Yeltsin's Warning

It is lucky for him that former Russian president Boris Yeltsin is no longer alive. Were he still living, the events unfolding in Russia each day for years now, events clearly showing a country rushing backwards into its dark Soviet past, events that prove Yeltsin’s worst fears were well grounded, would surely kill him.

On April 23, 2007, reporting on Yeltin’s passing the day before, the Boston Globe got a critically important word wrong.  It stated: “In 1991, wooing the support of Russian regional leaders, [Yeltsin] told them to ‘grab as much sovereignty as you can swallow’.”  The word beginning with a “w” that the Globe needed was not “wooing” but “warning.”

From the first moments after he came to power, Yeltsin tirelessly and fearlessly warned his countrymen and the world that Russia was not safely free of dictatorship, that it could backslide at any moment. For this reason, Yeltsin rushed at breakneck speed to disperse power as widely as possible, to create as many barriers as possible to the rise of a neo-Soviet ruler like Vladimir Putin.

Yeltsin knew only too well that institutions like courts and legislatures would be no match for such a ruler, and history has shown him precisely correct. Putin easily and quickly dominated both Russia’s courts and its parliament. His one major obstacle has continued to be the class of “oligarchs” to whom Yeltsin distributed economic power. Far from being an act of corruption, this action was simply an expression of Yeltsin’s precisely correct analysis that Russians would not be willing to pay the price demanded by freedom and democracy and would launch themselves upon yet another self-destructive slide into the pit of dictatorship.

A review of current events these days in Russia puts a harrowing and decisive exclamation point on Yeltsin’s wisdom.

In spring, it seems, a young neo-Soviet Russian’s fancy lightly turns to thoughts of oppressing and subjugating women by any and all means possible. And those few not thinking such thoughts, it appears, are heading for the exits in disgust.

This month alone, we have seen Russia contemplate banning women from wearing both high-heeled shoes and ballet flats, banning them from smoking, and censoring the lesbian sex scenes from Blue is the Warmest Color, the film that won the Palme D’or at Cannes this year.

When women tried to march in support of feminism in Moscow on International Women’s Day last year, the Kremlin gave them a special present:  It arrested them.

There are 31 cabinet positions in the Russian government including eight deputy prime ministers and twenty-three department ministers. Only one of the eight deputy prime ministers is female, and she’s not exactly been given a weighty policy position. Instead, she’s in charge of Social Affairs. Only one other woman sits on the cabinet, she’s the Minister of Health, in other words the nation’s nurse. In Putin’s Russia it’s not just a man’s world, but a man’s solar system.

Breaking a woman’s nose and ribs doesn’t count as a criminal offense in Putin’s Russia if the attacker is her husband. All she can do is sue him in civil court and recover at most about $1,500 in damages. As a result, one Russian woman is murdered by her spouse about every hour.

Murder is indeed the one way in which Russian women get treatment that is at least equal to men. Galina Starovoitova, Anna Politkovskaya, and Natalia Estemirova were three prominent democracy activists who were assassinated to silence their criticism of the Putin dictatorship, just like Sergei Yushenkov, Yuri Shchekochikhin, Nikolai Girenko, Paul Klebnikov, Andrei Kozlov, Alexander Litvinenko, and Stanislav Markelov on the men’s side.

A trio of articles by Russian men in the wonderful Russia newspaper the Moscow Times shows tellingly how hopeless life there has become for civilized fellows, and not just because of the barbaric abuse of women but because such barbarism characterizes every nook and cranny of life there. They speak as Yeltsin would have, if he had lived, they sing the funeral dirge of civilized Russia.

The first, by journalist Ivan Sukhov, was entitled “Russia’s Bad Manners will be its Downfall.”  In response to Ukraine’s foreign minister calling Putin a “dickhead,” Sukhov boldly and properly asked: “Why do Russia's neighbors dislike this country so much?” His answer: “The invective that has begun to dominate Russia's discourse with the rest of the world reflects the desperate inability of senior Moscow officials to make others like them.” Sukhov is horrified by Russians’ refusal to market themselves, to see themselves, to live in the real world. He knows such a country, just like the USSR, cannot long survive.

Next came “In Front of Putin, Internet Titans Lose their Nerve” from security analyst Andrei Soldatov. Soldatov reported on how the heads of Russia’s main Internet companies bowed and scraped and genuflected before Putin even as he launches a furious wave of new assaults on the Internet itself, threatening to destroy their businesses. Use of the anonymous browser system known as “Tor” has soared recently as Russians have scrambled to avoid their new big brother. Not long ago we were repeatedly told by Putin’s apologists that it didn’t matter if Putin took control of Russian TV broadcasting and newspaper publishing because the Internet would always be dynamic and free enough to counterbalance such state-sponsored propaganda. Now we see those statements were nothing but smoke and mirrors designed to get us to drop our guard and let Putin take over mainstream media, which he quickly did.

Finally pundit Leonid Bershidsky simply called it quits with “No Illusions Left, I’m Leaving.”  Bershidsky is appalled by his country’s obliteration of independent media and thought and by its wanton, reckless aggression against what should be a brother nation, Ukraine. He writes:

I have no desire to stay in Russia and pay a single kopek for Crimea. Stolen goods are stolen goods. Like many of those who are leaving, I was not a rat who jumped ship at the first sign of trouble. I am more a sailor who, seeing that the captain had changed course toward a port of ill repute — and with loudspeakers blaring his intent — quietly, and without panicking, lowered the lifeboat and began rowing toward the port for which all of us had originally set sail.

All this was predictable, and was predicted.  As soon as Vladimir Putin came to power, those of us who know Russia all too well warned that this man would ring down the curtain on Russian freedom and would turn the clock rapidly backwards to the era of Soviet repression. Many groaned that this was itself retrograde thinking, that Russia was a new country and “could not go back” to the failed past.

But the facts on the ground in today’s Russia prove that the warnings about Putin should have been heeded. Instead, we now read on a daily basis about Russian nuclear bombers and other attack aircraft menacing NATO countries and Russia is resuming its military buildup on the Ukraine border, after promising not to.  Russian tanks are rolling across the border into Ukraine just as Soviet tanks rolled into Eastern Europe some decades ago.

Because Russia has no Boris Yeltsin now to stop them.

Follow Kim Zigfeld on Twitter @larussophobe.

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