Hello, comrades! This is our video for Week 13, Day 1. Our subject is Yeltsin’s “wild ride” in the 1990s, and our teaching assistant is Dante.
It was great to meet with all of you last week and talk about your final papers. I hope your work continues to go well. This is a friendly reminder that your final drafts are due on Friday, May 8 at 10pm, and you should submit them on Sakai. If you have any questions between now and then, or if you want to meet with me again, or if you want to send me a rough draft for comments, I’m happy to help with those things. Just let me know by email.
Looking ahead from here, we are almost done with this semester! I have two announcements. First, I have changed the reading assignments. The plan I laid out for us after Spring Break seems a little too ambitious. Here is what you need to read for our last two days.
For Week 13, Day 2: 1) Arkady Ostrovsky, The Invention of Russia, chapter TEN ONLY. 2) Putin’s “Speech and the Following Discussion at the Munich Conference on Security Policy” 3) Music Video Playlist (this will include “A Man Like Putin” and the three Pussy Riot songs)
For Week 14, Day 1: Listen to SRB Podcast episode “Political Diary from Russia”
Second, our last day of class is next week. To mark the occasion, I would like us to get together one last time as a group on Teams. We’ll meet at our regular class time (12:50pm EST) on Tuesday, May 5. You should get an email about that from Teams, so please look out for that. If anyone unable to join a class video meeting, please email to let me know about that. I’ll make sure you have an alternative option. We will discuss the podcast and your thoughts about what we’ve learned this semester. I’m looking forward to seeing you then!
Today, we’re looking at Russia during Boris Yeltsin’s presidency, which ran from 1991 to December 1999. Yeltsin formally became president of the independent Russian Federation (the successor to the RSFSR) on December 25, 1991, when Gorbachev resigned and thereby completed the dissolution of the Soviet Union. As it turned out, this was the peak of Yeltsin’s career. As you read, untangling the wreckage of the Soviet Union was a difficult business, and Yeltsin was more a man for grand gestures than nuanced policy decisions. Over the next eight years, Russians experienced extreme hardship, and powerful actors inside and outside the government made moves that had a profound impact on how Russia has developed since then.
In politics, Yeltsin policies laid the groundwork for the “managed democracy” that we see in Russia today. To be sure, he started out talking a big game about democracy. That was one of the ways he played the perestroika game better than Gorbachev. But it turned out Yeltsin still had some Soviet-style expectations. In 1993, facing political opposition from the Duma, Yeltsin illegally disbanded them. When the members refused to leave the building, Yeltsin brought in tanks and forced them to adopt a new constitution with stronger executive power. This was useful for Yeltsin, but it has been even more useful for his successor, Vladimir Putin.
Economically, Yeltsin embraced the model of “shock therapy” imposed on Russia by the World Bank and International Monetary Fund as a condition of granting the new government stabilization loans. This triggered a major economic crisis, through its combination of strict austerity measures that threw millions out of work and destroyed the welfare state and rapid, haphazard privatization of the state’s substantial assets. Corrupt entrepreneurs with inside connections bought those assets up for cheap, milked them for cash, and became incredibly rich. These guys—the vultures who preyed on what was left of the Soviet economy—became known as the “oligarchs” or “New Russians.” They exported their newfound wealth abroad and invested little to nothing in the infrastructure they now owned. They rose in tandem with organized criminals, who demanded enormous kickbacks in exchange for protection. In My Perestroika, Olga recounts that her boyfriend was murdered by these Mafiosi.
Yeltsin’s economic policies had a serious detrimental effect on Russian society. While a few people got extremely rich, everyone else became very poor. Inflation wiped out personal savings and left businesses unable to pay wages. Many Russians recall being paid in kind for their labor and effectively switching to a barter system, while others, like doctors and teachers, continued working for no pay at all, from a sense of civic duty. This new poverty, combined with major cuts to social services, resulted in a major health crisis. Underfunded public clinics found themselves unable to cope with rising rates of tuberculosis and the onset of an AIDS crisis fueled by drug addiction. Anyone who could leave the county did so. Those with an education often fared well. Others were not so lucky and found themselves subject to human trafficking. This is the dark side of the song “American Boy,” whose narrator seeks escape as a mail order bride.
Meanwhile, several former Soviet republics and regions spent the 1990s battling over borders and assets. The most significant struggle was the Chechen Wars. In the First Chechen War (1994-1996), the autonomous region of Chechnya fought for independence. It was very bloody, and both sides committed significant atrocities, which were reported on by the fearless journalist Anna Politkovskaya. The cessation of fighting in 1996 was more of a pause than a victory. The war resumed in 1999, and we’ll talk about it more next time, when we discuss the Putin Era.
Amidst these crises, Yeltsin kept taking loans, trying to throw money at these problems. Inflation soared until August 1998, when the government defaulted on its debts and the ruble collapsed. Eleven years after Gorbachev’s hopeful speech about glasnost, Russia looked like a failed state. This is the situation Tatyana Tolstaya writes about in her essay “The Price of Eggs.”
Yeltsin was re-elected in 1996, with significant help from American political advisors who relied on the inexperience of the Russian electorate. But after the ruble’s collapse, as it became clear that Yeltsin was spinning out. More and more often, he appeared drunk in public and made embarrassing statements. He cycled through several prime ministers, seeking a presumptive successor who would allow him to make a safe exit. Finally, in August 1999, he settled on Vladimir Putin, a former KGB agent who had already proved his loyalty while serving as deputy to the powerful mayor of St. Petersburg. On December 31, 1999, just four months after appointing Putin and three months before the March 2000 presidential election, Yeltsin made a surprise speech in which he resigned, ostensibly for health reasons. Putin stepped into the top job and immediately pardoned his former boss for all of his corrupt dealings. He’s still with us of course, and we’ll talk about him more next time.
Leah’s Discussion Questions
1. Russia’s domestic crises in the 1990s were driven by Yeltsin’s embrace of the “shock therapy” model. But as our textbook points out, even under the best of circumstances, the transition from socialism to capitalism would have involved some very difficult questions. One big one is the question of ownership: who owns the infrastructure, factories, housing, and mineral wealth? If these are to be privatized, how can that be achieved, and what values will be prioritized in the process? Another biggie is the question of whether the state ought to continue to distribute subsidies in order to control prices for essential goods and services. Obviously, Yeltsin did a bad job. But could it have been done better? In your view, how could the transition have been handled more smoothly, humanely, and equitably? Or was a period of hardship necessary in order to move forward?
2. Chapter 12 in the textbook takes us into the Putin Era and explains that for all his shady dealings, Putin is genuinely popular with a majority of Russians. This popularity rests largely on the fact that he stabilized the economy, got crime under control, and presided over a period of strong growth that saw the rebirth of Russia’s middle class. Consider the pros and cons of the Putin Era as your textbook outlines them. Can you understand why many Russians like and respect Putin? In your analysis, have they made the right deal in choosing to support him and looking the other way on some of his actions? Are the benefits of Putin’s Russia worth the detriments?
3. In the section on foreign policy, our textbook explains that Gorbachev, Yeltsin, and even Putin in the early days of his presidency hoped that the end of the Cold War would open up new possibilities for alliance between Russia and the West. However, Russia has viewed the expansion of NATO and then the EU into Eastern Europe as offensive moves, and consequently, in the past 15 years Putin’s government has become much more hostile to the West. Do you think the West bears some responsibility for the souring of relations with Russia? Should NATO and the EU have respected Russia’s claim to a sphere of influence in Eastern Europe? Does their decision to violate this sphere demonstrate the persistence of a Cold War mentality, or was it simply good strategy?
4. Let’s consider the stories of two of the women in the final section of this chapter. (We’ll talk about Pussy Riot next time!) What do you make of Viktoria, the geologist-turned-boutique owner? Why do you think she supports Putin? Was she right to embrace capitalism and get while the getting was good? Or is her family right that she wasted her talents in the pursuit of money? What about the journalist Anna Politkovskaya: why was the Putin’s government so afraid of her? What does this signal about the evolution of the relationship between the state and the press since glasnost?
5. Read the primary sources at the end of the chapter and analyze them using the discussion questions provided.
6. Let’s explore Tolstaya’s essay “The Price of Eggs,” which gives us a ground-level view of the 1998 financial crash. When she first hears on the news that the market has crashed, what does she think? What does this tell you about average Russians’ relationship to economic changes? What options do people have at this point? What do you think it would feel like to live through something like this? How would it affect your perspective on both the past and the future?
7. Tolstaya finds herself in an angry crowd outside a store that has shut its doors. On pp. 209-210, she quotes people shouting about Clinton, Zionism, and George Soros. What does this reveal about Russians’ concerns about how their country’s place on the world stage has changed? After the break at the bottom of p.210, Tolstaya describes her shock at realizing that Russia still produces relatively little of the goods it consumes. What is the psychological impact of this revelation? What does it tell us about how Russia has developed under Yeltsin and under the guidance of the World Bank and IMF?
8. This is a problem that has come up again for Russians since the US imposed sanctions after the 2014 annexation of Crimea. Can you analyze the fact that Russia still has this problem of low domestic production nearly 20 years later? What does that tell you about economic development, even though things improved so much in the 2000s? As a Russian, how do you think you would respond to a second Western-related economic crisis so soon after the first one?
9. Tolstaya turns on the TV and sees Viktor Chernomyrdin, who was Prime Minister from 1992-1998. Yeltsin fired him a few months before the market crash, then tried to reappoint him after. But Tolstaya doesn’t blame Chernomyrdin so much as she blames the oligarch Boris Berezovsky. Make a close reading of the paragraph that begins on the bottom of p.211 and continues onto p.212. What’s her take here on the true workings of post-Soviet politics? Is this democracy as we know it?
10. During the televised call-in show, a woman screams at Chernomyrdin about the price of eggs. How does this woman’s outcry and Chernomyrdin’s response galvanize Tolstaya’s thinking about the whole situation? What conclusions does she draw? How are her worldview and her reactions shaped by the experience of living through the eras of Brezhnev and Gorbachev?
11. Analyze the song “American Boy” was released in the early 1990s, in the chaos following the collapse of the Soviet Union. How does the narrator portray herself? How does she characterize the “American boy,” and what does she expect from their relationship? How do these expectations relate to the situation in Russia at the time? What do you imagine their relationship will actually be like, if she puts him on a pedestal and he’s the type to be flattered by that? How does this silly song help us think through the specific problems women face in times of economic crisis?