Borya, We Hardly Knew Ye -- Because the Media Wouldn't Tell Us

I was in Russia for part of the Boris Yeltsin years; Matt Taibbi, whom I worked with at the Moscow Times, was there for all of them. His take on the passing of bibulous Borya is pretty much on the money (literally so), although couched, as always, in the demure, whispery prose that has long been Taibbi's hallmark. The whole thing is worth a read, but here a few choice bits to get going with:

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.

...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...

But [the presidential election of] 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...brokered  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 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...Yeltsin, in other words, single-handedly created a super-gangster class to defend his presidency against an electoral challenge...

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 costs 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 situation that makes the Iraq war look like the Tennessee Valley Authority.
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