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April 25, 2007

Boris Yeltsin, Dead at 76

Kevin E. Dayhoff

Best known for standing on a tank in the middle of Moscow and almost single-handedly defying a coup in 1991, Boris Nikolayevich Yeltsin is the same person who just two years earlier had fished himself out of a river clad only in his underwear.

It was in 1989 that the man history may reflect upon as one of the most significant players in dismantling the U.S.S.R somehow ended up in a police station outside Moscow dripping wet.

According to a Reuters' account, Mr. Yeltsin claimed that he "had been attacked, his head covered with a sack and dumped off a bridge into a river. Top communists said he had been drunk while on his way to a tryst with a lover."

On Monday, in Moscow's Central Clinical Hospital, he died of heart failure. A walking-talking contradiction, history has yet to fathom his legacy.

He was born February 1, 1931. When he was a small child, his father was arrested and sent to prison by Josef Stalin because his family owned property before the 1917 revolution.

He was a strapping, handsome peasant politician from the Ural Mountains' Sverdlovsk region with a thumb and an index finger missing on one hand from a bad experience playing with a hand grenade, striking silver hair, and an alleged fondness for vodka and women.

1989 was the same year that he won 89.6 percent of the vote from Moscow to be elected to a seat in the Soviet Parliament. It was two years after he had been banished from government by then Soviet leader and former mentor turned bitter rival, Mikhail Gorbachev.

Mr. Gorbachev had handpicked the rough and ready, unpolished "muzhik" (which is, according to the Associated Press, a tough peasant with common sense and a fondness for vodka) in 1985 for leadership from an otherwise obscure role as a regional Communist Party boss.

In an October 1987 party meeting, Mr. Yeltsin embarrassed his boss, Mr. Gorbachev, for unceremoniously criticizing the slow movement of economic reforms.

In 1988 Mr. Gorbachev was quoted as saying Mr. Yeltsin would never-ever return to government.

Elena Nyasnikova, the editor for "Cosmopolitan Russia" said in a 2004 interview on the "new" economics of Russia: "In my country, you can never be sure about what happens tomorrow. So there are no guarantees."

As so it was with Mr. Yeltsin, the first democratically elected leader in the entire history of a storied country full of irony, intrigue and the totally unpredictable.

He was overwhelmingly elected in the first presidential election in Russia's history in June 1991. Mr. Yeltsin, the former Communist Party boss thereupon banished the Communist Party and seized all its economic holdings.

Half a year later he formed the Commonwealth of Independent States with Ukraine and Belarus and declared the end of the Soviet empire.

A hapless and essentially stateless Soviet head of state, Mr. Gorbachev, resigned from office in January 1992.

Two years after his celebrated August 1991 defiant stand on the top of a tank, he disbanded parliament and bombed the parliament building, known as the "White House," to put down a rebellion by "upstart members.," killing an untold number of politicians and bureaucrats.

And to think that Americans get upset when "upstart" members of Congress "shell" our president with words.

According to a Reuters account, "In 1992, he played the spoons, a popular musical instrument in Russia, on the head of Askar Akayev, the president of ex-Soviet Kyrgyzstan." During his re-election campaign in June 1996, in Rostov, he danced on stage at a rock concert, several days after a heart attack.

After he broke apart the Soviet Union, in December 1994, he invaded Chechnya and ruthlessly prevailed in keeping the otherwise unknown region, with no known strategic value, from also going independent.

After horrendous civilian and military casualties, the Russian army was withdrawn by the end of 1996. The world learned that the once feared Russian military was under trained, ill equipped, demoralized and impotent.

The world was horrified with the aftermath and yet, in 1999, President Yeltsin ordered the troops back in.

According to published accounts "He fired the entire government four times in 1998 and 1999. The economy sank into a deep recession in 1998, but he easily faced down an impeachment attempt by the Communist-dominated lower chamber of parliament in 1999."

After being celebrated as the first elected leader of Russia, he dismantled the notorious secret police, the KGB, then abruptly resigned December 31, 2000, and handpicked his successor, Vladimir Putin, a prominent member of the former KGB.

In an economic analysis of "new" Russian economy in 2004, CNBC's Sue Herera wrote: "What angered many Russians was how Yeltsin the crusader against Soviet corruption presided over a fire sale of state-owned industries to Kremlin insiders, a move which created a small cadre of Russian billionaires overnight. Meanwhile, during his tenure, many ordinary Russian citizens saw their savings wiped out, their jobs evaporate, the society their parents and grandparents had created disintegrate."

"Moscow now has more billionaires than any city in the world, according to Forbes magazine," said Ms. Herera.

In the same article, investigative journalist Kirill Belyaninov, observed, "Fifteen years ago it was lines for bread and vodka. Now we have to stay in line if you want to buy a Bentley."

Yet, Mr. Belyaninov paradoxically observed, "If you travel 20 miles outside Moscow - with all the Moscow fancy cars and boutiques and all this stuff - you'll find people are living in the houses without running water, without gas and with problems with the electricity."

As Russia and the world face a world of uncertainty fraught with danger, in a recent "Der Speigel" interview, Andrei Illarionov, a senior fellow at the Washington-based Cato Institute and former chief economic advisor to Russian President Putin, (discussed) the reasons for the Kremlin's brutal treatment of the political opposition and the West's attitudes toward Moscow.

In that interview, Mr. Illarionov said "Russia is certainly no longer a free country. We are moving in the direction of Zimbabwe. All our democratic institutions are also being dismantled. We suffer from the Zimbabwean disease. This is why Russia is becoming more isolated diplomatically, and why economic growth is slowing. In a comparison with the 15 former Soviet republics, Russia is now third to last when it comes to economic growth."

Mr. Yeltsin may have started a revolution, but it has not developed as anyone dreamed or the West romanticized. His passing comes at a moment in history as uncertain as it was when he first burst on the scene in 1985.

In Russia, the more things change, the more they remain the same.

Meanwhile, historians are for the most part, simply at a loss, as to how to remember him. Romanticized by the west and reviled by much of Russia, he remains in death, just as he lived his life, a complicated man with a complicated legacy.

Kevin Dayhoff writes from Westminster: E-mail him at:

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