Yeltsin's Russia: Myths and Reality


In this comprehensive assessment of what has happened in Russia since 1991--what has been accomplished and what so far has failed--the author argues that the new situation in Russia cannot be defined simply in terms of either authoritarianism or liberal democracy. The reality is more complicated —a heterogeneous patchwork of despotism, liberalism, populism, paternalism, and democracy all coexisting. Russia's political life is marked by plurality of views and actors. Opposition movements are proliferating. On the ...

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In this comprehensive assessment of what has happened in Russia since 1991--what has been accomplished and what so far has failed--the author argues that the new situation in Russia cannot be defined simply in terms of either authoritarianism or liberal democracy. The reality is more complicated —a heterogeneous patchwork of despotism, liberalism, populism, paternalism, and democracy all coexisting. Russia's political life is marked by plurality of views and actors. Opposition movements are proliferating. On the economic front, Russia crossed the threshold to a market economy. Strides have been made in providing guarantees for individual liberties. Russians turn out to vote, for instance, in numbers that put US voters to shame. These advances are impressive. Yet Russia is still struggling desperately to evolve from its Soviet past. New conflicts emerged that are now beginning to act as a brake on reform. The basic problems of state-building have yet to be resolved: defining the nation in an ethnically mixed population, building consensus on power-sharing among federal power and regional leaders, creating a meaningful post-superpower international role.

Shevtsova analyzes the major issues of Russian development: the behavior of major interest groups, the emergence of new oligarchic clans, the clashes of branches of power and what is behind them, the real causes of Chechen war, the interaction of stability and instability. She scrutinizes the major political personalities who have had and continue to have an impact on Russian developments--Gaidar, Rutzkoi, Kchasbulatov, Chernomyrdin, Chubais. The main focus is on Yeltsin, who has managed stunning political transformations--from communist to populist, to liberal, democrat, and statist. Over and over, he has regained preeminence at the very moment when even his own supporters had virtually written him off. Much will depend on the manner, character, and timing of his departure from the political scene--as well as on the legacy he leaves behind.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780870031274
  • Publisher: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
  • Publication date: 1/1/1999
  • Pages: 346
  • Product dimensions: 5.80 (w) x 8.90 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Meet the Author

Lilia Shevtsova co-chairs the Russian Domestic Politics and Political Institutions Project at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, dividing her time between the Carnegie office in Washington, D.C. and the Carnegie Moscow Center. She is author of Putin's Russia (2005) and Yeltsin's Russia: Myths and Reality (1999), and coeditor (with Archie Brown) of Gorbachev, Yeltsin, and Putin: Political Leadership in Russia's Transition (2001), all published by the Carnegie Endowment.

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Yeltsin's Russia

Myths and Reality
By Lilia Shevtsova

Carnegie Endowment for International Peace

Copyright © 1999 Lilia Shevtsova
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0870031279

Chapter One


THE NEW RUSSIA AND ITS POST-COMMUNIST REFORMS were immensely influenced not only by the collapse of the Soviet Union, but by the way it occurred. A brief discussion of these events will illuminate the problems and constraints of the first period of post-communist reforms in Russia and the complicated mixture of continuity and change that continues to influence Russia's development.


The tasks faced by the new Russian state after the Soviet Union collapsed were immeasurably more complex than those in any other post-communist country. The government needed to carry out market reform, continue democratization, overcome a national identity crisis, contend with leftover imperial and messianic attitudes, and define a new role in the post-Soviet space. The most difficult and traumatic problem, however, was that of state building. Even the reformers headed by Russia's first president, Boris Yeltsin, did not anticipate the magnitude anddifficulty of the problems they would confront.

    When Mikhail Gorbachev came to power, the Soviet system was no longer totalitarian. Indeed, by the mid-1980s this system could have been called a decaying "post-totalitarian" state. The unraveling of a genuinely totalitarian state would have been much more painful and bloody than the dissolution that actually occurred. By 1985, however, Soviet institutions no longer had full control over the lives of ordinary citizens. Observance of communist dogma gradually became little more than symbolic--few people cared about it in any but the most formal and superficial way. A sense of cynicism and pragmatism had begun to dominate the higher echelons of the Soviet political elite. Paying lip service to the ideals of communism while living by a different set of values had, by the mid-1980s, become characteristic of Soviet society, including the Communist Party and its leadership. Underneath the communist lid, a diversity of views had begun to evolve, and, behind the rigid, formal structure, a new, more controversial, and complex reality was slowly emerging. A "shadow economy" or "gray economy" had begun to develop, undercutting the planned economy. Power was slowly diffusing toward the periphery, where the elites in the constituent republics consolidated their hold on it. The old bonds that had kept Soviet society in line, primarily violence and terror, were virtually disappearing. The very weakness of the communist leaders of this period--Leonid Brezhnev, Konstantin Chernenko, Yuri Andropov--helped liberate society from the old fears. The most important developments were taking place within the nomenklatura itself, where dissatisfaction with the old regime and its doctrinal harshness was growing. At least part of the establishment was ready for a radical change in the system--eager to become the real owners of the communal property and to get rid of the formal constraints on personal enrichment.

    The existence of this shadow political culture accounts for the unbelievable burst of political activity in the late Gorbachev years--the explosion of liberal ideas, the emergence of numerous small parties and movements, and Russian society's ability to adapt so quickly to political freedom. Political hypocrisy had become, in T. H. Rigby's words, "a time-bomb" that accelerated the last stage of communism's decay. For decades democratic rhetoric in the Soviet Union had served as a cover for an authoritarian reality; while it led to double standards in mentality and behavior, it also led people gradually to become accustomed to democratic values. When the moment came, they were ready. "Without democratic rhetoric and pseudo-democratic structures, the processes of the rapid transition to democracy in the USSR and Eastern Europe could scarcely have happened," wrote Rigby. The Soviet Union's particular type of federation was itself a source of conflict and disintegration; it was inevitable that republics, mere imaginary states, would push for autonomy or independence when circumstances were favorable. The inefficiency, technological backwardness, and "bureaucratism" of the communist system also affected the end of the Soviet Union--although these factors alone could not have brought down the entire state so rapidly. Gorbachev acknowledged that he could have presided over this decay for a long time had he played by the old rules of the game.

    One of the sparks that ignited the fire leading to the system's implosion was, of course, Gorbachev himself. There is no doubt that with perestroika, the Soviet president weakened the communist regime and galvanized the forces of disintegration. However, having loosened the old links that bound society together, especially the Communist Party, Gorbachev could not, would not, or simply did not have time to develop a new consolidating mechanism. It was impossible to hold together the amalgam of cultural, national, and territorial entities that constituted the Soviet Union without a rigid structure or violence and without an effective mechanism for the redistribution of resources.

    Yet Gorbachev's actions alone would not have been decisive had they not reflected the interests of powerful social groups and reinforced existing social tendencies. Gorbachev's restructuring policies reflected the interests of a younger and more dynamic generation of Soviet bureaucrats, especially those in the republics and the regions, who wanted to throw off the yoke of the Brezhnev-style gerontocracy that had lingered on in Moscow. This dynamic segment of the nomenklatura--the pragmatists--would eventually gravitate to Yeltsin after becoming disappointed with Gorbachev's indecisiveness, lack of vision, and pathetic attempts to preserve his own role, which the pragmatists considered an obstacle to their own long-awaited ascendance. Gorbachev's "socialism with a human face" failed to inspire the pragmatic part of his own political class; this group was ready to go farther and faster toward real capitalism, and it did not cling to the collectivist and socialist principles that Gorbachev still advocated.

    The first victors in the great collapse were the Soviet pragmatists, who managed to throw off the fetters that bound them, to create a new political regime, and to preserve a dominant place in it for themselves. The first to fall were the old orthodox communists within the nomenklatura, who failed to understand or adapt to the new trends and tried instead to preserve a multinational state. Those who had become too accustomed to depending on the state's help or for various reasons could not adapt to the atmosphere of freedom would also be losers. Ironically, those who initiated the entire reform process, led by Gorbachev himself, would be among the first to fall.

    The exit of Soviet communism from the political arena was a drawn-out process that began long before Gorbachev. This process contained elements of adaptation, modification, destruction, revolution, reform, and counterreform. In some areas it was characterized more by destruction; in others, by accommodation or even by a return to the pre-Soviet past (as in some of the former republics in Central Asia). In Russia, the habits and political stereotypes of both the establishment and the Russian population to this day retain many socialist, communist, and even pre-Soviet beliefs and traditions. How the old interconnects with the new is a crucial and recurring issue in Russia's post-communist transformation.


The most important development influencing the outcome of Gorbachev's perestroika and its effects on the new Russian state was the weakening of the Communist Party. The most direct challenge to the Party's leadership came from electoral reform. For the first time in Soviet history, deputies were chosen by popular mandate. In the 1989-90 elections to the new republican legislatures, many senior party officials were defeated at the ballot box. For a party whose power resulted in a guaranteed monopoly, it was the beginning of the end.

    Gorbachev, afraid of losing control over events, tried to restore a pivotal element of state authority by introducing the institution of the presidency on March 15, 1990. This came too late in the game, however; it could not halt the defection of the republics, where the consolidation of a new national political class was well under way. Moreover, an attempt to construct a viable presidency without the support of a strong party, of society, or even of the state bureaucracy was doomed to produce only a powerless institution.

    The 1990 elections to the new legislatures in the republics provided a strong stimulus to the formation of new ethnic political elites and gave them legitimacy. The newly elected elites, even those that included representatives of the communist establishment, were perceived as nationalist and even as democratic. This fact was a severe blow to the prestige of the all-Union authorities and Gorbachev himself, who lacked the same legitimacy and were unwilling to take the risk of holding a general election: Gorbachev, after all, had been elected president in March 1990 not by the people, but only by the Congress of People's Deputies of the USSR.

    Other events accelerated the disintegration. In 1989 the Baltic republics' declarations of independence had served as a powerful example to other republics. Even so, the Union might have continued to exist indefinitely in a stagnant form. A more serious blow was the falling-out between the leaders in the Ukrainian capital of Kiev and the central authorities in Moscow. Without the Baltics and Ukraine, the Soviet Union would no longer be predominantly Slavic but would increasingly have an Asian face.

    The fault line between Kiev and Gorbachev's all-Union center had begun to widen after the unprecedented emergence of a political class in Russia itself. This group, united around Boris Yeltsin, acquired considerable legitimacy and support through the process of democratic elections and because it had a genuinely charismatic leader. On June 12, 1990, the new Russian parliament issued a "Declaration of Russia's Sovereignty." The First Congress of People's Deputies of the Russian Federation asserted Russia's "complete authority ... over all questions relating to state and public life with the exception of those which it voluntarily hands over to USSR jurisdiction." This declaration and the introduction of the Russian presidency on June 1991 clearly dissociated the Russian state from the Soviet Union and stimulated the sovereign aspirations of other Union republics.

    The views of the Russian reformers were ambivalent and varied on the issue of the future of the Soviet Union. At first they supported national movements that were trying to form a Union-wide reformist coalition. When it became clear that their partners wanted independence rather than reform, their attitude toward national self-determination began to change. Russian reformers were concerned that this might be directed not only against the USSR but against Russia itself, undermining Russia's territorial integrity as much as that of the USSR.

    The rise of Boris Yeltsin as a political personality symbolized the changes taking place in Soviet society. Yeltsin had come to prominence under the communist system and was a part of the old ruling class. Under Gorbachev, he had become the very personification of the antiestablishment forces. Gorbachev himself had pushed his former competitor out of the circle of power, thus turning Yeltsin into an opposition leader. In February 1988 Yeltsin was ousted from the Politburo. In December 1988 he joined the democratic opposition. In March 1989 he was elected a deputy to the new Soviet legislature, the Congress of People's Deputies of the Soviet Union, where he joined the democratic Interregional Group (150 deputies), becoming one of its co-chairmen (with Andrei Sakharov, Gavriil Popov, Victor Palm, and Yuri Afanasyev). In May 1990 he became chairman of the newly elected Russian legislature, the Supreme Soviet of the Russian Federation, and in June 1991 he was elected president of the Russian Federation. Yeltsin's combination of Communist Party background and opposition stance enabled him to achieve what no dissident, even one as influential as Andrei Sakharov, had managed. The fusion of the energies of the democratic movement with the ambitions of the Russian republic elite and the charisma of Yeltsin had a devastating result for the old Soviet center.

    Yeltsin, buoyed by the support of an array of social and political groups weary of Gorbachev, began to attack the Soviet president. "Perestroika's global strategy had run smack into its inability to make practical reforms, that is, break things down and build them up anew." Yeltsin later wrote. "Gorbachev's reliance on moral leadership and liberal ideologists had not panned out. Despite his expectations, the magic wand didn't work. The system simply would not change, just like that, for the sake of its health." In February 1991 he publicly demanded that Gorbachev resign. Gorbachev's cohorts tried to silence Yeltsin, who responded, as he later said, "You're afraid of Yeltsin? Well, then, you'll get that very Yeltsin you fear!"

    Gorbachev had to choose sides, and this was not an easy thing to do. Proceeding with further reforms and liberalization would mean devolution of his own power to the republics and further disintegration of the Soviet Union; for Gorbachev, this was unacceptable. However, attempting to preserve the Soviet Union meant reversing the democratic process and siding with the orthodox communists, which was also unacceptable. Gorbachev could not maneuver endlessly between these choices, and both sides were relentlessly attacking him. The democrats criticized him for his indecisiveness, while the hard-liners accused him of betrayal.

    Late in the spring of 1991, therefore, Gorbachev proposed a new Union treaty to be signed by all of the Soviet republics. The arrangement would give the republics unprecedented independence while at the same time preserving the coordinating all-Union bodies. He convened the heads of the republics at a government dacha at Novo-Ogaryovo, outside Moscow, in negotiations that became known as the Novo-Ogaryovo process. The initiative met with a surprisingly positive response from nearly all of the leaders (except those in the Baltics). Even Yeltsin, grudgingly, signed the agreement reached there.

    In June and July 1991, Yeltsin's relations with Gorbachev briefly became easier. "Gorbachev and I felt unmistakably that our interests finally coincided," wrote Yeltsin. "Gorbachev preserved his seniority and I preserved my independence. It was an ideal settlement for both of us. We began to meet at length unofficially. Sometimes [Kazakstan's president] Nursultan Nazarbayev also took part in these confidential meetings." The three leaders agreed that, under the new Union treaty, Gorbachev would take the role of mediator as chairman of the coordinating body, Yeltsin would have absolute independence as the leader of the most powerful republic, and Nazarbayev would become prime minister of the new Union.

    The signing of the new Union treaty was scheduled for August 20, immediately after Gorbachev's return from his vacation at Foros in Crimea. As Yeltsin wrote, "Much would have been different if what we agreed upon as a threesome could have been put into effect. History would have taken a different course altogether." He said, "I now look back on these meetings without embarrassment and even with regret. What an opportunity was lost! Perhaps it would have been independence for the republics only on paper, not in reality, and Russia's clash with the central Soviet government would have been inevitable in any event. [But] our departure from the USSR would have been far more peaceful and less painful" if the Union treaty had been implemented.

    However, as Aristotle said, "Revolutions are not about trifles, but they spring from trifles." During their discussions, the three leaders had decided that Gorbachev's entourage would be replaced after the treaty was signed. Tapes of these conversations, later found in the possession of some of Gorbachev's cohorts, may well have triggered the events of August 1991 that rendered the Novo-Ogaryovo agreements moot.

    On August 19, 1991, a group of orthodox communist members of Gorbachev's circle attempted to save the Soviet Union by introducing a state of emergency. Immediately after the failure of the coup, during a session of the Russian parliament on August 23, Yeltsin signed a decree dissolving the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. One may ask how a representative of Russia alone could claim to dissolve the Party for the entire Soviet Union; during this period, legal means seemed inadequate and revolutionary instruments necessary to dismantle the old structures. Unfortunately, Yeltsin seemed quickly to become accustomed to this revolutionary style of rule. On the next day Yeltsin recognized the independence of the three Baltic states, and Ukraine's Supreme Soviet adopted a declaration of independence. The events of August 1991 were the final, crushing blow to the Soviet Union.

    The August coup changed relations between Gorbachev and Yeltsin radically, leaving Yeltsin the principal winner. "From August 1991 until the moment of Gorbachev's resignation in December of that year, we had approximately eight meetings," wrote Yeltsin. "I don't know if Gorbachev realized how changed our relations were by then. I had told him that the coup had taught us a bitter lesson, and therefore I had to insist that he not make any personnel decisions without first obtaining my consent. He looked at me intently, with the expression of a person backed into a corner, but I had no other alternative. Everything depended on my taking a position of brutal consistency."

    Gorbachev seemed not to understand at first that the failed coup had changed everything. He attempted to proceed with the Union treaty, making concessions that would have been unthinkable before August. He conceded that the future Union could become a confederation of independent states. But in the republics, the ruling elites no longer needed coordinating structures; they reacted immediately with declarations of independence, scheduling their own presidential elections. They all dreamed of elevating their status and joining the United Nations. This was the end of the Novo-Ogaryovo process; nobody wanted to sign a Union treaty.


In a December 1 referendum in Ukraine, people voted nearly unanimously for independence. The painful and protracted process of divorce ended on December 8, 1991, when the heads of the three Slavic republics met at Belovezhskiy Forest, outside Minsk. Boris Yeltsin of Russia, Leonid Kravchuk of Ukraine, and Stanislav Shushkevich of Belarus signed an agreement announcing the end of the USSR and the creation of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS). The initiators of the meeting tried to make it absolutely secret; no one was thinking about how to make it more legitimate. Discussing a referendum to approve the dissolution of the USSR was not even on the agenda.

    According to Yeltsin, "The Belovezhskiy agreement was necessary to stop centrifugal trends and to stimulate the negotiating process." Yeltsin, fearing the destabilizing consequences of the complete collapse of the Soviet Union, might still have hoped to resurrect Gorbachev's Union treaty, but under his own leadership and with a decisive role for Russia. Yeltsin said after signing the Belovezhskiy agreement, "Cultural, social, economic, and political integration will sooner or later do their work, but these regions will remain in a zone of common cooperation." Yet at the moment of the Belovezhskiy agreement, it is highly likely that Yeltsin was really thinking about how to achieve this. Instead, he threw himself in without analyzing the implications. "Perhaps I did not completely fathom the prospects opening up before me, but I felt in my heart that such major decisions must be taken easily," he said about his conduct at Belovezhskiy Forest, and this style of behavior became his trademark. Yeltsin's plan to arrest the centrifugal forces was a complete failure. The way the USSR was liquidated aroused bitter feelings toward and suspicion of the Slavic leaders in the other republics; it was also a shock for many democrats, who were afraid, not unreasonably, that the independence issue would hinder democratic and market reforms.

    But the deal was done, and soon afterward the other republics (with the exception of the Baltic republics and Georgia) joined the club. Thus the CIS was formed with eleven independent states on December 21, 1991, in Alma-Aty. The CIS failed, however, to become the model for integration that some of its architects, particularly Yeltsin, had hoped. It helped to manage a more or less civilized split-up of the former Soviet republics, which meant that it did have some positive effects, but in the end it became a club for the presidents of former Soviet republics--a harmless and not very efficient forum.

    Communism had undoubtedly prolonged the survival of the empire after the liquidation of czarism. After communism itself had been weakened, the dissolution of the state became a matter of time. However, as Alexander Dallin has pointed out, the collapse of the USSR in 1991 and the form that it took were not inevitable: "Had Gorbachev and his associates not come to power, the Soviet Union would have hobbled along, and might have continued to muddle through without overt instability. It is the only possible conclusion. If we reach that conclusion, based on those premises, then we must give serious weight to the proposition that the much-touted 'collapse of communism' was perhaps not nearly so inevitable and surely not necessarily so imminent as it has been made out to be."

    The collapse of the Soviet Union and the manner in which the state disintegrated influenced the further transformation in all of the post-Soviet republics. The fact of the collapse itself made state building a first priority, which complicated democratization and market reforms and in some republics pushed these matters entirely off the agenda. Other goals became dominant instead: securing independence, strengthening the personal rule of those leaders who remained in power, and creating paternalistic networks as a substitute for the old structures. Ethno-nationalism became a more useful ideology of consolidation than democratic values. The way in which the Soviet Union was liquidated--through the decisions of a few people who were not concerned about the legality of their actions--strengthened anti-democratic trends in post-communist Russia. The anti-Soviet coup gave a start to several leaders who succeeded in ousting Gorbachev, but it also forced them to secure their own positions through personal networks and reliance on loyal people. Their success in these endeavors encouraged them to continue to demonstrate disrespect for institutions and rules in their future activities.

    The absence of democratic mechanisms in the process of Soviet disintegration helped the former elites to preserve their power. Independence became their main slogan, their weapon, and their instrument of domination. In some cases the tactics of the rivals, starting with Gorbachev and Yeltsin, created the seeds of future conflicts that still influence Russia; this is especially true of their attempts to gain the support of the autonomous republics by elevating the latter's status. No less important was the character of the elite groups that dominated after the Soviet disintegration. More than in most other post-communist states, power in Russia was taken over by a pragmatic segment of the nomenklatura whose main goal was simply to grab property. This influenced the process of privatization and the interaction of power and business. In contrast to the elites of the other former Soviet republics, however, the Russian elite demonstrated some tolerance for some democratic procedures.

    Finally, the way the dismemberment of the Union had come about caused bitterness and sowed the seeds of future tension and frustration. Most of the population was unprepared for this chain of events. Victory over the "evil empire" ended one of the most dramatic social experiments of this century, but this event was perceived as a tragic development by a huge number of ordinary citizens. The collapse unexpectedly deprived them of their state, their history, their past, and their roots. Life in the new post-Soviet states began, for many people, under a cloud of apprehension and resentment. The price of the dissolution of the Soviet Union was high, and those who closed the Soviet chapter took no time to look for less traumatic and more democratic ways to bring it about.

    In Russia, the collapse of the USSR confirmed Yeltsin's primacy on the political scene. The moods of the leader came to mean more than the activities of institutions. From that point on, the style and habits of one person and of those personally connected to him began to shape the formation of the new state.


The new Russian elite--Yeltsin's team and its supporters--had begun to coalesce after the March 1990 election of the first independent Russian parliament, the Congress of People's Deputies. The period preceding the August 1991 putsch had, however, been a confusing and frustrating time for them as they searched for a path to real power. Although Yeltsin won the presidency of the Russian Federation in a popular election in June 1991, the office had been largely ceremonial during Gorbachev's struggle to hold on to the reins of power. The August coup that dealt the fatal blow to Gorbachev and the Union structures was an unexpected gift to Russia's new ruling group: power simply fell into its lap.

    Yeltsin first moved to strengthen his political base. He had climbed to the top thanks to his popularity and especially as a result of the support of three major groups: those in the second echelon of the Union bureaucracy who were dissatisfied with Gorbachev; the rank and file of a still powerless Russian political class who hoped for promotion; and, last but not least, the democratic movement. Democratic Russia (DemRossiya), the most influential of the democratic groupings, played a significant role in Yeltsin's political career, at least before August 1991. Its leaders, including such politicians as Lev Ponomaryov, Gavriil Popov, Gleb Yakunin, and Yuri Afanasyev, had helped Yeltsin in his struggle to become leader of the Supreme Soviet of the Russian Federation in May 1990. DemRossiya had supported him during his June 1991 campaign for election as president of the Russian Federation. During the coup attempt, democrats had rallied Muscovites to come to the aid of the White House in which the Russian government was housed. After August 1991, however, the destinies of both Gorbachev and Yeltsin were decided not in rallies on the city's squares, where democrats were still strong, but behind the scenes, in negotiations among the Russian president's team, the pragmatists from the all-Union institutions, and representatives of the army and other power structures.

    After Yeltsin's August victory, the pragmatists from the all-Union structures abandoned Gorbachev and switched their support to Yeltsin, considerably strengthening his position. High-ranking military officials, including Marshal Yevgeny Shaposhnikov and General Pavel Grachev, had already taken Yeltsin's side during the August coup. Some other representatives of Gorbachev's elite, among them the chairman of the All-Russian Union of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs, Arkady Volsky, also backed Yeltsin, although Volsky was among the few who were able to preserve good relations with Gorbachev as well. Yet it appears that the pragmatists decided to support Yeltsin only after receiving his firm assurances that DemRossiya would never get any real power.

    Yeltsin's conduct after the August coup surprised and even shocked the democratic supporters who had organized his victory on the streets. It appeared that the president had suddenly forgotten them. A few democrats such as Galina Starovoitova and Sergei Stankevich remained with Yeltsin, but this did not mean much; they were not admitted into the inner circle of the ruling group. Moreover, it became clear that Yeltsin was not inclined to rely on just one political group to support his quest for domination. He undertook the painstaking task of surrounding himself with several groups of persons with different orientations, all competing for influence. Turning his back on popular political movements, Yeltsin began to rely on shadow groups and to introduce behind-the-scenes decision making, which gave enormous power to his team.

    In the autumn of 1991 Yeltsin found influential places in the inner circle for some old allies who had proven their loyalty to him during the difficult period when he was out of power. Yeltsin was not interested in their political convictions. He knew how to reward loyalty, and as long as his people did not show excessive ambition and did not try to steal the limelight from him, he never cast them off without rewards. Yeltsin's first team included mainly associates from his days in Sverdlovsk, where he had been the regional party secretary, and those who had orchestrated his victory in the June 1991 electoral campaign for the presidency of the Russian Federation. Members of the Sverdlovsk group who now took senior positions in Yeltsin's entourage included Gennady Burbulis, then known as a democrat but later a supporter of the superpresidential power structure Yeltsin created; pragmatist and former apparatchik Viktor Ilyushin; and Oleg Lobov, a conservative representative of the communist nomenklatura.

    Yeltsin would subsequently add to this group several of his Moscow supporters. Some individuals would drop out and others would be added, but some elements of the Sverdlovsk group would remain part of Yeltsin's inner circle until 1996. The new officials, however, were not always the most effective and professional. It was popular in Moscow then to quote a character in one of George Bernard Shaw's plays: "He knows nothing; and he thinks he knows everything. That points clearly to a political career." Yeltsin's former press secretary, Vyacheslav Kostikov, has recalled, "People who came with Yeltsin to the Kremlin, especially those from Sverdlovsk, understood that they could not win in the intellectual and professional competition with the Gorbachev team. This was one of the reasons for their sharp, even pathological rejection of Gorbachev's associates."

    The rise to power of a regional elite was not a novelty in Moscow's political life; under the Soviet regime, powerful regional bosses had always played an important part in the struggle for power at the top. But with Yeltsin's ascent to power, the provincial factor in Russian politics became even more marked. Toward the end of 1991 Yeltsin's entourage comprised not only representatives of the Sverdlovsk and Moscow regional groups but also proponents of various political orientations: radical democrats, liberals, populists, and neoconservatives, as well as bureaucrats typical of the old regime. Yeltsin chose bureaucrat Ivan Silyaev as Russia's prime minister. Andrei Kozyrev, who had not been notable in any political camp, became foreign minister; and one of Yeltsin's close associates, Oleg Lobov, who was well known for his anti-liberal bias, occupied various influential governmental posts. DemRossiya members such as Sergei Stankevich and Galina Starovoitova received advisory positions without real power. Those closest to Yeltsin at the beginning were (with the exception of Burbulis) rather conservative. Therefore, the conclusion that "the democrats came to power in Russia" was a great exaggeration. The Soviet Union had ceased to exist, but a substantial portion of its ruling class, including some former members of its highest echelon, found comfortable places in the new governing institutions.

    There were, of course, some changes in the structure and composition of the ruling class. Stratification increased during the stormy events of 1991. Some parts of the old nomenklatura suffered defeat and lost control of the administrative and military resources of the state. Their places were taken by more pragmatic people who did not want to endure the lengthy climb to the top typical of Soviet practice and did not care about ideological principles or about what means were necessary to achieve their goals. Thus a regrouping of the communist nomenklatura occurred: leadership positions were taken over by energetic representatives of its second generation, who desired to acquire the benefits of access to power and control over state property and changed their ideological positions as frequently as the situation required. But how could it have been otherwise in a country without a counter-elite? There was no one to replace the old elites.

    The mix of people around Yeltsin, while disordered, spontaneous, and sometimes altered without rhyme or reason, nevertheless had an internal logic to it. It grew out of Yeltsin's efforts to rely on his trusted old friends regardless of their political orientation and to surround himself with several competing groups. That gave him room to maneuver when he had to make decisions and also when it was necessary to secure his own position. Pluralism at the top impeded the potential consolidation of the bureaucracy as a counterweight to Yeltsin and gave the president a variety of potential scapegoats in case things went badly. Even more important, having representatives of various political persuasions around him enabled the president to appeal to all, or practically all political forces in the country. It made Yeltsin's political direction unpredictable and often chaotic, however, and internal squabbles at the top were inevitable. Moreover, the fact that Yeltsin rejected the idea of forming his own political party made him more dependent on his entourage and made his politics more byzantine.

    Fortunately, none of the emerging groups was able to secure a monopoly on power. For the first time in a long while, the basis of the Russian regime became interest-group pluralism. At first, two apparent centers of gravity formed around Yeltsin: the State Council, an advisory body that in late 1991 was more powerful than the cabinet and was led by Gennady Burbulis, who represented the democratic camp; and the presidential administration (Yeltsin's staff) under the direction of Yuri Petrov, a conservative bureaucrat, former Soviet ambassador to Cuba, and companion from Yeltsin's Sverdlovsk days.

    This conglomeration of representatives of different political orientations meant that the presidency inevitably would be the focus of a struggle for influence. Antagonisms first arose between and among individuals, beginning with Burbulis and Petrov, but rapidly evolved into struggles among agencies, factions, individual parties and groups, and institutions. Fragmentation was inevitable within such a heterogeneous group, whose members had little in common. One of the issues that divided the Russian ruling group was the fate of the Union; some favored reforming it, while others argued for its complete dissolution. Those who advocated the preservation of the Union were soon squeezed out of the ruling inner circle. The struggle over the future course of Russia's reforms was not necessarily bad; it showed the existence of a plurality of views, which was a refreshing step forward after so many years of forced Soviet unanimity. However, problems appeared when, at crucial moments of the transformation, the new ruling group was unable to chart a consistent course.

    The lack of unity in the government was also due to Yeltsin's inability--and even lack of desire--to forge a cohesive team and to create a sense of mutual obligation and responsibility among the team's individual members. The president himself fostered an atmosphere of competitiveness among his associates. He encouraged mutual antagonism and played the role of judge and conciliator with apparent relish. Yeltsin brought with him to the highest office in the new Russia the mores prevalent in the old nomenklatura circles, which had been a formative part of his own political upbringing. There was a crucial difference, however: Yeltsin destroyed the practice of formal unanimity that had existed within the communist establishment and replaced it with the principle of strict personal loyalty to the boss, Yeltsin himself.


Excerpted from Yeltsin's Russia by Lilia Shevtsova Copyright © 1999 by Lilia Shevtsova. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Introduction 1
1 The Farewell to Communism and the First Reforms: 1989-92 5
2 The New Political Specter: 1992 31
3 A Brewing Conflict with Parliament: 1992-93 55
4 Yeltsin's September "Revolution" and the Elections: 1993-94 79
5 Moscow's Chechen War: 1994-95 107
6 Russia Chooses a New Parliament: 1995 131
7 Yeltsin's Struggle for Revival Begins: Spring 1996 155
8 The Old-New President of Russia: Summer 1996 175
9 The President Returns: The Second Half of 1996 195
10 1997: New Reforms or Stagnation? 217
11 Yeltsin Struggles for a Resurrection: 1998 237
12 Boris Yeltsin and the Future of Democracy in Russia 269
Notes 293
Index 325
About the Author 343
About the Carnegie Endowment 345
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