Russia: Yeltsin’s legacy – ‘wild’ capitalism across the former USSR

It is sickening for the impoverished working people of the ex-Soviet Union to see the praise being heaped on Boris Yeltsin, one time president of Russia, after his death from heart failure on Monday, 23 April.

“I felt like celebrating rather than mourning his passing,” commented a Russian worker in St. Petersburg, victimised for fighting one of Yeltsin’s first privatisation schemes. “His ‘reign’ turned out to be a nightmare for us. But then I remembered that Putin is still there cracking the whip. I decided renewing the workers’ confidence in struggling for socialist ideas was far more important!”.

Internationally, many will remember the lighter moments of Yeltsin’s presidency when he would stagger or rant unintelligibly in front of the world’s media, clearly under the influence of drink. But this man, now being credited with bringing “democracy and freedom” to Russia and the ex-Soviet Union, was little less than a dictator himself.

Democrat sends in the tanks

Yeltsin had been popular in the Gorbachev years for seeming to spear-head the fight against one-party rule and then against the attempted generals’ coup in 1991. Yet, just over two years later, he was sending tanks against the same parliament building he had defended from the generals and, in another year’s time, he sent tanks into the republic of Chechnya to crush the movement against national oppression from Moscow.

The clique around Yeltsin, once they had adopted the policy of full-scale, fast-track privatisation, fought ruthlessly against any challenge to their control over the spoils either from rival gangs of thieves or from the working class, trying to fight back against the onslaught on their living standards. This is why Yeltsin has got the fullest praise from western capitalist leaders and billionaire oligarchs alike, who turn a blind eye to his brutal methods.

This man presided over daylight robbery of the mass of the population in the so-called ‘transition to the market’. The economy collapsed by 50% in two years while a few well-placed ex-members of the ‘Communist Party’ like himself carried out the greatest ‘money trick’ in history.


Vouchers were distributed to everyone giving them a ‘share’ in the ‘enterprise’ they worked in. Then, due to desperate poverty caused by rocketing prices on basic necessities and also through a lack of conviction that the vouchers meant much to them, most workers sold their vouchers to ‘agents’ standing at metro stations and on street corners offering them cash. These ‘agents’ – many of them poverty-stricken pensioners and jobless young men – were working for none other than the future oligarchs who managed in this way to steal the lion’s share of the most lucrative state assets.

‘Workers’ Democracy’, the paper of the Committee for a Workers’ International in Russia at the time. declared on its front page: “Voucherisation is robbery!”. We explained the processes that had gone on in the Soviet Union from the time the economy began to stagnate under the mismanagement, blundering and wasteful practices of the 20-million strong bureaucracy. As Gorbachev floundered in the late 1980s in his search for a way of maintaining the privileges of this parasitic caste in the face of the stagnation, his ‘reforms’ had begun to arouse mass movements of miners and other workers.

However, the crimes of Stalin, especially the crushing in the late 1920s and 1930s of the genuine traditions of the 1917 October Revolution, and the luxurious living of the ‘Communist’ overlords, meant that by the 1980s workers were looking to the West for an alternative. Yeltsin exploited this mood to push forward with his aims.

We in the CWI had argued strenuously for a ‘political revolution’ to restore, after decades of totalitarianism, genuine workers’ democracy – to provide the oxygen needed in a state-owned, planned economy. We warned time and again that the restoration of capitalism in the ‘Soviet Union’ would lead not to workers enjoying the average living standards of the USA or Sweden, but to Latin American conditions – mass unemployment, hyper-inflation and dictatorship.

Tragically, with the coming to power of the ‘arch-democrat’, Yeltsin, and the collapse of the USSR at the end of 1991, the long-suffering workers of this vast area were to experience all three! The voice of those arguing for independent action of the working class – both against Yeltsin as well as against the generals – was small. We argued against the one-party state of the old regime and against the introduction of capitalism by Yeltsin. We also opposed the banning of any party except of a fascist nature. Yeltsin outlawed the ‘Communist’ party – the party of the USSR’s old leadership – but was quite willing to allow a new, even more nationalist and actually pro-capitalist version to arise.


Among the tributes to Yeltsin in the first few hours after his death was one very sour one from the leader of the party he outlawed in 1991 – Gennady Zyuganov of the CPRF. He said out of deference to Russian orthodox teaching (!), he would refrain from much commentary except a reminder of the attempt made to impeach Yeltsin for the bitterness and hardship he had caused to millions of people. The man he sent the tanks against in 1993, Alexander Rutskoi, speaks in more sugary language, maintaining that Yeltsin will be remembered for “giving people freedom” and “establishing historical justice”!

There were positively glowing comments from the oligarch in exile in Britain, Boris Berezovsky, describing Yeltsin’s death at the age of 76 as a “frightful tragedy”! Berezovsky was a leading member of Yeltsin’s ‘Family’ and helped engineer the transfer of power to his appointed successor, Vladimir Putin, (with whom he is now, ironically, daggers drawn). Yeltsin had hoped to make his own overdue resignation at the end of the last millennium, look honourable with this ‘succession’. But it was immediately tainted by Putin’s launch of a second Chechen War in order to win the presidential election and his reduction to zero of those few democratic rights he had made under the pressure of the mass movements of the early nineties.

The sugary words of the western leaders on hearing of the death of Boris Yeltsin are also to be expected. The hardship caused to the tens of millions of working and poor people of the former ‘Soviet Union’ by the ‘shock therapy’ of the Yeltsin era counts as nothing compared with what they regard as the victory of capitalism over state planning and public ownership.

It is ninety years since the heroic battles of the workers and poor peasants in Russia which overthrew the tyranny of tsars and then of capitalism itself. But Boris Yeltsin did not succeed in burying the genuine ideas of socialism and communism. On the contrary, the bitter experience of the mass of the population under his rule, and of the ‘wild (cruel and chaotic) capitalism’ that has continued in the ensuing years, brings home to more and more people in the former Soviet Union and elsewhere the urgent need to revive those ideas and implement them fully!

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April 2007