Friday, 18 May 2007

Boris Yeltsin, 1931-2007

In the wake of Boris Yeltsin's death on April 23, it is customary in the media to weigh up such a man's achievements and failures during their time in office and form some sort of conclusion on their legacy. For Yeltsin, his achievements appear blindingly obvious - particularly for anyone who had reached political awareness before the close of the 1980s - the Russian nation is no longer under the oppressive yoke of the Communist Party. His most commonly cited failures in the papers and on television have been his equally obvious drunkenness and initiation of the ongoing and seemingly futile Chechen wars.

However, a distinction that does not appear to have made a mark in the press is the unfortunate reality of how close these achievements and failures actually are in the long-run. John Major has been gracing our screens recently on a number of television programmes speaking of Yeltsin's passion for democracy and the market as well as his hatred for the totalitarianism of the USSR. This I do not doubt - I am sure that given the evidence, few do. What sadly makes Yeltsin's greatest achievement ultimately Russia's greatest failure is the method in which he employed it.

The 'shock therapy' of the early 1990s which radically switched Russia from a socialist command economy to free market liberalism almost overnight did not just create the short-term hardships of widespread poverty, unemployment and food shortages. In the long-run it created something far darker, far more permanent, and for Russia far more tragic - the seeds of tyranny. It is unfortunate that, given the Soviet state censorship at the time, Yeltsin would have had little opportunity to read any literature on economic liberalism before embarking on such a daring venture. Had he the opportunity to read The Road to Serfdom by the late, great economist F. A. Hayek; he would surely have come across this foreboding and alarmingly accurate prophecy:

...however one may wish a speedy return to a free economy, this cannot mean the removal at once of the [previous] restrictions. Nothing would discredit the system of free enterprise more than the acute, though probably short-lived, dislocation and instability this would produce.

Indeed, had these words not been written in 1943, one would assume they had been directed at Yeltsin personally. Though Hayek was writing entirely hypothetically in the event of an Allied victory in WWII, this is precisely what has happened in Russia since 1991. In the years spanning 1991-1994 mortality in Russians aged 15-30 years actually rose, and to this day remains excessively high [1]. With reports reaching our screens at an ever-increasing rate on state-sponsored murder of dissidents, persistent press intimidation, economic bullying and steady concentration of power, Hayek's words continue to chillingly ring true:

The one thing modern democracy will not bear without cracking is the...substantial lowering in the standards of living in peace time.

Russia may not yet have returned to totalitarianism, but its young and fragile democracy is most definitely beginning to crack. And those cracks are widening. For Russia particularly, this is a most tragic scenario as it is not the first time a chance at liberty and prosperity has been so closely missed. In November 1917, Russia was scheduled to vote on what was at the time possibly the most liberal constitution in the world; in particular promising universal suffrage. That this was something not practiced even by the great liberal democracies of Britain, America, or France gives us an insight into just how differently Russian history could have panned out. As fate would have it, the Bolsheviks seized power in a coup on October 25, and in an act befitting the tantrum of a troublesome child, shut down the newly-elected Constituent Assembly after only 13 hours sitting due to their party winning less than a quarter of the national vote [2].

In his comprehensive tome Russia and the Russians, Geoffrey Hosking touches upon what has been termed the 'binary nature' of Russian culture, with 'its tendency to seek extreme solutions to problems and lurch from one set of cultural patterns to their diametrical opposite'. This was best exemplified by the acceptance of the Bolsheviks in 1917, and the subsequent scrubbing of their legacy in 1991, despite all the hardships that came with each. At this point in time one can only hope that the Russian people have, against Hayek's predictions, not yet grown impatient with democracy - and are unwilling to accept a lurch back to dictatorship. This will be put to the test if President Putin decides to constitutionally extend his period of office in 2008. A strong president and a far-reaching state may appear to be solving problems for Russians now, but as Europe's experience of the twentieth century has shown; it can reap only the bitter whirlwind of oppression, misery, and stagnation.

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