Whilst recently leafing through the back issues of the now sadly defunct the eXile, I stumbled across this opinion piece by Eduard Limonov, leader of the banned Russian National Bolshevik party and all-round odd-ball, and was particularly struck by this passage:
What should I say? They have forgotten what mighty force are the people. They think they can manipulate our political system and our lives. A small group of comrades from St. Petersburg, untalented and unconvincing small men, following the luck of one of their own. They think they are our masters. But they have been picked up by the most hated figure in Russian history, by Boris Yeltsin. It was no miracle whatsoever. They were just picked up, not arriving at the top of Russian society by the force of mind and talent, no.
Is this true? To what degree does Russia's current generation of leaders owe their positions to Boris Yeltsin, "the most hated figure in Russian history"? Has the Putin era been a continuation of the Yeltsin era but with higher-priced oil? Is the narrative offered by writers like Michael McFaul of a "democratic rollback" under Putin as compared to Yeltsin simply wrong?
Boris Yeltsin came to power in the wake of the failed August coup of 1991. Whilst Russia's economic performance during the nineties was lamentable, the degree to which Yeltsin could have done anything to prevent this considering the inevitable turmoil of the post-Soviet space is debatable, although the general consensus is that what was done in the way of economic policy was an utter failure. What we may be much more sure of is Yeltsin's record as a democrat, and what we see is that it was dubious in the extreme. From the secret dealings involved in the break-up of the Soviet Union, to the assumption of unconstitutional powers to push through economic reform, to the use of military force to destroy both his opponents in the Russian White House and in Chechnya, to his alleged rigging of the 1996 election, to his final act of anointing his successor, there was little sign of any deep commitment to democracy. For each of Putin's acts of autocracy there appears to have been an equivalent, if less effective or decisive act by Yeltsin. The main difference between Yeltsin and Putin seems to have been the relative efficiency and effectiveness of the latter, who also benefited from ruling over a country where expectations had become very low indeed. Far from 'rollback' of democracy, what we have seen is entrenchment of autocracy.