A look at Russias Yeltsin years

Post Soviet Russia: A Journey Through the Yeltsin Era, by Roy Medvedev, Columbia University Press, 394 pp.

Like the early 20th century under Vladimir Lenin, the 1990s under Boris Yeltsin was a time of revolutionary change for Russia, the difference being that while Lenin strove to introduce socialism, Yeltsin attempted to reintroduce capitalism.

In his fascinating Post Soviet Russia: A Journey Through the Yeltsin Era, Roy Medvedev recounts the turbulent years of the Yeltsin presidency. And if there was anyone suited to write a history of post-Soviet Russia under Yeltsin, it is Medvedev, a prominent Soviet era dissident who authored many critical works on Soviet history such as Let History Judge.

According to Medvedev, Yeltsin had been a political chameleon his entire career, changing his skin when the moment suited it. During the Gorbachev period, he was a Communist fighting against economic privilege and for socialist renewal. After 1991, he became a free market liberal.

But while he was a shrewd politician, he did not show the same astuteness as president. When Yeltsin chose his first cabinet, drawn from the ranks of the dissolved CPSU and Soviet government, he chose those with little experience, rejecting more qualified candidates. He selected young economists, such as Yegor Gaidar, who had no experience working in the economy, to advise him along with western economic advisors from the International Monetary Fund.

The Yeltsin government’s first imprudent action was the abolition of price controls, leading to skyrocketing inflation and declining production and consumption. New investment came to a halt, as inflation deprived industries of investment funds and capital flight began. It was safer for companies and individuals to put their money into foreign bank accounts rather than invest it in Russia.

Medvedev writes that the attitude of the Gaidar team was “that if Russian agriculture and industry were unable to compete with the west, so much the better. They would rather let such inefficient production be ruined than try to reorganize it or provide government aid. Russia could be supplied with food and consumer goods, in exchange for natural resources it was exporting.”

The process of privatization began when the Yeltsin government sold state-owned industries for a song to Russian businessmen or foreign companies hiding behind Russian investors or dummy firms they created. Western companies sought stated-owned companies in order to obtain Russian high technology or eliminate competitors. To illustrate the scale of theft, by the end of 1993 western firms had purchased 500 major enterprises in metallurgy, oil, gas, chemical and machinery with a market value of $200 billion for only $7.2 billion.

In many cases, the new private Russian owners were not able to make their firms more competitive because they lacked capital to upgrade them, as well as business skills to operate them. However, as Medvedev points out, this did not concern the Yeltsin government, as the “main aim of privatization was to form a class or stratum of property owners who could become a reliable base of support for the new social system being created.”

Medvedev says that efforts to impose capitalist relations on a non-capitalist society, were, “absurd, utopian, and bound to fail.”

Yeltsin’s efforts to reshape Russia did not go unopposed. The Russian parliament, which elected Yeltsin president in 1991, turned against him when the deputies saw that the government’s policies were destroying the country. Medvedev provides a gripping account of the events surrounding Yeltsin’s suppression of the Russian parliament in 1993. He also sheds light on how Yeltsin was reelected in 1996.

Medvedev also provides an interesting picture of the new Russian business elite. While providing a vivid picture of the period, the book could have been better organized. Despite this defect, Post Soviet Russia is a compelling and disturbing account of the Yeltsin period.

–Tim Pelzer (tpelzer@sprint.ca)