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.