Garbled Messages

Today there was a rather excellent article from Russian blogger Oleg Kashin on the failure of the West to react to Russian militarism in the 90’s, and how this led to what’s currently happening in Syria and Ukraine. Essentially he covers not only the Western approval for Yeltsin’s and Putin’s wars against Chechnya, but he goes straight to the root of the problem by pointing out how the former actually laid the groundwork for today’s authoritarian system in a bloody coup in 1993.

This is something far more Westerners need to be made aware of because you cannot understand the Putinist system without understanding Yeltsin. Both liberals and pro-Kremlin types constantly try to sever Putin from Yeltsin; the former do it because they idolize Yeltsin as a democrat (nonsense), and the latter do it because their narrative associates Yeltsin with weakness and submission before the United States. It is this latter opinion I’d like to focus on.

While Kashin’s article implies that the West didn’t have any significant criticisms of Putin’s war in Chechnya, this is not entirely true. Putin seems to be the first to start attracting scrutiny from the Western press, beginning with his ever-present title of “ex-KGB agent.” In hindsight this may seem justified to some, but this is part of the problem.

The Kremlin narrative today is that Putin saved the country from the embarrassment of Yeltsin, who also just happens to be the reason Putin was in power to begin with. One thing you often hear is “the West likes Russia when it’s weak,” which is a reference to Yeltsin and the near total lack of criticism for his regime from the Western press and Western leaders. On the contrary- the West gave Yeltsin a blank check in spite of the dirty money and organized crime flowing into their nations from Russia. They not only led him slide on Chechnya, but they also helped him get reelected when he slaughtered his own people in the center of Moscow.

Then along came Putin, and slowly but surely the press started to notice human rights violations, brutal military tactics, and corruption. Worse still, Putin was drawing criticism at the same time he was appropriating Russian patriotism and pride as the theme of his administration. The conclusion, if a bit oversimplified, is obvious- “Putin does nothing that Yeltsin hasn’t done, except for the fact that he’s preaching Russian patriotism- that must be why the West is attacking him!”

That wasn’t a notion held only by Russians either. Many Westerners, including myself at a young and considerably more naive age, also latched onto this idea. Many conservative and right wing figures seemed to sympathize with Putin, as they themselves believed that they faced persecution for their unapologetic patriotism. Many Western Putin fanboys still believe it today.

Unfortunately there really isn’t any concrete way to undo the past and hold Yeltsin and his cronies accountable. However, I think articles like Kashin as well as books and articles by Western authors can make a difference. Though you can’t change the image of Yeltsin in his time, we can certainly change the way history sees him. History is full of figures who received hagiographic treatment for decades before critical historians finally shattered their myths. If they did not totally supplant the previous legend of this or that historical figure (looking at you, Columbus), they at least managed to deflate them considerably.

So it should be with Yeltsin. By turning a blind eye to his corruption, aggression, and mistreatment of his own people, Western leaders gave Russians the impression that they don’t really believe in human rights or international law. Quite the contrary- they gave the impression that they would cheer Yeltsin on as he drove the country toward ruin. And what could you call intentional blindness to the suffering of ordinary Russians but an expression of “Russophobia?” Moreover, taking this step would also open up a discussion of the other side of the equation- Russian agency in their own post-Soviet problems.

While we shouldn’t buy into the phony “realist” arguments about “compromises” that amount to giving the Kremlin whatever it wants, history is one realm where was can make compromises and meet halfway before things get out of hand. Here a goodwill gesture costs nothing, because at the end of the day, Yeltsin was, in fact, a plague on Russia and much of the post-Soviet space.



16 thoughts on “Garbled Messages

  1. AndyT

    Despite their self-professed superiority, some Western politicians, pundits and media outlets haven’t proved to be better than their Russian counterparts – if the latter rant about “Gayropa” and the always-imminent “Muslim invasion”, the former have turned Vladimir Putin into the ultimate boogeyman (with a touch of Bond-esque evilness, I would say).

    The EU is having a bad time? It’s Putin’s fault!

    Right-wing movements are gaining support? It’s Putin’s fault!

    They never seem to aknowledge the West’s own responsibility…

    And the same thing is going on with Trump – people can talk and talk about his flaws and unfitness – but his meteoric rise hasn’t taken place in a vacuum: many Republican voters got him chosen as a Presidential candidate, and more people might vote for him next week.

    And still, very few people try to understand the roots of these phenomena.

    This kind of “experts” should stop looking at the single individual and pay little or no attention to the wider context, IMHO.

    1. Jim Kovpak Post author

      Absolutely. What so many pundits forget is that virtually all Russian propaganda is based on Western fringe theories and bullshit. For example, Putin recently referenced a fake anti-migrant story on First Channel, but as it turns out- they seemed to have got the story from the Daily Mail. And the Mail Online is apparently capable of giving Sputnik a run for its money in terms of fake stories.

      Eventually I think I’m going to have to write a serious article to be published in some journal, recommending a different approach to fighting propaganda that starts at home.

      1. AndyT

        “(…) a different approach to fighting propaganda that starts at home”.

        Which is also the only place where we can make a difference…

      1. AndyT

        Let me think – austerity-driven policies, businesses’ “savage” delocalizations, lack of proper job requalification policies for unemployed people, money spent on ultimately useless conflicts abroad…

  2. Quinton Benjaminavich

    Really interesting article, a great read. I notice a lot of this from conversations I have with people living in Russia — Yeltsin (and by extension, Gorbachev) make Russia weak while Putin Made Russia Great Again, if I may also paraphrase a mug I saw at a mall last week.

    This summer, I managed to read David Remnick’s “Resurrection, the Struggle for a New Russia”, written in 1998 while he was working as a correspondent in Moscow. He describes the political situation of the 90’s in great detail, and is not so sympathetic to the Yeltsin administration. He calls out what he sees a clear return to authoritarianism and rampant corruption within his administration. Putin just seems to have extended the political system created under Yeltsin (centralized presidency, corruption, the oligarchs).

    While there is some truth to the pro-Putin argument that he reigned in the oligarchs, he’s merely tightened the screws on a system that Yeltsin had already put in place. But now there is this impression among Russians that Putin is the savior of the Russian people, and if you don’t like Russia’s savior, that must mean you hate Russia. Not true, but it sure does play into the current anti-western sentiment. It doesn’t help that the West embraced the stealing oligarchs as “liberal businessmen” and “entrepreneurs” even as they robbed Russia of its resources.

  3. ex culo (@threearows)

    Same should be said about Gorbachev. He wasn’t that good guy as people thinks about him. There were massacres commited by soviet army during his governance.
    On the other hand this is not as important topic as with Yeltsin.

  4. coder

    To be fair, I think the 1990s were a turbulent period in all of the former Eastern bloc countries (in my own country Slovakia, that time, particularly the tenure of our first prime minister is not too fondly remembered, with especially mafia crimes making the headlines, though I haven’t studied it in too much detail). Being born in 1993 means I have no memories of news that happened either here or in Russia at the time, but I think your main point, that the West should have treated 1990s Russia and its government differently than it did does make sense when looking at history. As a comparison, many in our own country wanted to integrate with the West, and Europe more specifically at the time, but with the way things were going on here back then, with corruption, erosion of democracy and rule of law, the West or Europe assessed us as not really fit for entry. Well, the new elected government started to improve and build a functional democracy and improve peoples’ living standards and within a few years, we caught up to our neighboring post-Communist states, and afterwards were admitted to the EU. While I cannot call the current situation here ideal, I still feel that most people here are still pro-Europe and pro-Democracy, and for being much much smaller than Russia, most analysts will argue that the general quality of living here is pretty good, though there still are problems and issues that are facing us. What could have come from Russia if the West didn’t do the mistakes you describe here and treated it similarly to other former Eastern bloc countries is currently beyond my imagination.

    That being said I wonder why this difference in treatment, perhaps because Russia is a lot larger or because the general sentiment at the time the Cold war ended made people think with very rosy glasses or something else?

    PS: I have sent you an email back on October 10th to your Gmail account. Just wanted to say, that the issue I was asking about seems to have been solved (the video I was asking about does not necessarily match its title, and I have found the original site where the video was posted on a VKontakte group) so, you don’t have to reply anymore, unless you want to (although if you could at least reply to this comment, that would be nice). I apologize, if I was bothering you with the mail, but I didn’t know anyone else with some sufficient level of knowledge about Russia, so I just instinctively sent it to you, next time I will probably post on Reddit, as there are probably more places to ask for advice. 🙂

  5. Adrian_E

    I would say that in the case of the authoritarian system within, the situation is much clearer than with military actions in the Middle East. I don’t find it so easy to make a principal distinction between the Russian fight against the jihadist militias in Syria that are dominated by Dschabhat Fatah asch-Scham and similar actions of other countries, including the US, against rebels and IS/Daesh in other places. There may well be a difference, but from what is known in the media, this is difficult to assess, and many sides attempt to promote one-sided perspectives.

    In contrast, as far as the political system is concerned, there is a very clear contrast between the Russian federation and democracies in Western Europe and Northern Europe. While the political systems differ in their details, there is an emphasis on “checks and balances” and division of power. In contrast, the Russian political system is authoritarian, decisions are taken by the president and a narrow group around him. The Russian government does, to some degree, depend on people’s support or rather acquiescence, but in practice, there is no real division of power and pluralism. In some EU countries, such as Hungary, there are similar tendencies (with the attacks of the constitutional court also in Poland under PiS, although it seems that, at the moment, civil society and the independent press is still strong there), but it is undeniable that in comparison with liberal democracies, Russia has little division of power and pluralism.

    I think that, for understanding the phenomenon, it is important to look at the historical development, and, in my view, it is, indeed, wrong to think that the Russian Federation was a relatively well-functioning liberal democracy until the authoritarian Putin came to power.

    Russia has never been a well-functioning liberal democracy. A democratic culture often takes a lot of time to develop. While most countries in Central-Eastern Europe had some experience with democracy between the First and Second World war (most slipped towards authoritarian regimes sooner or later, but, for instance, Czechoslovakia was a democracy until it was occupied by Nazi Germany), Russia almost directly went from Tsarism to Soviet party dictatureship, only in the very first time in 1917, there could be some hopes that after tsarism there would be something else than another extremely authoritarian and then totalitarian system.

    Doubts about Gorbachev who, for instance, used violence in Georgia and the Baltic states against independence movements, are certainly justified. But the main problem is probably that under Yeltsin, when there was a new start with a political system that was theoretically close to the ones in Western Europe, a very authoritarian kind of government developed.

    A key event is certainly the coup in 1993 when Yeltsin made a coup, violated the constitution and let tanks shoot the building of parliament. In my impression at the time, this was an event of a similar gravity as the coup attempt 1990, only the number of casualties was much higher in Yeltsin’s coup, and, of course, in constrast to the attempt in 1990, this coup was successful. I was rather shocked in 1994, when I was in Russia as a young student, to see that for many Russians with a “pro Western” attitude that coup seemed to be no big deal. A Russian teacher told me that CNN made a survey and people said it’s OK. I don’t know how representative that survey was, but in any case, there are certain ways, described in the constitution, how citizens express their opinions, and it is not by letting the president destroy parliament and then telling a foreign TV station that it’s all right.

    Of course, not only this pro-Western Russian teacher, but also most Western governments had this attitude that shocked me at the time. It seems that the violation of the Russian constitution by Boris Yeltsin was treated as something acceptable because this was the time when Yeltsin was an ally of the West and a short time after American counsellors made their “shock therapy” with Gaydar.

    Currently, we can read a lot about the fight of the Polish PiS government against the constitutional court as an independent body that controls the actions of parliament and the government. In Hungary, the constitutional court has already been made powerless, tricks like sending judges to early retirement were used. The disempowerment of the constitutional court in Russia had taken place a long time ago, not under Putin, but under Yeltsin.

    When Putin took power, Russia already had an authoritarian political system to the core. Of course, this does not mean that Putin is innocent. Not only did he absolutely refrain from doing anything for restoring a liberal democracy, but he exacerbated authoritarianism, worked for diminishing pluralism in the press and made the work of NGOs difficult. But I think it is important to bear in mind that Putin did not convert a liberal democracy into an authoritarian system, he took over a system that was already very authoritarian and made it even worse. Also the brutal war in Chechnya was not started by Putin, but by Yeltsin.

    A main topic of Russian media, such as Russia Today, is “the West’s hypocrisy”. I think that the behaviour towards Russian authoritarianism since the end of the Soviet Union would be a good example. I doubt that these Russian media would want to write a lot about this instance because then, they would have to describe in detail the characteristics of authoritarianism in Russia, which they probably mostly prefer to avoid. But it would be a good example. As long as the Russian president was seen as an ally, moves towards authoritarianism and violations of the constitution were not seen as a problem. But when the Russian president is not an ally, people express outrage at authoritarianism in Russia.

    Of course, “the West” is not a monolith, but I think that it is obvious that there is a lot of hypocrisy. There are different kinds of answers to the Russian accusation of hypocrisy. Some say that there is not so much hypocrisy, others say that it is not relevant. I think that it is relevant, and it had bad consequences for Russia and internationally. I don’t know how much it would have influenced the course of events in Russia if Western countries had clearly denounced Yeltsin’s coup and called upon him to follow the Russian constitution. Of course, I would not have advocated interferring too forcefully. But it could still have been quite significant if people in Russia knew that slogans like constitutionality, the rule of law and division of power are meant seriously and that these are not just slogans that are thrown around when it fits the interests and the geopolitical agenda.

    I think it is more difficult to counter Kremlin propaganda if one attempts to completely deny the accusation of hypocrisy of Western governments and media because there are many instances where this accusation seems very credible. (By the way, and here, I seem to have opinions that differ from the ones of the blog author, I also think that there is a lot of hypocrisy in many Western media in what Middle Eastern dictators we should be outraged about and which should be treated as allies and about which bombs should be treated as something terrible and which as a necessary evil in the fight against jihadist extremists.) I think what is much more credible than denying the accusation of hypocrisy in the West is to agree that there are many instances where slogans about democracy, pluralism and human rights that are used in a hypocritical way, as it suits the agenda, but to deny that there is nothing apart from hypocrisy and that such values are not important. In some cases, the accusation of hypocrisy is probably overblown, but in others, it seems right to say: “Yes, I agree, there is hypocrisy about democratic values. But what do we conclude from this? That these values should not be treated as important? No, rather that instead of using them in an inconsistent, hypocritical way, they should be used more consistently.” The aim of the Kremlin propaganda usually rather seems to be that people, after being convinced that there is a lot of hypocrisy, people come to the conclusion that the values that are used in a hypocritical way should be treated as irrelevant.

    Furthermore, I think that some people in Western Europe and Northern America who used ideas about democratical principles in an inconsistent way towards Russia – authoritarianism was accepted as long as the Russian president was seen as an ally – are sometimes less hypocritical when such values are concerned in their own country. Of course, even in internal politics, many people have difficulty insisting on principles like consititutionality and the rule of law when it benefits their political opponents, but many still do because they are convinced that it is important for the greater good that such principles are upheld. I think in the case of Russia, the Western tolerance for Yeltsin’s disrespect for the Russian constitution and the inconsistent accusations about authoritarianism, a certain disparaging attitude towards Russia is also relevant. When people in “the West” regarded accusations of authoritarianism rather as a tool that is used in the relationship with Russia when it is useful and not used when those who violate the constitution are “the good guys”, this does not necessarily mean that such cynicism is pervasive and that they would not have treated values like division of power and the rule of law as something more important when it concerns their own country.

  6. Brian

    Here is Garry Kasparov’s appraisal of Yeltsin:

    (From Winter is Coming, Chapter 5)

    Starting from

    “Yeltsin deserves to be remembered for more than his drinking and for sitting atop a tank during the August coup attempt. …
    “It was Yeltsin, not Gorbachev, who brought Russia out of the looking glass into the sunlight. …
    “Corruption, poverty, crime, and war in the North Caucasus made daily life in Russia quite ugly, and Yeltsin received most of the blame.”

    and ending at

    “Boris Yeltsin had more than his share of faults, but he was a real person. He had virtues and vices in his flesh and blood. We exchanged him for a shadow of a man who wants only to keep us all in perpetual darkness. The long lines of Russians who waited to view Yeltsin’s coffin and pay their respects at a Moscow cathedral demonstrated that despite his many failures
    people sensed the possibility for good in what he attempted.”

    There’s also his article (apparently adapted for the book) in the WSJ:

    “Yeltsin failed the final and most important test. The fragile democratic structures he allowed to form could not survive his own need for power. He failed to create lasting institutions. The structure relied on his leadership and the freedoms that existed were there only because he allowed it. There was no way such a system could withstand the failure of the ruler who created it.

    “Worst of all, his collapse poisoned the minds of the Russian people against what they saw as uncontrolled capitalism and democracy. The oligarchs who took power prevailed over the good of the people. Russians saw no benefits from the supposed blessings of elections and the free market. The new ruling elite was formed out of the old bureaucrats and the new technocrats, united in their indifference to the values of liberal democracy. The fights among them at the end of the ’90s to find Yeltsin’s successor could have gone differently, but democracy was sure to be the loser. They quickly recognized that elections and a free media could only threaten their grip on power. It was no coincidence that Yeltsin’s hand-picked successor came from the KGB.”

    1. Jim Kovpak Post author

      This is more honest, but I still feel he gets away with too much. He’s portrayed as a victim of his time with no agency. Let’s keep in mind that this is a man who unleashed tanks and snipers against his own people. Something Putin hasn’t done yet (he sends his tanks to kill others).

      Of course we must take into account the context of his time, but the same could have been said about Putin if he’d left in 2004 or maybe even 2008 (I mean left for good in this case).

  7. GMcity

    Umm, I don’t mean to sound like a Yeltsin supporter but it feels like whenever you bring up the 1993 constitutional crisis it feels like you’re pushing this whole innocent-non violent protesters thing, when weren’t many of the opposition hardline communists and even more of them Slavic/Russian ultra-nationalists who did at many times use force and violence themselves?

    1. Jim Kovpak Post author

      This is the same argument people use to discredit Maidan. Of course such groups were involved, but it was the government that provoked and initiated violence.


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