By the time Yeltsin exited the Kremlin…


President Bill Clinton plays the saxophone presented to him by Russian President Boris Yeltsin at a private dinner hosted by President Yeltsin at Novoya Ogarova Dacha, Russia, 1994

From New Left Review:

In Yeltsin’s ascent, the hour of Russian nationalism appeared to have struck. But while his popular support on the way up depended on an appeal to it, once he was entrenched in power, his political base lay in an intelligentsia that backed him for other reasons. It was moved not by attachment to nationalism, but—in a version of zapadnichestvo unlike earlier forms—admiration for capitalism. In its nineteenth-century variants, Russian intellectuals had looked to the West as inspiration for a liberal, industrial, parliamentary modernity against which Tsarism stood in the way. Few, however, were attracted to the cult of profit and the cash nexus. By the late twentieth century, the canonical liberty of postmoderns was democracy, and Yeltsin’s entourage made much of it. In the self-description they preferred, they were above all democrats. But as the finest Russian intellectual of the time, a genuine specimen, observed as they rode to power, these were democrats whose rule meant the humiliation of democracy. Yeltsin bombed the Duma, trumped up ratification of the Constitution, rigged auction of the country’s wealth to a handful of oligarchs, and enriched himself and his favourites beyond measure. For them what mattered were not such expedients, but the emancipation they served—the irreversible introduction of capitalism in Russia, from which all the other blessings, political and social, of the West would ultimately follow.

In such a prospectus, Russian nationalism had no place. The task of the country was to join the West, not to linger on what could only be retrograde differences from it. That meant doing its will, eagerly if possible, stoically if necessary. Yeltsin’s Foreign Minister Kozyrev dumbfounded a visiting Nixon by telling him that Moscow had no interests that were not those of the West. With interlocutors like these, representing a government dependent for its continuation in power on economic and ideological support from the West, America could treat Russia with little more ceremony than if it were, after all, an occupied country. When even Kozyrev baulked on being told that it was Moscow’s duty to join Washington in threatening to attack Serbia, Victoria Nuland—currently Assistant Secretary of State for Europe—remarked: ‘That’s what happens when you try to get the Russians to eat their spinach. The more you tell them it’s good for them, the more they gag.’ Her superior at the time, Clinton’s friend and familiar Strobe Talbott, proudly records that ‘administering the spinach treatment’ to Russia was one of the principal activities of his time in office. In due course Obama would say, in public, that Putin reminded him of a ‘sulky teenager in the back of the classroom’. In the ongoing Ukrainian crisis, Nuland could be heard conferring with the us Ambassador in Kiev on the composition of the country’s government in a style compared by an American observer to a British resident issuing instructions to one of the princely states of colonial India. In condescension or contempt, the underlying American attitude speaks for itself: vae victis.

By the time Yeltsin exited the Kremlin on the heels of the economic debacle of 1998, amid corruption, chaos and immiseration, his neo-liberal counsellors were discredited. As an ideology, capitalism had never enjoyed much popular respect or confidence; and as an experience, under the auspices of Chubais, Gaidar, Nemtsov and the rest, it had proved for most Russians more of an ordeal than a liberation. Putin brought restoration of order and economic recovery without ever repudiating it, but also without ever proclaiming it as a legitimation of the system he inherited. Markets were needed, of course, but it was a strong state that Russians had always valued. Abroad, that meant an end to the humiliations of the Yeltsin era. Russia would seek, as a leading American authority on its foreign policy has put it, ‘respect, recognition and responsibility for upholding order around the world’. It would make what accommodations were necessary to that end, but its interests did not automatically coincide with those of the West, and it was entitled to be treated on an equal footing with its partners in America and Europe.

Fifteen years later, that quest has come to grief.

“Incommensurate Russia”, Perry Anderson, New Left Review