The Tragedy of Russia’s Reforms: a survey of Russia under Boris Yeltsin’s leadership in the 1990s

Leo Mattei, Johnny Miller, “The Tragedy of Russia’s Reforms” (PressTV, 2017)

Made for the Iranian news channel PressTV, this measured documentary turns out to be a detailed survey of the period of Russia’s transition from a Communist society to a capitalist one under President Boris Yeltsin (1991 – 1999) and the neoliberal economic reforms carried out under the guidance of the so-called Harvard Boys (US economists with Harvard University backgrounds tasked to assist the transition). These reforms privatised most state-run industries including the major energy industries and enriched a small number of well-placed people, many of whom were former Soviet government apparatchiks looking out for Number 1, while the vast majority of people in the new Russian Federation became impoverished. Living standards and life expectancies fell as people lost jobs and fell into despair; many turned to drink and dangerous drugs, and in parts of the country, the rates of new HIV / AIDS infections skyrocketed alarmingly. As discontent against Yeltsin’s policies became widespread, in 1993 the Russian parliament impeached Yeltsin who then dissolved the parliament; the stand-off resulted in military units ordered by Yeltsin storming the parliamentary building and the national TV station centre, killing nearly 190 people and wounding nearly 440 others. Yeltsin became a more dictatorial leader and economic “reforms” continued to devastate the country’s economy, especially its manufacturing industries, sending more people into poverty as jobs were lost. The country’s financial situation became dire and Russia was forced to rely on IMF loans which in turn tied the country even more to neoliberal economic policies, placing it on a downward spiral into more economic and financial destruction and instability, and with that political corruption and escalating levels of crime, including gang warfare and homicide.

Through interviews with people who were close to Yeltsin, such as his former bodyguard Alexander Korzhakov and former Soviet Deputy Prime Minister / founder of centrist Yabloko Party Grigory Yavlinsky, or observers of the period, such as sociologist Boris Kagarlitsky and historian Alexander Tarasov, the documentary follows the career of Yeltsin as President starting with a tour of the Yeltsin Center and its museum in Yekaterinburg. This is a strange and sinister place: it whitewashes Yeltsin’s career and encourages not only uncritical hero worship but rewrites Russian history in the 1990s. The interview with Korzhakov who wrote a book of his experiences dealing with Yeltsin in 1997 is an excellent remedy: Korzhakov is frank about the impact of Yeltsin’s leadership and the deeply corrupt and despotic nature of his government. Kagarlitski, Tarasov and other interviewees discuss the economic policies of advisors and ministers such as Yegor Gaidar and Anatoly Chubais who favoured “shock therapy” privatisation. Ordinary people are also interviewed: they speak of how the Soviet aircraft industry, built up over decades, was effectively destroyed by the “reform” policies, and how the corruption in Yeltsin’s government (from which Yeltsin family members benefited financially) and among the country’s new rich elites, known as “oligarchs”, permeated Russian society generally, encouraging the growth of criminal gangs and other criminal activity across the country. Most disturbingly, photographer Alexander Poliakov, interviewed about the 1993 constitutional crisis, implies in his statements that the events of the crisis may not have transpired as reported in official accounts.

In the mid to late 1990s, the most significant events in Russia were the outbreak of war between Russia and the breakaway republic of Chechnya (the causes of which Yeltsin himself must bear some responsibility for) and Yeltsin’s re-election as President in presidential elections held in 1996, for which Yeltsin needed US help in creating a marketing campaign playing on voters’ insecurities and fears, and the results of which (in some regions such as Ossetia) were likely tampered with or made up to help get Yeltsin back into power. Once returned as President though, Yeltsin gave himself over to the demon drink and allowed his government to fall into the hands of others. Powerful oligarchs meddled openly in Russian politics by buying up influence over politicians. The looting of the Russian economy continued with some oligarchs amassing tremendous fortunes reckoned in the billions of dollars. Corruption and crime were rampant throughout the country. Just when people could see no hope out of their predicament, Yeltsin surprised everyone by resigning as President in 1999 and nominating Vladimir Putin to succeed him as caretaker President. The following year, Putin won the presidential elections and since then has been President (with a 4-year break from 2008 to 2012).

The documentary flows smoothly and well, and does an excellent job in following the impact of Yeltsin’s leadership and his disastrous policies on particular sectors of the Russian economy, the social fabric and day-to-day life for many Russian people. The film notes the insidious role the Boris Yeltsin Center plays in whitewashing the politician and the impact he had. Just as insidious though is how the film gives little credit to Vladimir Putin in ending oligarch meddling in the nation’s politics (by making an example of crooked businessman Mikhail Khodorkovsky by jailing him for 10 years when he refused to give up interfering in the political process) and reviving the Russian economy, and insinuates that high global prices for oil in the early 2000s were mainly responsible for the Russian economic resurrection. As leader of a centrist, socially liberal party, Yavlinsky is not likely to have a neutral or positive opinion of Putin, and as a dissident academic, neither is Kagarlitsky.

The film ends on a warning note about how undertaking “wrong” economic reforms can ruin economies. This is an incorrect reading of what was done to Russia by neoliberal economic policies during the Yeltsin years: far more correct is that these policies were intended to destroy Russian power and break up the country so its resources could be seized by foreign corporations and elites, and so they were the “right” policies. Attempts by the Yeltsin Center and others to portray Yeltsin as a saintly leader and decision-maker are to be seen in a similar light, parallel to how other major world leaders who also introduced neoliberal economics in their countries have been sold to the public as wise or capable, even as their economic policies sent thousands or millions into unemployment, poverty and despair.