Yeltsin: An Obit of a Drunken, Bloblike Train Wreck of a Revolutionary Leader
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Boris Nikolayevich Yeltsin was always good for a laugh, which is probably why on the occasion of his death people outside of Russia are not calling him words like scum and monster, but instead recalling him fondly, with a smile, as one would a retarded nephew who could always be counted on to pull his pants down at Thanksgiving dinner.
Like most people who lived in Russia during the 1990s -- and Russia was my home throughout Yeltsin's entire reign as Russian president -- I have a wide variety of fond memories of the Motherland's drunken, bloblike train wreck of a revolutionary leader. My favorite came in 1995, at a press conference in Moscow, when a couple of American reporters perfectly captured the essence of Yeltsin by heckling him as he stumbled into the room. As he burst through the side entrance with that taillight-red face of his, hands wobbling in front of him in tactile search of the podium, the two hacks in the back called out: "Nor-r-r-r-r-r-m!" Such a perfect moment, I almost died laughing. Boris Nikolayevich, of course, was too wasted to hear the commotion at the back of the room.
Boris Yeltsin probably had more obituaries ready in the world's editorial cans than any chronically-ill famous person in history. He has been dying for at least twenty consecutive years now -- although he only started dying physically about ten years ago, he has been dying in a moral sense since at least the mid-'80s. Of course, spiritually speaking, he's been dead practically since birth. ... I once visited Boris Yeltsin's birthplace, in a village in the Talitsky region of the Sverdlovsk district in the Urals, a tiny outhouse of a place called Butka. I knocked on the door of the shack where Yeltsin was born and stepped in the soft ground where his room had once been. Boris Yeltsin was born in mud and raised in shit.
He was descended from a long line of drunken peasants who in hundreds of years of non-trying had failed to escape the stinky-ass backwater of the Talitsky region, a barren landscape of mud and weeds whose history is so undistinguished that even the most talented Russian historians struggle to find mention of it in imperial documents. They did find Yeltsins here and there in the Czarist censuses, but until the 20th century none made any mark in history. The best of the lot turned out to be Boris's grandfather, a legendarily mean and greedy old prick named Ignatiy Yeltsin, who achieved what was considered great wealth by village standards, owning a mill and a horse. Naturally, the flesh-devouring Soviet government, the government that would later make Boris Yeltsin one of its favored and feared vampires, liquidated Ignatiy for the crime of affluence, for the crime of having a mill and a horse.
In those early days of the revolution, you see, the most worthless, drunken and lazy of the peasants became temporary big-shots with puffed-up communist titles and accompanying important-looking little red vinyl badges just by ratting out the rich farmers, called kulaks, of which Ignatiy was one. They would "razkulachivat" (de-kulak) the kulaks by denouncing them to the secret police and having them sent to prison camps -- and once they were safely gone, the little bastards would appropriate the boss's shit for themselves and spend their days getting drunk in his haystacks, a peasant version of paradise on earth.
That was what Marxism looked like in the 1930s in Russia. Boris Yeltsin's father Nikolai saw this happen to his family and so he moved away from Butka, to the city of Kazan, to work construction at the site of a machine-building plant. During that time the Yeltsin family lived in a workers' barracks where men, women, children and the elderly slept on top of each other like animals and fought, literally fought with fists and lead pipes, for crusts of bread, or a few feet of space upon which to sleep at night. The communist government found its leaders among the meanest and greediest of the children who survived and thrived in places like this. Boris Yeltsin was such a child. As a teenager he only knew two things; how to drink vodka and smash people in the face. At the very first opportunity he joined up with the communists who had liquidated his grandfather and persecuted his father and became a professional thief and face-smasher, rising quickly through the communist ranks to become a boss of the Sverdlovsk region, where he was again famous for two things: his heroic drinking and his keen political sense in looting and distributing the booty from Soviet highway and construction contracts. If Boris Yeltsin ever had a soul, it was not observable in his early biography. He sold out as soon as he could and was his whole life a human appendage of a rotting, corrupt state, a crook who could emerge even from the hottest bath still stinking of booze, concrete and sausage.
It's worth noting that Yeltsin's future political adversary, Mikhail Gorbachev, grew up in almost identical conditions of mud, misery and starvation in the Stavropol region. But while Gorbachev's childhood turned him into a pathologically self-hating wannabe, a scheming, two-faced party intellectual who privately lusted after French villas and foreign-tailored suits and would eventually be undone by his habit of parading in public with a wife who wore jewels and furs, Yeltsin never left the mud and never tried to. He remained a mean, thieving country drunk his whole life.
Some historians will disagree, pointing to the fact that in the end, Yeltsin held huge Swiss bank accounts, sent his grandkids to school in Europe and was rich beyond Gorbachev's wildest dreams, but those people misunderstand what it is to be a sovok, or pure Soviet philistine, as Yeltsin was. The swelling Swiss bank accounts that Boris Nikolayevich lived off of as he drank his gurgling elderly self to death in the last eight years were just a modern version of the stolen haystacks the lazy Butka peasants slept on eighty years ago. Like them, Yeltsin stole whatever he could get his hands on and then lived out his days rolling in his bounty like a human pig -- because a sovok doesn't know how to enjoy anything except to roll around in it like a pig. Yeltsin was just better at it than the rest of his peers. And he survived longer than the rest of them because his "life" was, until today, just a biological technicality -- it is hard to kill what has, inside, been dead all along.
Everything about the historical figure Boris Yeltsin reeked of death and decay; it was his primary characteristic as a human being. I remember clearly talking with former general and Secretary of the Security Council (who served under Yeltsin) Alexander Lebed at Lebed's dacha in Siberia -- here is what Lebed had to say about Yeltsin the man:
He's been on the verge of death so many times. ... His doctors themselves are in shock that he's still alive. Half the blood vessels in his brain are about to burst after his strokes, his intestines are spotted all over with holes, he has giant ulcers in his stomach, his heart is in absolutely disgusting condition, he is literally rotting ... He could die from any one of dozens of physical problems that he has, but contrary to all laws of nature -- he lives.
I still remember the way Lebed pronounced the word "rotting" -- gnilit -- scrunching up his smashed boxer's nose in moral disgust. He was shaken by the memory of just having been near Yeltsin. This from a hardened war veteran, a man who had coldly taken lives from Afghanistan to the Transdniestr. The stink of Boris Yeltsin was the first thing capable of giving Alexander Lebed shell-shock.
Yeltsin outlived Lebed, a physically mighty man who could break rows of jaws with his fists but was chewed up and spit out like a sardine when he took on the Russian state. He likewise outlived the Petersburg Democrat Galina Starovoitova, the reporter Anna Politkovskaya, the muckraker Artyem Borovik, the Duma deputy Yuri Shekochikhin, the spy Alexander Litvinenko -- they were all too human in one way or another for today's Russia, and died of unnatural causes at young ages, but not Yeltsin. While all of those people were being murdered or dying in mysterious accidents, Yeltsin spent his golden years in an eerie state of half-preserved, perpetual almost-death. I saw an intern cutting video for a Yeltsin obit at my father's offices at NBC Dateline a full ten years ago. They expected him to go at any minute. He didn't. A few years later Yeltsin got sick and again the papers here and in Russia prepped the obits. He survived, and his handlers -- people like the ball-sucking Valentin Yumashev (the real author of at least two Yeltsin "autobiographies," by the way) -- tried to prove to the Russian people (and Yeltsin's enemies) that the boss was still viable by releasing video footage on the Russian state channel ORT of Yeltsin driving a snowmobile in the country.
I remember that footage, it was one of the funniest things ever put on television. I am certain that they stapled Yeltsin's hands to the handlebars; the boss had a blank face and a little ski-hat and seemed crudely propped up on the snowmobile seat. They gave him a push and Yeltsin drifted aimlessly across the snow. The footage lasted for about ten seconds and the last thing you saw was Yeltsin's back. So much for the death-watch.
This pattern repeated itself over and over again, and eventually I got so fed up with it that, when he got sick again in 1999, I ran a cover in my Moscow newspaper The eXile that showed a picture of a wobbling Yeltsin over the headline, " Die Already!!! " But he didn't. He survived and lived to turn over power to the next vampire, the Thief Mark VII, Vladimir Putin. Then he disappeared somewhere to spend seven glorious years drinking himself to death -- a Soviet version of Leaving Las Vegas , set in Switzerland and the south of France. Like all the great Russian monsters, like Stalin and Lenin and Brezhnyev and Andropov and a million other czars big and small, he died peacefully of natural causes while murders raged all around him, a piece of fat noiselessly clogging his heart while he slept in his stolen bed.
The obituaries this morning I read great amusement. Here is a line from the Associated Press:
Yeltsin steadfastly defended freedom of the press, but was a master at manipulating the media ...
Boris Yeltsin, defender of the freedom of the press! That should be news to Dmitri Kholodov, erstwhile reporter for Moskovsky Komsomolets , who was killed by an exploding briefcase in 1994 while investigating embezzlement of the Western army group connected with Yeltsin's close drinking buddy, then-defense minister Pavel Grachev. The day after Kholodov was killed, Yeltsin got up on national television and called Grachev "one of my favorite ministers." That was what Yeltsin thought of reporters and the free press. Here's another line from the Yeltsin obit:
But Yeltsin was an inconsistent reformer who never took much interest in the mundane tasks of day-to-day government and nearly always blamed Russia's myriad problems on subordinates ...
"Inconsistent reformer" is exactly the kind of language the American media typically used when describing Yeltsin during a period when he and his friends were robbing the Russian state like a gang of New Jersey truck hijackers. When I sent bits of this obit to a friend of mine who had also been a reporter in Russia during Yeltsin's reign, here's what he wrote back:
Yeah, it's a hoot. He simply had no power, for example, to prevent the misuse of the $1-$3 billion a year that his tennis partner at the National Sports Fund (Shamil Tarpishev) was getting from duty-free cigarettes ... much of which inexplicably ended up in his daughter's foreign bank accounts.
What we were calling "reform" was just a thinly-veiled mass robbery that Yeltsin perpetrated with American help. The great delusion about Yeltsin was that he was a kind of democrat and an opponent of communism. He was not. He was, like all politicians who grew up in that system, an opportunist. He read the writing on the wall and he threw his weight behind a "revolution" that turned out to be a brilliant ploy hatched by a canny group of generals and KGB types to privatize Soviet assets into the hands of the country's leaders, while simultaneously cutting the state free of its dreary obligations toward the rank-and-file Russian people.
The word "corruption" when applied to Boris Yeltsin had both specific and general applications. Specifically he personally stole and facilitated mass thefts at the hands of others from just about every orifice of the Russian state. American journalists, when chronicling Yeltsin's "corruption," generally point to minor cash-bribery deals like that involving the Swiss construction company Mabetex, which was given the contract to renovate the Kremlin in exchange for cash payouts to Yeltsin (at least $1 million to a Hungarian bank, according to some reports) and no-limit credit cards in the names of his two daughters, whose bills ultimately were paid by Mabetex. (According to reports, charges on the Eurocards in the names of the two women ran to $600,000 in 1993 and 1994 alone). This is the kind of simple, Boss-Tweed/Tammany Hall corruption that Americans understand, and in the eyes of most of the Western world, for a Yeltsin to dip his beak in a few million here and there in the midst of such a violent societal transformation was not really a big deal. A guy's gotta get paid, right?
Well, not exactly. What Americans missed during Yeltsin's presidency -- and they missed it because American reporters defiantly refused to report the truth of the matter -- was that under Boris Yeltsin the Russian state itself became little more than a cash factory for gangland interests. This was corruption on the larger scale, a corruption of the essence of the state, corruption at the core. Some of the schemes hatched by Yeltsin's government were so astonishing and audacious in scope that they almost defy description.
The FIMACO scandal was a great example. An extraordinarily complex affair, the broad strokes go as follows: in the midst of a Russian financial crisis in 1998, Yeltsin's government received $4.8 billion of an eventual $17 billion loan from the IMF. Shortly after receiving that money, three things happened; the ruble devalued, the IMF money vanished, and huge masses of hard currency mysteriously fled Russia. IMF officials were subsequently forced to make statements along the lines of "IMF director Michael Camedessus emphasized that there was no proof of a link between these operations and IMF loans," even though everyone knew exactly what had happened.
Subsequently, huge masses of the IMF money appeared in the accounts of a tiny Jersey Islands-based company called FIMACO, which had started with only $1000 in capital. FIMACO then began buying up huge masses of Russian T-bills, also known as GKOs. The Russian state, in other words, was stealing hard currency from the West -- if you go back far enough, from you and me -- and using that money to artificially create market demand for its own securities.
Here in America we call that kind of economics a pyramid scheme , and that is exactly what the Russian treasury was used for during those years. The state's coffers under Yeltsin were ritualistically raided for mass orgies of self-dealing, filtering tax revenues through tawdry offshore accounts, chiefly using two classes of people -- Westerners and the Russian public -- as marks in the con. It is worth noting that the economic crash that ensued after the theft of this IMF money (and the collapse of the pyramid-pumped T-bills) left more than 11 million Russians unemployed, an extraordinary amount when compared to the less than two million Americans who lost jobs after the 1929 crash. So we know who the victims were.
The beneficiaries? Well, in 1999 reports surfaced that a company belonging partially to Yeltsin's daughter, Tatiana Dyachenko, had received a payment into its Australian bank account of $235 million, and that that money had been taken from the $4.8 billion IMF credit. Maybe that was the carrying charge for the FIMACO transaction, who knows. The source for that story was Viktor Ilyukhin, a much-despised "dirty commie," as one friend of mine described him, but the details still ring true, if only because we ended up hearing so many similar stories with similar endings before Borya and his daughters stepped down from the throne.
In addition to those payments, we also now know that the revenues from FIMACO's T-bill machinations were used for all sorts of ill deeds, including the financing of election campaigns. There are even stories suggesting that Yeltsin himself received funds for his re-election from other T-bill scams. Ah, yes -- Yeltsin's elections. The proof positive that Our Man in Moscow was a "Democrat." There were two big ones, the constitutional referendum of 1993 and the re-election of 1996. About the referendum it is worth saying only that evidence has surfaced suggesting that that vote was rigged and that Yeltsin actually lost -- but he got away with it, and the vote was close anyway, so mazel tov .
But 1996 was a historic event. The short version of the story is that Yeltsin originally looked likely to lose the election to the dreary communist Gennady Zyuganov. Panicked, Yeltsin's cronies, in particular privatization chief Anatoly Chubais, brokered (at Davos in 1995) a deal with the seven chief "bankers" of the new Russia, gangsters like Mikhail Khodorkovsky and Vladimir Potanin and Vladimir Vinogradov, who were really Russia's version of the Godfather five families. In exchange for their massive financial and media support (these men owned most of the new Russian media outlets) in the election, Yeltsin would hold a series of auctions of state properties called "Loans-For-Shares."
Essentially, Yeltsin agreed to a sell-off of Russia's major industries, in particular the great state oil and energy companies, for pennies on the dollar. In some cases, Yeltsin's government even lent the money the mobsters needed to make their bids. Bank Menatep, for instance, run at the time by Khodorkovsky, had $50 million in Finance Ministry funds transferred into its accounts just before it submitted the winning bid of $100.3 million for the oil giant Yukos, control of which of course was worth at least ten times that amount. Yukos eventually grew into one of the most powerful private companies in the world, but few people know it was born as a back-room favor in an election season.
Yeltsin, in other words, single-handedly created a super-gangster class to defend his presidency against an electoral challenge. He had also restored a system of despotic government-by-tribute that had reigned in Russia for centuries, even throughout the worst years of Soviet rule. In Russia there survives a style of leadership dating back to the local Khans of the East in which the leader is a pathologically greedy strongman who takes everything for himself, and then rules by handing out "gifts" to an oligarchy of ruthless underlings devoted to his political survival. Stalin himself, an ethnic Georgian, used to physically re-enact this political style by walking around the room during feasts and breaking off pieces of chicken or hunks of mutton for his more important guests.
Without me, you don't eat; with me, you eat good. Americans will recognize this form of rule because they see it every Sunday night in The Sopranos . You send the envelope upstairs every week, rain or shine (had a fire? Fuck you, pay me!), and once in a while the boss buys you a Hummer. That was Russia after 1996. Loans-for-shares formalized Russia's transformation from a flailing Weimar democracy into an organized mafia state; Boris Yeltsin was the Don.
And the Don had a lot of funds to play with. Back in 1993, Yeltsin created the Kremlin Property Department and decreed that all assets that had once belonged to the Soviet Communist Party now belonged to this office. Assets included everything from dachas to resorts to foreign property and cash, jewels, paintings, practically everything of value the Soviet state owned, minus its industrial holdings (and even a few of those, including the "Rossiya" airline). He then placed his buddy, Pavel Borodin, in charge of the office. Borodin was a fat pig and a crook to the bottom of his shoes; he was the man who brokered the Mabetex construction deal, the one that landed Yeltsin's daughters the magically repaid Swiss credit cards. Borodin once estimated that the Kremlin Property Department had over $600 billion in assets -- twice the size of Russia's GDP in the last year of Yeltsin's reign. He had over 3 million square meters of office space in Moscow alone. Basically, whenever Yeltsin needed to send a gift to a "friend," he picked up the phone and called Borodin. Give X this dacha, Y that river property overlooking the Kremlin, etc. ... It just never ends, the corruption tied to Yeltsin. That's why the Kremlin Property Department was so frequently described as an "octopus." Its legs were everywhere.
Let's not forget also Yeltsin's role in starting two wars in Chechnya. Obviously there were political reasons for starting both wars, some of them possibly even legitimate, but at their roots both Chechen conflicts ended up basically being bloodbaths and cash boondoggles. Americans who follow the contracts handed out to the likes of Bechtel and Halliburton in Iraq understand the dynamic here. Only in America, the companies at least have to build something for the money they get. In the case of Chechnya it was simpler; Yeltsin could simply hand Chechen Reconstruction Funds to an "authorized bank" that would be trusted to distribute them, and the money would just disappear.
Bank Menatep, for instance, was trusted with the task of supplying food to the military, cleaning up Chernobyl, and rebuilding destroyed areas of Chechnya. According to state auditors, over $4 billion dollars disappeared in the accounts of these "authorized banks." One auditor told stories of seeing a piece of Finance Ministry paper in which 500 billion rubles of Chechen Reconstruction money was transferred to a single individual, for no apparent reason...
Meanwhile, in Chechnya, undermanned teenage Russian soldiers -- straight from being sodomized and forced to suck off drunken officers during the notorious dedovschina hazing period of basic training -- would be forced to sell socks and blankets and even rifles to the enemy to pay for the food their commanders now no longer had money to buy. And when that didn't help military morale enough to secure victory, the state would simply cut its losses and drop fuel-air "vacuum bombs" on Chechen civilian areas as a way of showing "progress." Estimates of the Chechen disaster now range from 50,000 to 200,000 civilian deaths and from 10,000 to 50,000 Russian servicemen dead -- an endless cycle of military stalemate, atrocities and robbery, a hell-on-earth chaos that makes the Iraq war look like the Tennessee Valley Authority.
Finally, let's not forget who the victims were in Yeltsin's reign. Few today remember that the make-or-break moment for Yeltsin as a "democratic" leader came when coal miners in places like Cherepovets and Vorkuta went on strike in support of the revolution. Yeltsin rewarded those same miners by telling them to go fuck themselves when ruthless mine owners in his newly capitalist "reform Russia" turned them into slave laborers and left them unpaid for months and years on end. I visited Vorkuta in 1998 and found the same people who had protested in favor of Yeltsin's "democratic" revolt years before now living off tiny daily rations of rotten eggs and bacon fat. I was with one miner who brought home a single package of a boiled egg, a piece of sausage and a hunk of cheese given to him in lieu of salary at the mine, and solemnly divided it up with his wife and his two kids at dinner. The food came from past-due stocks of old food that the mine owners had traded for with a local store in exchange for coal.
Those same steam-boiler-bellied mine executives -- Yeltsin lookalikes -- proudly showed me a new slate pool table they had had imported from St. Petersburg that day and which they kept in the mine's newly-furnished executive lounge, where they hung out boozing all day while everybody else worked in dangerous prehistoric conditions. I visited that mine in June of 1998; 37 people had already died in mines in Vorkuta that year. That was Boris Yeltsin's Russia. It was a place where pigs got fat and everyone else sucked eggs. Yeltsin wasn't a "reformer" any more than he was a human being. He was born in a Russia where the mean ones got the house with the mill and the wood floors and the losers worked themselves to death in pits and outhouses. He left behind exactly the same country.
There will be some Russians who will mourn him today, because for all his faults, he was what the Russians call nash -- "Ours." With his drunkenness, his talent for making a slobbish spectacle of himself in front of the civilized leaders of the world, his apelike inability to wear a suit, his perfect and instinctive amorality, his effortless thievery, and his casual use of lethal force, he represented a type intimately familiar to all Russians. There is a famous story in Russian history in which a Russian general who has been living in France for years after the Napoleonic wars meets a fellow countryman, who has just arrived in France from home. "Well, so what are they doing in the Motherland?" the general asks. The traveler pauses, then finally answers: "Stealing." Russia even back then was run by Yeltsins, and it will be again, even though this particular one is finally dead. Boris Yeltsin, reformer*, 1931-2007. Sleep it off, you drunken slob.
*The headline in the print edition of the New York Times was "Boris Yeltsin, Reformer, Who Buried the U.S.S.R., Dies at 76." Look what word they took out by the afternoon.