Thinking Aloud About my Motherland’s Savior
April 24, 2006
Translated from the Russian by Vova Khavkin
At the Kalininskiy market bread was “dumped” once every half hour. This was a strange type of bread: Some mongrel-looking types with large nostrils of unimaginable shape, as if made by a spiteful drunk baker as a revenge for his damned life. The people were grabbing them, scooping up the monsters off the counter. Then an invisible aunty-type woman’s voice was heard shouting from behind the empty counters: “No more, break it up!”—and the dense crowd moaned and quieted in a stupor. It was in a winter evening during the last Soviet year.
One had to be able to digest this, smoking a Java [cigarette] from the Ducat [Tobacco Factory] in the December wind. They ran out of bread for good in the central store downtown, in
I had never experienced such horror in my life. Not in August 1991—not too far from this place in
Unimaginable last loaves of bread—as if twisted with a poke—was all that was left then as a legacy from the communists. This was their farewell practical joke and parting shot. To a country that at the turn of the century was exporting bread to the whole world while they were arguing at their clandestine party congresses.
This is the country which Yeltsin inherited when he pulled the throne from under Gorbachev and proclaimed Russia to be an independent and democratic, you see*, state—and went on putting this country together from rusty bolts lying around in the backyard. This was the economy he endeavored to cure together with Gaidar-Chubais with the help of a treatment the people referred to as “shock therapy”—something that even the reformers themselves agreed with.
It is hard to tell where this definition came from. The life itself was shocking, expecting a catastrophe and humanitarian assistance every day. The people rambling by in shock with red banners near the stores where food reappeared all of a sudden in a flash: It was expensive but real. The bosses who let a huge and vastly endowed country slip away were shocking. What was also shocking was the fact that there were people among those mid-level bosses and heads of laboratories who grabbed the impoverished and miserable
The Yeltsin phenomenon was shocking.
A poorly educated, stubborn, and brutal man who had spent half of his lifetime sitting in the same offices where all human traits are exorcised from the very first day, he displayed an inexhaustible reserve of courage and spiritual power and barely sensed the power and personal responsibility for Russia. For a nation that of all the skills during the last half century preserved only its ability to “communize” [i.e., steal] all that’s not nailed down. For the reputation of a state which for 70 years evoked nothing but fear and disgust in the rest of the world except for a short break for the war.
He was like a born-again, this former civil engineer, a political appointee, and a Politburo member; a staunch democrat for whom the freedom of speech was above all printable and nonprintable abuse directed at him—from the TV screens, in the newspapers, and in graffiti on the walls; a staunch Liberal for whom the notions of “freedom of enterprise” or “market” or “private property” were sacrosanct; a staunch anti-communist for whom the gods from the old testament of party booklets turned to be the demons reeking of sulfur and blood. Like any neophyte, he was laughable when discovering the truths knows even to children in
During his time (and only during his time)
Then he became worn out. Later under the strain of tiredness and the age-old Russian remedy to rid oneself of fatigue he began to display at times the worst of a regional party secretary’s traits. Despotism coupled with trusting the scoundrels woke up in him: This is how the fist Chechen war started. He developed great-power phantom pains: Then he started to threaten his “Friend Bill” with nuclear missiles and give medals to the [Kosovo] Pristina assault operation personnel. After all, he was too spontaneous as a market reformer and democrat: He didn’t like the oligarchs but tolerated them, didn’t tolerate but liked the thieves from among his inner circle. He took to drink trying to reform the country. He got well for a long time after he retired. In a well-known interview with Nikolai Svanidze he admitted that his life had not been an entirely happy one. And he only became happy now in his old age, being at rest.
This, by the way, is hard to believe in because Boris Nikolayevich himself gave plenty of reasons for doubts—on rare occasions he did respond to the leaden news from the life of sovereign
By the way, there aren’t many [gains] left. Even
Actually, freedom still lingers in the country: “Yours and our freedom”—freedom of speech which has migrated to small-circulation newspapers and mass-circulation Internet. Freedom to demonstrate embodied in the banned marches where the “Other Russia” is defending her right to disagree in a city occupied by stormtroopers; the freedom to rally for human right—rights limited by the lawlessness of the Basmanny**-like courts and the overall environment of senile spy mania.
On the other hand there is freedom to move about the world. At least the Russians—whether at home or in emigration—can wittingly today, together with the rest of the world, commemorate their first president for all the good things he’s had the time to do, and forgive him for his unwitting yet grave sins. For in these mournful days the image of Yeltsin the Liberator and Reformer eclipses all the mistakes of the sinner and at times irrational and inebriated man named Boris Nikolayevich Yeltsin.
He will live in the memory of the generations to come as one of the most honorable heads of the
*"You see" – Yeltsin’s trademark interjection
**Basmanny court where Mikhail Khodorkovsky was tried and convicted, an epitome of