The media reaction to the death of former Russian president Boris Yeltsin was curiously split. Right wing newspapers couldn’t decide whether to celebrate Yeltsin as “the man who brought down Communism” or lampoon him as a drunken fool who wrecked Russia’s economy.
These confusions reflect the conflicting interests of the capitalist class in the West.
They welcomed the collapse of Stalinist governments in Russia and Eastern Europe which were competitors – militarily and economically. New “investment opportunities” also emerged.
Ideologically the collapse of the Eastern bloc seemed to confirm that communism did not work.
There is a deeper confusion in the media’s understanding of Yeltsin’s Russia, however, and one that also affects sections of the left.
That confusion stems from trying to paint the Soviet Union before 1989 as in some sense “socialist”, and thus seeing Yeltsin’s role as one of “introducing” capitalism into Russia.
In fact the tumultuous changes in Russia during the 1980s and 1990s are much better understood as the replacement of one form of capitalism – state capitalism – with another, market capitalism.
Both forms of capitalism were run by, and in the interests of, a ruling elite that accumulated wealth by exploiting workers and denying their rights.
Yeltsin, like so many of Russia’s current ruling class, emerged out of the bureaucracy of the Communist Party in the 1980s. He was born in 1931 to a working class family from the Urals and initially made his living as a construction manager.
Yeltsin joined the ruling elite of Russia – the so called “nomenklatura” – in 1968 and rapidly progressed up the Communist hierarchy. But by the 1980s Russia’s economy was in deep economic crisis.
Mikhail Gorbachev, who became the country’s leader in 1985, attempted to restructure the economy by introducing a series of market-oriented reforms, known as “perestroika”. This required some opening up of debate and discussion, a process known as “glasnost”. But these moves only increased the appetite for more change.
By 1989 the country was seeing the first miners’ strikes for decades. Yeltsin had sided with Gorbachev, but fell out with him over the slow pace of reforms. Instead he developed a populist style, courting democracy movements.
The crucial turning point was in August 1991, when a section of the ruling Communist elite opposed to Gorbachev’s reforms launched a coup against him.
The coup attempt was bungled. Thousands of people rallied on the streets to prevent tanks from attacking the Russian parliament building in Moscow.
Strikes began in important workplaces. Millions celebrated when the coup collapsed days later.
Yeltsin came into his own during the coup, rapidly positioning himself as a leader of the democracy movement.
One of the defining images of the coup was Yeltsin climbing onto a tank to declare to the crowds that the coup had failed. Gorbachev was returned to power briefly, but the Soviet Union was dissolved at the end of the year, with Yeltsin emerging as the undisputed leader of Russia.
In each republic of the former USSR, coalitions of key figures who had split from the ruling party at the last minute (like Yeltsin), top industrialists, generals and, occasionally, ex-dissidents hastened to take control of the machinery of state.
Once in power, Yeltsin the populist democrat rapidly degenerated into a butcher and a gangster.
He turned to the West and to neoliberal institutions such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to institute “shock therapy” in the Russian economy.
The effects of the IMF programme of overnight privatisation and slashing public subsidies were disastrous. Vast chunks of Russia’s state owned industries were handed over to a clique of bankers and tycoons – the so called “oligarchs” – at bargain basement prices.
While the oligarchs grew rich, workers and the poor in Russia suffered greatly.
By 1999, when Yeltsin left office, Russian males’ life expectancy had fallen by ten years and the population had shrunk by 3.3 million.
The “democrat” Yeltsin turned to greater repression and in 1993 used the army to bombard the very Russian parliament he had defended two years earlier when it rebelled against him.
After his popularity had plummeted to just 2 percent among voters, Yeltsin secured re-election in 1996 thanks to massive financial support from leading bankers and media mogals.
But by 1999 his luck was running out as economic crisis grew and corruption allegations piled up.
Yeltsin announced his surprise resignation on 31 December 1999, handing over power to his protégé Vladimir Putin, who like Yeltsin was a former member of the Soviet Union’s elite.
For the most part the Western ruling class is pleased that Putin has brought “stability” to the Russian economy. But it is also wary of Putin’s desire to restore Russia’s power. This results in diplomatic clashes.
A real alternative to bloody imperial chess games can only come from below – from the movements resisting imperialism at home and abroad, and from the genuine revolutionary socialist tradition pioneered by Russia’s early Bolsheviks but trampled on by Joseph Stalin and his successors.
The tributes paid to Boris Yeltsin in recent days have largely overlooked his record of murderous aggression against the people of Chechnya.
Chechnya has suffered over 200 years of Russian imperialist repression.
The region is located in the Caucasus mountain range between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea, which has vast oil and natural gas reserves.
Many former colonies of Russia chose to split when the Soviet Union broke up at the end of 1991.
In Chechnya an uprising deposed the region’s puppet government and declared independence.
But Yeltsin’s government in Moscow was determined to keep control of Chechnya – and of the oil pipelines that run through its capital Grozny.
It established Russian military bases nearby in 1992 and launched a full scale invasion in 1994.
The war on Chechnya was met with mass resistance from ordinary Chechens.
The first Russian tank column sent into Grozny was wiped out. Russia responded by raining down fragmentation bombs on Chechen cities.
After 18 months of fierce fighting, including a massacre of 100 civilians by Russian troops in the village of Samashki, the Chechens retook control of the capital from Russia.
By 1996 the war was becoming increasingly unpopular with ordinary Russians and Yeltsin sued for peace.
Some 80,000 Chechens had been killed and a quarter of a million made homeless by the conflict.
Yeltsin never stopped looking for revenge against Chechnya. In 1999 – while the Western powers were bombing Serbia – he ordered another bloody assault on the region, spearheaded by his new prime minister and soon to be successor, Vladimir Putin.
This second attack was even more appalling in its brutality. Russian troops engaged in systematic orgies of slaughter and rape.
On 4 February 2000, Russian aircraft dropped “vacuum bombs” on the Chechen village of Katyr Yurt.
These “vacuum bombs” release and ignite clouds of petrol vapour into the atmosphere.
They kill by sucking people’s lungs inside out, and are banned for use against civilians by the Geneva Convention.
At least 363 men, women and children were slaughtered by Russian forces that day.
Countless similar atrocities have been documented all across Chechnya, while many more remain unrecorded.
At first the West made token criticisms of Putin, but even these evaporated with the start of the “war on terror” in 2001.
Yeltsin and Putin presented themselves as “civilised” Europeans fighting “Islamic terrorists” in Chechnya.
The Western powers obliged by turning a blind eye to the slaughter.
Today Russia continues to dominate Chechnya.
Anwar Ditta, a heroic anti-racist campaigner, died last week.