Comrade Chat! Leah’s Video for Yeltsin and the 1990s (Week 13, Day 1)

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?

12 Replies to “Comrade Chat! Leah’s Video for Yeltsin and the 1990s (Week 13, Day 1)”

  1. Question 11:

    In the song “American Boy” I believe the singer has given a portrayal of wanting to be saved from the poor life and conditions facing Russian citizens. There is a dreaminess to the lyrics and song overall portraying how the singer dreams of this “foreign prince” and the luxurious and happy life they could have anywhere but Russia. The singer wishes to say goodbye to Russia and run away with the American boy. I believe this shows the situation in Russia well due to the the dreams people have for a better life and how America could offer that for them and that is what the democratic change in Russia aspired for. I think the song also really shows how women in Russia did not have the same opportunities as men during the economic crisis. They did not have as much choice to be able to go out and get a job that pays well enough to be successful, so it is often that they wish for a “foreign prince” like sung about in “American Boy” to whisk them away from the poor situations they are facing in Russia.

    1. I agree with you, this was the point I was going to make. I think that it was almost a nostalgic feeling I got from the song, as though the singer was longing for a life that never happened but that they could have had they ran away with their “American boy”.

  2. When talking about question #6, she responds the way that I think most people would. She is initially confused and seeks guidance from someone with more knowledge of the matter than herself. After seeking this guidance from a businessman named Simon, she reacts quickly and takes all money out of the banks and encourages her friends and family to do so. I feel as though this would be my initial response during a significant time of uncertainty. This alone tells the reader that average Russian people’s relationship to economic changes is to act in their best interest to protect themselves, showing that they do not trust or rely on their state to provide stability and security for them in crises. She explains that at this point, the masses quickly realized that Russia itself was not domestically producing anything substantial and many were torn between whether they should stock up on essentials, partake in the exchange system between the rubble and the dollar and wait it out, or if you should quickly purchase expensive things before they were no longer available (which is what happened on August 26th). If this was myself in this situation, I think I would buy essentials and take it day by day without making any purchases I was not sure to benefit from. We see this happening during our current Covid-19 pandemic. Our economy is facing apparent downfalls, and media headlines surrounding this topic is causing scare to those not well informed on economic jargon and procedures. We saw a huge spike in the collection of necessary goods (toilet paper!) and now people are unsure whether to make purchases before the impending crash or to save what they have and hope for the best. It is amazing how our economics now parallel what was happening to Russia during this time period.

  3. In regards to question #11:

    I think the narrator idealizes the “American Boy” as the savior to her situation. She looks at herself as seemingly desperate to escape the struggles going on at this stage in Russia’s history. In her eyes, if she can find her “foreign prince”, then she will be a princess in her new world, especially when she talks about sitting in a Mercedes and living a life of luxury. I think the concern about Russia in this moment is exacerbated by the reality that there is an entire generation who grew up learning one way of life and all of a sudden, that life is gone. This is obviously foreshadowing a bit but I think a lot of this fear is manifesting from the fear of the unknown. It seems better for the narrator to be in a relationship with stability with an “American Boy” (even though you can’t anticipate the realities of this) than be in an unknown relationship with Russia.

  4. 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?

    Putin definitely incorporates principles that Machiavelli created in The Prince. He got rid of Gusinksky and Berezovsky when they dissented from what he wanted and made him look bad. Just like every ruler ever there are pros and cons to Putin’s era. I can understand why Russian’s would respect him. He accomplished a lot for Russia. He picked things up when they were in an era of staleness and pulled the country forward. A bolstered economy and less crime are both things that make life better. As a citizen I would appreciate the actions Putin took to make that happen. Citizens also had a respect for Putin that was probably fear based. Either way, it makes sense that many people were fans of Putin. A lot of people at the time would have been okay with the whatever it takes mindset. On the other hand, there was censorship under Putin. That’s something that people would not have been happy about. There is also a lack of private property guarantees under Putin.There is also greater economic disparity under Putin. As someone who is not a Russian citizen I’m not sure I can comment if the benefits outweigh the detriments.

  5. 2. (In addition to this question, I asked myself, “How does Putin’s leadership compare to the US? Does the US deserve the moral high ground it has built?”)
    At first glance, Putin appears to be a cold, cruel leader who enacts antiquated policies that negatively impact Russians. Putin’s image, however, has been distorted by the US. In recent years, the US has positioned themselves as the moral watchdog against Russia and weaponizes this standpoint to create doubt surrounding his leadership. While Putin himself is not the pinnacle of morality, the crimes against him are not dissimilar to accusations surrounding US politicians and Presidents. Specifically, the same Putin crimes outlined on 240, misappropriating government funds (2019), homophobia (2019), and diverting funds (2020) are still committed by US leaders today (, In fact, these crimes occur quite often in the US and the attached years are simply the most recent occurrences. Despite these glaring similarities between Russian and US leadership, citizens would still like to believe that the US has a moral high ground compared to Russia. The textbook is clear that Putin has favorable attributes, too. Putin fixed what his predecessors could not, Russia’s economy. He achieved this by paying off Russia’s debts, fixing monetary inflation, and collaborating with foreign powers to build wealth via exports (240). Putin’s work in the economy has created multiple streams of income for Russia. His changes were tested in 2008 and proved successful as Russia was stable during the recession (240). Despite these economic advances, Russia is commonly criticized for lacking in technological advances and appearing antiquated compared to the US (241). This comparison fails to acknowledge that Russia was completely changing their economic system and leadership multiple times while the US had the opportunity to continually evolve from one style of system. Aside from the reasons Russia couldn’t evolve as quickly in the first place, it is unfair to assume that Russia wants to model itself after the US. Page 241 mentions new construction in Moscow and preservation efforts in surrounding areas that show Russia is evolving on its’ own terms while celebrating their storied past. With that said, Putin’s leadership, as is all leadership, can be troublesome and deeply concerning, but negating his positive change is not productive methodology.

  6. #7

    With the exemption of Zionism, many Americans can also be found yelling about Clinton and George Soros. While western support for Israel is probably based less on religious and ethnic freedom and security and more on the proximity of oil, Middle Eastern strategy and continuing fears of the fall of democracy, western support for Israel combined with engraved anti-semitism that often surfaces during economic hardship were influencing many Russians during the Yelstin years.

    The crumbling economy of the 1990s left many Russians in disbelief. Their place on the world stage was guaranteed as a military power but with globalization, economic might became very important. Clearly Russia did not excel under Yeltsin, the World Bank, or the IMF and was largely skeptical of western institutions exemplified by the calls against Clinton, Soros, and Zionism in Tolstaya’s writing.

    Though Russia did not suddenly fall off the world stage, its people felt that it did. The psychological effect of suddenly losing the bulk of one’s identity is incredibly detrimental. This void would leave many skeptic and open to more authoritarian leaders like Vladimir Putin in the coming decades.

  7. 9.
    Tolstaya’s take on the true workings of the post-Soviet politics are negative. She thinks that the men in charge are shady and dangerous, and that they created an oligarch. Although the miners have problems with being paid, they are not the only ones, along with the overall problem of the Russian economy. And that the collapse of the economy was created to pressure Yeltsin to promote Chernomyrdin. In the end it was a set-up. This is an example of a form of democracy but not democracy as we know it. There will always be some kind of corruption.

  8. The narrator in “American Boy,” portraying herself to be somewhat rebellious refers to the American boy as a sort of savior from her poor life in Russia. However, one thing that I noticed is that this was in no way a love song. There is no mention of looks or love, just money and leaving Russia “laughing and crying.” This adds clarity to just how bad the situation was in Russia as she does not want to be swept away from Russia by love, just money.

  9. I would like to respond to Question #11, because I love music! Okay so I think the narrator portrays herself to be this helpless woman trapped in a toxic society. She feels as if her life has no meaning in Russia and longs for an escape. This is where the “American Boy” comes in… she characterizes him as her savior and begs for him to retrieve her. From this relationship, she hopes to live the luxury life and enjoy all the pleasures that come with wealth in America. This American lifestyle she imagines is the complete opposite of the lifestyle many Russians were experiencing at that time for the nation was faced with a lot of poverty. Therefore, many related to this song for they dreamed of a better life and felt that they could have just that in America. Now, if the narrator were to get into a relationship with a guy that was flattered by the attention she gave him… this would obviously not be a good thing for he would constantly seek compliments and view himself as superior to her. In the end though, this song definitely gives us an insight into how women felt during this economic crisis; they felt powerless because in this society they were not always viewed as equals to men and therefore were struggling more during this economic crisis.

  10. In answer to #2:

    I can definitely understand why many Russians like and support Putin. For starters, leaders who alleviate economic stress and help us through difficult times are often adored by the public. One need only look at the appeal of Mussolini, President Franklin Roosevelt, Hitler, and PM Clement Attlee to see how a leader who guides us through difficult times often has the greatest admiration of their citizens. However, we must keep in mind that successes in this regard do not excuse horrible acts. I do not think that Russians made a good deal in electing Putin. Aside from the fact that one must immediately question the intent and morality of a former KGB officer, the aggressive acts of Putin in Ukraine and against domestic political opponents should not be ignored simply because his economic policy was or is admirable. Human rights and the freedom of speech, as well as from fear, mean that Putin, while currently loved by many in Russia, will likely someday be placed next to Stalin, both as men who in life garnered and demanded immense loyalty from the Russian public, but in death had many skeletons in the closet that came out to surprise many of their most loyal citizens.

    In answer to #3:

    The West certainly bears some of the blame for ruining their relations with Russia. As for why they did what they did, I would argue it was a persistence of Cold War sentiment, the presence of a power vacuum after the fall of the Soviet Union, and good military strategy on behalf of the West. Just as Stalin wished to have control of so much of Eastern Europe after WWII as a buffer zone in case another invasion of Russia ever occurred, the West wanted to retake that land likely for similar reasons, no matter how unlikely, and exploited the fall of communism to gain a major upper hand. Ideally, the West should have reached out to former Eastern block countries and offered economic and military assistance, but only if accepted, reinforcing the other party’s ability to say no (very often offers of such aid come with strings attached and the smaller party feels compelled to agree for fear of aggression, the negotiations of Versailles after WWI had a similar method to this, especially, with how German officials were invited to the peace talks or to join the League of Nations). In this event, regardless of Russia’s feelings, the will of the nations of Eastern Europe would be respected and neither party would necessarily be at fault. However, the act of extending into the sphere itself, regardless of method, could still be considered somewhat hostile. Large amounts of aid to the Russian government and economy by the U.S. and others probably would have gone a long way but it was not to be. Because of this, while the actions of Russia to regain control of this sphere are acts of aggression, I understand the desire to take them back as proof that Russia has once again achieved a place on the world stage (at least in the mind of Putin and his supporters).

  11. Question 11
    My response to question 11 is similar to what everyone else said in their responses. I believe in the song “American Boy” the singer is using this song as a way to let listeners know how bad life is for Russians right now, especially the women. I agree with what Jack said. This isn’t really a love song because the looks of this American Boy is not talked about. It is more about how luxurious her life would be with this boy. The song goes into a deeper meaning that if she would leave Moscow with her American Boy or “foreign prince” she would lead a more luxurious life. This song shows that there are many more opportunities for a comfortable life in America, and the people would not have to deal with all of these troubles if they lived in America. I believe through listening to this song that Russians truly believe America is such a better country, and that is a really big deal since the hostility that America and Russia continue to have.

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