Opposition Divided over History Leading to Putin

Boris Yeltsin and Vladimir Putin

(Kennan Institute – wilsoncenter.org/program/kennan-institute – Maxim Trudolyubov – April 23, 2024)

Maxim Trudolyubov is a Senior Fellow at the Kennan Institute and the Editor-at-Large of Meduza.

It was Russia’s president Boris Yeltsin and members of his circle who made the crucial mistakes and engaged in intentional acts of corruption that put Russia on its present aggressive trajectory. This, in a nutshell, is the message of a new documentary (in Russian, with English subtitles) written and presented by Maria Pevchikh, the head of the Anti-Corruption Foundation (ACF).

The film is a recent installment in Russia’s soul-searching about the reasons for the Kremlin’s turn toward repression domestically and aggression abroad. The first episode of the film, focusing on Boris Yeltsin’s inner circle, has stirred controversy within Russia’s independent and opposition circles, particularly along generational lines.

The documentary aims to carry on the legacy of Alexei Navalny, the ACF’s founder, who died aged forty-seven under suspicious circumstances in a remote penal colony. Many of Navalny’s supporters believe his death was orchestrated by Putin’s regime.

Navalny’s View of the 1990s

Introspection into Russia’s post-Soviet trajectory was something Navalny focused on during his final years. Last August he wrote a piece titled My Fear and Loathing that was devoted to Russia’s elites of the 1990s, those public officials, business leaders, and talking heads who dominated the era and called themselves “reformers,” “democrats,” and “independent journalists.”

“I hate the con artists whom we, for some reason, used to call reformers,” Navalny wrote, naming among his targets Boris Yeltsin; Anatoly Chubais, the father of the 1990s controversial privatization program; Alexei Venediktov, the former editor in chief of the now-defunct Echo of Moscow; and Xenia Sobchak, a socialite and 2018 spoiler presidential candidate.

Navalny’s stance was at the time viewed as extreme because the people he held responsible for Russia’s ultimate moral catastrophe were counted among Russia’s progressives. Nobody idealized them, but they were deemed the only ones available to steer Russia toward some level of democracy and peaceful economic development.

Yet Navalny kept saying in his interviews before his 2021 arrest and in his notes from prison that the roots of the current dictatorship were planted during the years when Russia was still expected to join the democratic world. “They have wasted our democratic future for villas on the island of St. Barts for Tania and Valia,” Navalny wrote, referring to Yeltsin’s daughter Tatiana “Tania” Yumasheva and her husband, Valentin “Valia” Yumashev, the author of Yeltsin’s two-volume autobiography.

The Film’s Portrayal of the 1990s

Maria Pevchikh, the current head of the ACF, doubled down on this reading of Russia’s post-Soviet history and focused on Yumashev, Boris Berezovsky, and Roman Abramovich, among others, as the main villains of the 1990s.

One important feature of Navalny’s reasoning was that he did not exclude himself from those he blamed for Russia’s failure. Navalny admitted that he used to support Yeltsin, the first democratically elected leader in Russia’s history. Navalny said he did everything he could to ignore “the fake presidential election of 1996,” in which Yeltsin, sick and ineffective, was reelected. “Now we are paying for the fact that in 1996 we thought that election fraud was not always a bad thing. The end justified the means,” Navalny wrote.

Maria Pevchikh’s reading of Russia’s recent history has little humility of that kind. In her depiction, things turned sour during Yeltsin’s first steps as president and have been going south ever since. Yeltsin chooses a residential building on the outskirts of Moscow to house himself and his closest colleagues. He agrees that the country’s most watched television channel—ORT, the future Channel One—falls into the hands of a Kremlin-connected businessman because the unpopular Yeltsin wants to get reelected. He approves of the loans-for-shares scheme that gets some funds for the cash-strapped government but gives up chunks of Soviet assets to well-connected insiders.

Each of these actions could be viewed with varying degrees of reprobation. The Yeltsin people’s dealings with Channel One probably constituted fraud even under Russia’s then chaotic legislation. The loans-for-shares scheme was outright rigged, and, of course, the 1996 election outcome was heavily affected by massive funding violations and a campaign of PR pressure on the voters.

Hindsight Is 20/20

If we were discussing the 1990s from the comfort of a democratic and peaceful Russia, we would probably treat those events as growing pains. Yeltsin’s choosing an unfinished construction project for himself and his friends would be seen as an awkward holdover from the nomenklatura past, not a harbinger of things to come. Similarly, the Channel One incident would be deemed disgraceful, but in the context of a reformed Russia, complete with truly independent media, it would be seen as a relic of the totalitarian grip on the media.

Writing in 2010, the political scientist Daniel Treisman presented a balanced view of the loans-for-shares affair. In his view, the scheme was indeed corrupt in its execution. Yet Treisman stressed the fact that during the late 1990s, the loans-for-shares companies performed far better than similar companies that remained state owned. “The dramatic output increases of the oligarch firms helped fuel Russia’s impressive growth after 1999,” Treisman wrote.

The 1996 presidential election—the first ever to take place in a sovereign Russia (in 1991, Yeltsin won his post in a Russia that was still part of the Soviet Union)—was marred by significant irregularities. Independent Western observers highlighted pervasive pro-Yeltsin bias in the Russian media. Massive campaign funding violations and administrative pressure on other candidates were reported too. “Yet that election appeared largely ‘free and fair’ in regards to the administration of voting and vote-counting,” Graham Allison and Matthew Lantz of the Kennedy School of Government wrote at the time.

Reevaluating these events from the perspective of a more democratic Russia would likely yield a different understanding. That election could be seen as Russia’s first step on a stairway to democracy, not the first step on its descent into corruption and aggression.

History Written by the Aggrieved

The film caused a heated debate among Russia’s independent community, whose members enjoy freedom of speech mostly by virtue of being abroad. Many of those who were active in the 1990s and early 2000s expressed their disagreement with the choice of facts presented as crucial for Russia’s democratic failure. “The filmmakers did not falsify anything. They have flattened the picture.… It’s a flattened, one-dimensional view,” the journalist Sergey Parkhomenko commented on his social media.

The writer Viktor Shenderovich made an important observation: “This is a view from those who were children during the 1990s [the film’s author, Maria Pevchikh, was born in 1987].” Yes, they have shown only one aspect of the story, Shenderovich continued, but dismissing the author’s position because she did not really witness the events is wrong. This is that generation’s general view of what our generation has wrought (Shenderovich was born in 1958). “The results are obvious. A crushing defeat. We don’t have to agree with their view but we must accept their right to hold it,” Shenderovich said.

In the 1990s, Russia was an institutional desert. Few constraints existed that would have prevented insiders from rigging the system to their advantage. Those who became known as oligarchs maximized their profits by any means possible. These were human as well as institutional failures. The next generation’s task was to create an independent judiciary, to make sure elections were free and fair, to reform the penitentiary system. Under Putin, these crucial reforms were purposefully stalled.

The question is to what extent the events of the 1990s predetermined Russia’s aggressive pivot under Putin. The kind of reading of history that the film relies on is defined by where we stand now. The adage “history is written by the victors” captures only a fraction of the biases in historical narratives. Often, history is written by those who see the events of the past as necessarily leading to a specific outcome—including those aggrieved by this outcome. In those cases, it is not quite history but more of a pamphlet on the past.

The opinions expressed in this article are those solely of the author and do not reflect the views of the Kennan Institute.

[article also appeared at wilsoncenter.org/blog-post/opposition-divided-over-history-leading-putin]

[See also: meduza.io/en/feature/2024/04/23/a-distortion-of-history]