbachev coup. As I learned from KGB sources, the commander of KGB’s elite Alpha Group who had been sent to assassinate Yeltsin refused to order his men to shoot. Yeltsin survived to become Russia’s first elected president and he was hugely popular – for a time
At first, there was widespread optimism that Yeltsin might somehow produce a viable democracy and free markets in this long-suffering nation, so horribly ravaged first by Stalin, then Hitler.
Tragically, Yeltsin failed both counts. Instead of democracy, the new Russia got chaotic politics resembling tribal warfare. The ideal of free markets quickly vanished, as robber barons, gangsters, and former intelligence men – more often than not all in cahoots- pillaged the economy. A tiny elite grew fabulously wealthy while ordinary Russians suffered cruel privation as their pensions vanished and prices for basics of life soared.
Under Yeltsin, much of Russia’s foreign and economic policies fell under American influence. Washington flooded Yeltsin’s Russia with new $100 dollar bills which became, in effect, the nation’s real currency. Russians bitterly complained their nation was under `external management.’
In the late 1980s, I was the first western journalist invited into KGB headquarters at Moscow’s notorious Lubyanka prison. Long hours spent with senior and mid-ranking reformist KGB officers in Moscow allowed me to understand and report back the shape of things to come.
KGB’s elite First Directorate, charged with foreign intelligence, was composed of the cream of Soviet society: young, highly-educated, sophisticated, westernized, multi-lingual officers. The men of the First knew better than anyone, including the sclerotic Communist leadership, that the Soviet Union and Communist Party were totally rotten and nearing collapse.
In 1989-1990, I was advised KGB had decided to abandon the party that it had been created to defend, save itself in the impending national ship wreck, and seize key sectors of government and the economy. As one KGB general told me, `we need a tough dictator like South Korea’s Park Chung-hi or Chile’s Pinochet to make our lazy people work – at gunpoint if necessary.’
After 1991, KGB, nominally split up into FSB(domestic) and SVR(foreign intelligence), went into business. It worked against the Party, and relentlessly undermined Yeltsin’s attempts to produce a viable democratic government while putting `retired’ KGB men in key positions in government and industry. During the Yeltsin years, former KGB men occupied around 47% of senior government posts.
In 1994, the Muslim Caucasian state of Chechnya, with only one million people, declared independence from Russia. Yeltsin reacted savagely, sending in heavy bombers and artillery to shell Grozny, capitol of the tiny nation. Russia’s attempts to crush Chechen freedom left 100,000 Chechen civilians dead and the tiny country destroyed. After more bitter fighting, the fierce Chechen defeated the Russian Army and drove it out.
Yeltsin’s slaughter of 10% of the total Chechen population was one of the worst war crimes of our era. President Bill Clinton actually lauded Yeltsin as `Russia’s Abraham Lincoln’ and helped finance Yeltsin’s brutal war against Chechnya. The Bush Administration would later shamefully brand Chechen independence fighters - the children of Soviet concentration camp survivors - `Islamic terrorists.’
Russia was engulfed by crime and runaway corruption. Surrounded by mediocrities, thieving officials, and his rapacious extended family, Yeltsin steadily lost control in spite of huge secret American cash subsidies. He ordered the Russian parliament building shelled by tanks after a group of anti-Yeltsin nationalists barricaded themselves within.
Drinking far too much, and suffering from worsening heart disease, Yeltsin was almost unable to serve his second term. KGB/FSB dirty tricks added to Yeltsin’s growing image as a drunken buffoon. Meanwhile, in a sordid scene reminiscent of post-World War I Germany, foreign financers and carpetbaggers poured in to join the plunder of Russia’s state assets.
On New Year’s eve, 1999, the `security organs’ ousted Yeltsin in a palace coup. The official version was that Yeltsin had resigned. Former FSB director, Vladimir Putin, became Russia’s new president. Putin was the antithesis of Yeltsin: sober, efficient, decisive and respected.
Putin was boosted into office after 300 Russians were killed in mysterious apartment building bombings in 1999 blamed on Chechen `terrorists.’ In his fascinating book, `Blowing Up Russia,’ former FSB agent Alexander Litvinenko, who was recently murdered by means of a radioactive isotope in London, claimed the bombings were a false flag operation conducted by FSB and gangsters designed to provoke a new war against Chechnya and deliver a mortal blow to Russia’s dying democracy.
By 2007, former KGB and GRU (military intelligence) officers had come to occupy 78% of all senior posts in government and industry.
The predictions I had heard from members of the KGB back in 1988 and 1989 had finally come to pass. President Vladimir Putin, with an approval rating of 70%, had become Russia’s most popular leader, the strongman on a white horse that KGB and most Russians had so long been craving.
The flow of Russian history was back on its traditional course. Like the post-1917 Revolution’s liberal Kerensky government, Boris Yeltsin’s experiment was a curiosity and aberration, the last tainted and unlamented vestiges of which were interred last week with his body.