Friday, April 27, 2007

Russian To Judgment

As tempting as it seemed initially to skewer Uncle Junior's slab of piffle, an unabashed tea-bagging of our good friend Poor Ol' Straight Talk (POST), I just don't have the stomach for it this round. Fortunately, like most other well-paid ungulates of the corporate media, his next attempt will no doubt be even more obtuse and less insightful.

So let's take a slightly different tack. I have always been fascinated by the country of Russia, its history, its language, its geography, its politics. And this week's death of the vodka-embalmed Boris Yeltsin was surprising only in that it hadn't happened ten years ago. But in skimming the requisite encomia from the usual suspects, it occured to me just how little of value had ever floated over the transom in the American media, when it came to getting past Yeltsin's cartoonish antics and digging into anything substantial. Mostly all we ever got about the guy, dead or alive, drunk or drunker, was this sort of boilerplate:

The man who brought down the Soviet Union from the inside was Boris Yeltsin. In the mid-1980s, he turned decisively against communism and, fully intending its destruction, performed one of history's great acts of liberation.

Yeltsin, who died this week, did this without turning to the guillotine. "For the first time in Russian history," notes Russian opposition leader Garry Kasparov, "the new ruler did not eliminate the losers to consolidate control." What distinguished Yeltsin "was something that he did not do when he took power" -- "wipe out the other side."

Just because Russia is no longer communist does not mean it is now "liberated"; it simply means that a different mafiya family is running things, one which is a lot less reticent about their love for money and dominance.

Here is the sort of journalism you can get when the writer has actually lived in the country, knows its people and systems, and is not more concerned with couching his homilies in pseudo-liberation claptrap than actually calling people what they were:

Boris Yeltsin was always good for a laugh, which is probably why on the occasion of his death people outside of Russia are not calling him words like scum and monster, but instead recalling him fondly, with a smile, as one would a retarded nephew who could always be counted on to pull his pants down at Thanksgiving dinner.

Like most people who lived in Russia during the 1990s -- and Russia was my home throughout Yeltsin's entire reign as Russian president -- I have a wide variety of fond memories of the Motherland's drunken, bloblike train wreck of a revolutionary leader. My favorite came in 1995, at a press conference in Moscow, when a couple of American reporters perfectly captured the essence of Yeltsin by heckling him as he stumbled into the room. As he burst through the side entrance with that taillight-red face of his, hands wobbling in front of him in tactile search of the podium, the two hacks in the back called out: "Nor-r-r-r-r-r-m!" Such a perfect moment, I almost died laughing. Boris Nikolayevich, of course, was too wasted to hear the commotion at the back of the room.

Pretty sweet. And at first you figure, well, there's perhaps a sharper portait of the lovable lushsky we all thought we knew. But it gets ugly quick, and directly contradicts Chuckie K's assertions of Borya's "soft power" dedication to democracy.

The communist government found its leaders among the meanest and greediest of the children who survived and thrived in places like this. Boris Yeltsin was such a child. As a teenager he only knew two things; how to drink vodka and smash people in the face. At the very first opportunity he joined up with the communists who had liquidated his grandfather and persecuted his father and became a professional thief and face-smasher, rising quickly through the communist ranks to become a boss of the Sverdlovsk region, where he was again famous for two things: his heroic drinking and his keen political sense in looting and distributing the booty from Soviet highway and construction contracts. If Boris Yeltsin ever had a soul, it was not observable in his early biography. He sold out as soon as he could and was his whole life a human appendage of a rotting, corrupt state, a crook who would emerge even from the hottest bath still stinking of booze, concrete and sausage.


I still remember the way Lebed pronounced the word "rotting" -- gnilit -- scrunching up his smashed boxer's nose in moral disgust. He was shaken by the memory of just having been near Yeltsin. This from a hardened war veteran, a man who had coldly taken lives from Afghanistan to the Transdniester. The stink of Boris Yeltsin was the first thing capable of giving Alexander Lebed shell-shock.

Yeltsin outlived Lebed, a physically mighty man who could break rows of jaws with his fists but was chewed up and spit out like a sardine when he took on the Russian state. He likewise outlived the Petersburg Democrat Galina Starovoitova, the reporter Anna Politkovskaya, the muckraker Artyem Borovik, the Duma deputy Yuri Shekochikhin, the spy Alexander Litvinenko -- they were all too human in one way or another for today's Russia, and died of unnatural causes at young ages, but not Yeltsin. While all of those people were being murdered or dying in mysterious accidents, Yeltsin spent his golden years in an eerie state of half-preserved, perpetual almost-death.

Of course, some of these unfortunates, most notably Politkovskaya and Litvinenko, and probably Lebed as well, were killed by Yeltsin's successor, the famously good-souled Pooty-Poot, rather than Yeltsin himself. Yeltsin's skills were apparently much more profit-oriented, but by any means necessary.

Here's another line from the Yeltsin obit:

But Yeltsin was an inconsistent reformer who never took much interest in the mundane tasks of day-to-day government and nearly always blamed Russia's myriad problems on subordinates...

"Inconsistent reformer" is exactly the kind of language the American media typically used when describing Yeltsin during a period when he and his friends were robbing the Russian state like a gang of New Jersey truck hijackers.


What we were calling "reform" was just a thinly-veiled mass robbery that Yeltsin perpetrated with American help. The great delusion about Yeltsin was that he was a kind of Democrat and an opponent of communism. He was not. He was, like all politicians who grew up in that system, an opportunist. He read the writing on the wall and he threw his weight behind a "revolution" that turned out to be a brilliant ploy hatched by a canny group of generals and KGB types to privatize Soviet assets into the hands of the country's leaders, while simultaneously cutting the state free of its dreary obligations toward the rank-and-file Russian people.

The word "corruption" when applied to Boris Yeltsin had both specific and general applications. Specifically he personally stole and facilitated mass thefts at the hands of others from just about every orifice of the Russian state.

There's a lot more, very detailed, fascinsting stuff. The guy was, as Taibbi points out, essentially Tony Soprano with a bottomless bottle. And while some Russians have indeed been able to make a go of it in the post-communist era, most have not; the country and its immense resources are simply there for the plundering by the families at the top. Yeltsin enabled this, and Putin has crystallized that vision.

I don't agree with much of what Krauthammer has to say, obviously, but I wouldn't even blame his myopic obit on him. It's endemic to practically every mainstream commentator out there. It's just symptomatic of how we've always viewed and portrayed Russia, warily, as a fallen adversary whom we're just glad has the "right" ideology at long last. Factory workers literally getting paid in rancid bacon and rotten eggs is incidental -- at least it's not commie bacon and eggs.

But with its long history of insularity and internal brutality, its appalling life expectancy, demographic projections, and economic conditions, its truncated political and legal structure, and its immense arsenal of dangerous weapons, Russia can be problematic precisely because it's too big to fail.

After Yeltsin and Putin and whoever else gets their taste of the pot and retires in splendor, do the gangsters really running things simply allow the immense border to be surrounded with fractious, failed "seam states", while they continue to plunder from within? Or is possible anymore to nudge them in a more sustainable direction, to help them and help their neighbors -- and ultimately ourselves -- in the process?


john lenin said...

Good stuff. I'd been meaning to check Taibbi's column but hadn't gotten around to it, so I'm glad it's on this topic.

I've got a bit of Russian heritage, so I've had the same fascination myself (with a name like Lenin, you say? Get outta town! No, it's true!). My grandparents actually visited there in 1985 or so, which makes me envious in hindsight, just for the chance to have seen a little of that history from the inside.

Anyway, I thought this was obvious to anyone with two eyes and a half-functioning brain - a brilliant ploy hatched by a canny group of generals and KGB types to privatize Soviet assets into the hands of the country's leaders, while simultaneously cutting the state free of its dreary obligations toward the rank-and-file Russian people. - but damned if I didn't hear an old John Birch-type sneering yesterday that the Democrats would probably hold some kind of memorial for Boris. Because Democrat = Commie, get it? Haw haw! I pointed out that he should pay closer attention, because that kind of system works better than Viagra for giving right wingers wood, and he's been missing out.

I remember reading a book on depression, and a Russian folk saying was quoted: if you wake up feeling no pain, you know you're dead. My kind of people.

OT: you may have noticed I linked to your Nader post from last month, since it came up again at TBogg's yesterday. I actually haven't been back to check that thread, because it's been a good couple days and I didn't want to spoil it reading a bunch of fucking morons getting their two minute hate on.

Marius said...

Here's another very good piece that explains why Yeltsin was so loved abroad and largely hated at home, why the scary Putin enjoys ratings that G Dubs could only dream of, and why these trends are likely to continue for a while now, as far as Russia is concerned.

Sorry, it's behind the subscription wall. I can try to get a HTML copy for you guys, and paste it into a comment.

Heywood J. said...

Lenin, I did see the link the other day at TBogg's, thanks for that. I jousted a bit with a few of them. I didn't really feel like getting too out of line and dumping all over TBogg's comments thread, so just a modest back-and-forth by my standards.

I don't really care about the Nader-baiting all that much anymore, except simply to note how unproductive it is, and how it ignored all the other reasons Gore lost, most of which are still in play. But whatever. Their Nader hate keeps 'em warm. They'll get over it soon enough when the Dem candidates get cowed and pressured into endorsing action against Iran, or whatever cockamamie scheme Chimpco concocts to keep their party viable.

Having Irish and Polish-Russian ancestry, I came to appreciate similarities between the Irish and the Russians -- dour, hard-drinking potato-eaters with a fatalistic take on things. The Irish seem to have a bit more of a twinkle in their eye about such things, since they don't have quite the history of internal state security apparatuses. But there is a certain lyricism to the Russian outlook as well.

Heywood J. said...

Marius, I'd definitely like to check that article out, if possible. It looks fairly long, so it might be a lot to copy and paste. But yeah, I've always wondered in general about Yeltsin's appeal in the west. He had a certain buffoonish charm, I suppose, but the grift he was running seemed pretty clear the whole time.

As always, these things lead one to consider the role of the complaisant media in all this. I assume that their excuse is the usual institutionalized laziness, expectations of readers and editors, blah blah blah. The key is simply to realize that they're not talking to us, but to each other. Any exception to that rule is a welcome addition.