The Legacy of Boris Yeltsin

Communism wounded Russia, grievously, almost irreparably – and Yeltsinism delivered the death blow. The legacy of Boris Yeltsin, who presided over what Paul Klebnikov described as "one of the most corrupt regimes in history," is, quite literally, the death agony of the Russian nation. As David Satter pointed out in the Wall Street Journal:

"Between 1992 and 1994, the rise in the death rate in Russia was so dramatic that Western demographers did not believe the figures. The toll from murder, suicide, heart attacks and accidents gave Russia the death rate of a country at war; Western and Russian demographers now agree that between 1992 and 2000, the number of “surplus deaths” in Russia–deaths that cannot be explained on the basis of previous trends–was between five and six million persons."

The Yeltsin era was marked by a precipitous fall in living standards, but some prospered. Given privileged access to "privatized" state property, the clique around Yeltsin amassed fantastic wealth. The one who perhaps profited the most was Boris Berezovsky, whose methods were described by Klebnikov:

"Using his access to the highest officials of the Russian government and his reputation as a close friend of the Yeltsin family, Berezovsky hammered away at the privatization projects that would put key state industries in his grasp."

Yeltsin’s clique, which included his daughter, was known as "the Family" – not as in "family values," or the Partridge Family, but as in the Russian equivalent of The Sopranos. The rule of the commissars had been succeeded by the reign of the gangsters, criminal elements who seized control of the national economy and engineered a complete takeover of the state apparatus, not for any ideological motive or ostensibly "patriotic" purpose, but simply to enrich themselves. Their strategy made use of the "shock therapy" approach to privatizing the economy as advocated by Harvard professor Jeffrey Sachs. The process was set up to favor Yeltsin’s courtiers, who paid rock-bottom prices in a rigged auction. The industrial base of the Russian economy was sold off for a song: the whole process amounted to a spree of looting such as hadn’t been seen since the sack of Rome.

Yeltsin didn’t seem to notice, which is hardly surprising, since he was drunk for most of his tenure in office. And in Yeltsin’s Russia, vodka was the only commodity that was cheap and plentiful. If this was an effort to calm the roiling currents of post-Soviet politics and anesthetize the populace while the oligarchs made off with the nation’s assets, it didn’t entirely accomplish that goal. There was an anti-Yeltsin upsurge in 1993, and the Duma threatened to impeach the Russian president: in response, Yeltsin declared the parliament dissolved and sent in his tanks to take the building, which was ringed by tens of thousands of anti-Yeltsin demonstrators.

This is the guy who is now being hailed as a great democrat and admirable leader by the Clintons, two of the old crook’s biggest enablers. Bill Clinton and his cronies funneled billions in American "aid" to Yeltsin ‘s kleptocracy, most of which disappeared down a rabbit hole and eventually wound up in the oligarchs’ foreign bank accounts.

Putin is routinely blamed for the Chechen war, yet this too is part of the Yeltsin legacy. It was Yeltsin who started that war, invading Chechnya in 1994 to protect the interests of certain criminal gangs in Moscow and other major Russian cities, who had a falling out with their Chechen brethren in the homeland. Describing the group around Yeltsin who pushed for war, Gen. Aleksandr Lebed bitterly declared: "This is not the party of war. This is the party of business."

Having consolidated its hold on power, the Yeltsin clique, with Berezovsky’s funding and support, proceeded to divvy up the spoils, including cementing their domination of the "private" media. Organized crime networks replaced the state security services as centers of power, with Berezovsky and his fellow oligarchs at the apex of it all. Using strong-arm tactics and engaging in not a few assassinations, the oligarchs – Berezovsky, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, Vladimir Gusinsky, and Leonid Nevzlin, among others – drove rival gangs out of business and established their economic and political supremacy.

The oligarchy decimated the economy, demoralized the Russian people, and dissolved the rule of law in the acid of corruption and criminality. Is it any wonder that Yeltsin’s death is hardly being mourned in Russia? I would venture a guess that more than a few cups are being raised to his demise.

Understanding the Yeltsin legacy and its catastrophic effect on Russia is key to grasping the Putin phenomenon. Although the former KGB officer who rose from obscurity to become the most formidable Russian leader since Peter the Great owes his present job to Yeltsin, the Yeltsin clique didn’t fare so well at the hands of their fallen leaders’ designated successor. Putin turned against "the Family" and drove most of the oligarchs out of power and into exile, where they are even now scheming to make a comeback. The ersatz "privatizations" arranged under the previous regime were overturned, to a large extent, and the "entrepreneurs" of the Russian Mafia were reined in, if not eliminated entirely, to the point where they no longer threatened the state’s monopoly on coercion. The reintegration of formerly state-controlled assets into the "private-public" arrangements mapped out by the Putin administration is widely seen in the West as evidence that Russia is "backsliding." Similarly, the takeover of major mass-media outlets by pro-Putin businessmen is cited as proof that Putin represents a new "authoritarianism." Yet all that has happened is the passing of power from the oligarchs to the latter-day czarists of Putin’s United Russia party.

Gregory Yavlinsky, the liberal parliamentary leader, had this to say about Yeltsin’s regime:

"The government that was formed was without any clear ideology. It was neither red, nor white, nor green. It was based solely on personal greed. You got a system that was corporatist, oligarchic, and based on monopolized property rights and semi-criminal relationships."

With the oligarchic and semi-criminal elements purged by Putin, what remains is the corporatist structure, which is now in different hands. Railing at the Russian president from their posh places of exile in Londongrad, Switzerland, and the French Riviera, the oligarchs’ indictment of Putin boils down to one principal complaint: they are no longer in power.

Flush with cash, and intent on revenge, exiled oligarchs such as Berezovsky pour their money into phony "human rights" front groups that regularly denounce Russia’s "reversion" to authoritarianism. Some, like Andrew Illarionov of the Cato Institute, go so far as to accuse Russia of launching a military bid to regain its lost empire and advise the West to "consider itself in a new Cold War-like era."

The goal of this rather motley crew is to restore Yeltsinism without Yeltsin, but the oligarchs and assorted "dissenters" – ranging from Eduard Limonov and his National Bolsheviks to Illarionov and chess-champion-turned-politician Gary Kasparov – have little support outside the editorial offices of Western newspapers and U.S. government agencies engaged in "democracy promotion." The "color revolutions" that occurred in former Soviet satellites such as Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan have faded to black, and Putin’s popularity in Russia has so far foiled the oligarchs’ attempts to subvert the country from within. Berezovsky has to content himself with calling for the violent overthrow of the Russian government from his palatial London headquarters, hoping that the professional regime-changers in Washington and London will lend a sympathetic ear and, perhaps, some material support.

In the meantime, however, with the ill-gotten gains of several oligarchs stashed in Swiss bank accounts and sloshing around Londongrad and Washington, there are plenty of think-tank presidents who wouldn’t mind getting a cut of that particular action. Expect the propaganda assault on Putin’s Russia to get more vociferous and the drumbeat to "do something" about the rising "threat" of Russia to get louder and more serious.

Yeltsin’s legacy to Russia – poverty, privation, and a renewed adversarial stance by the West – is the "gift" that just keeps on giving.


I have noted the growing convergence of Left and Right on various issues, from the war in Iraq to the fight in defense of civil liberties on the home front, and here’s another proposition that is a part of this developing Left-Right consensus: the rise of Jonah Goldberg as a right-wing commentator points to a qualitative degeneration of American conservatism. Yes, it’s "Goldbergism and the Decline of the Right," the latest installment of my column for Taki’s Top Drawer. I have to say that I really get a kick out of reading as well as writing for Taki Theodoracopulos’ spanking new Web site because I get to venture into topics I wouldn’t normally cover in this space, and I can frankly tell you that I enjoy the opportunity to let my hair down, so to speak, and write about what amuses me rather than what needs to be written about.

Over the last few days I’ve done two radio interviews: go check out my appearance on Jim Ostrowski’s new radio show on and yet another interview with our very own Scott Horton on Antiwar Radio. Regarding the latter: well, yes, I was a little… loquacious, shall we say, but then again everybody has days like that, don’t they? Well, maybe not quite like that, but close enough…

I also have a new piece coming out soon in The American Conservative on the upcoming trial of Steve Rosen and Keith Weissman, two employees of AIPAC charged with passing U.S. secrets to Israel. I’m not sure if the editors are going to put it online – and, yes, I’m urging you once again to subscribe to TAC.

Author: Justin Raimondo

Justin Raimondo passed away on June 27, 2019. He was the co-founder and editorial director of, and was a senior fellow at the Randolph Bourne Institute. He was a contributing editor at The American Conservative, and wrote a monthly column for Chronicles. He was the author of Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement [Center for Libertarian Studies, 1993; Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 2000], and An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard [Prometheus Books, 2000].