Russia

Nasty Obituary of the Week

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Matt Taibbi on Boris Yeltsin:

During that time the Yeltsin family lived in a workers' barracks where men, women, children and the elderly slept on top of each other like animals and fought, literally fought, with fists and lead pipes, for crusts of bread, or a few feet of space upon which to sleep at night. The communist government found its leaders among the meanest and greediest of the children who survived and thrived in places like this. Boris Yeltsin was such a child. As a teenager he only knew two things: how to drink vodka and smash people in the face. At the very first opportunity he joined up with the communists who had liquidated his grandfather and persecuted his father and became a professional thief and face-smasher, rising quickly through the communist ranks to become a boss of the Sverdlovsk region, where he was again famous for two things: his heroic drinking and his keen political sense in looting and distributing the booty from Soviet highway and construction contracts. If Boris Yeltsin ever had a soul, it was not observable in his early biography. He sold out as soon as he could and was his whole life a human appendage of a rotting, corrupt state, a crook who would emerge even from the hottest bath still stinking of booze, concrete and sausage.

The whole long, venomous, richly detailed rant is here. Hat tip: Steve Koppelman.

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  1. Refreshing, if true. Much better than sanitized obits ala President Ford. Like history, the winners get to write the obits
    (until the losers get their “lost cause” romanticism together.)

  2. I had no idea that Taibbi knew Boris Yeltsin personally. Very impressive. Oh, he didn’t? So this is, like, historical fiction?

  3. Now that’s a fucking obit!

  4. Jesse Walker,

    In many ways Yeltsin’s withdrawl from the Gorbachev government precipitated the developments that later lead to the coup that Yeltsin thwarted.

  5. I want that guy to write my obit.
    I’ve got the drinking down. Who do I have to kill?

  6. I haven’t yet RTFO, but the tone seems to be quite different from that of David Boaz’s “Yeltsin the Hero“…

    Not many political leaders happily let their subjects go. What other political leader ever gave up control over 14 countries? But by doing so, he avoided years of bloodshed. Yeltsin then set about freeing prices and privatizing state property, the largest privatization in the history of the world.

  7. Bravo! Now, I’m curious–shall I assume from the headline that I can expect another nasty obit next week? Because that would totally rock my socks off.

  8. ed,

    You can have Matt Taibbi. I would prefer David Boaz. It’s a shame I plan to outlive him.

  9. Taibbi wrote for the eXile, a newsrag started by US expats in Moscow

    While it’s not saying “that Taibbi knew Boris Yeltsin personally”, I’d trust his opinion more than some of the corporate whore keyboard jockey navel gazers who’ve weighed in.

    “he avoided years of bloodshed”

    yeah, right

  10. Not many political leaders happily let their subjects go. What other political leader ever gave up control over 14 countries?

    If Taibbi’s obit is to be believed, it may have been a matter of Yeltsin not being sober enough to notice them gone….

    How could I not like an obituary that vicious?

  11. Taibbi’s extensive work on Russia has one main purpose: to explode the myths and simplistic formulations that lazy Western journalists use to explain the country. They always want to divide Russian leaders into good guys and bad guys, reformers and revanchists. That whole narrative ignores a fundamental truth: Russia is so deeply, inherently, unbelievably corrupt that no honorable person could get anywhere near the reins of power. Even the opposition parties are basically creations of the people in charge, funded, bought off, and deployed to siphon any genuine descent that might arise. See British scholar Andrew N. Wilson’s book “Virtual Democracy.” Sure, Taibbi is hyperbolic. But what he says is fundamentally the truth.

  12. Sorry, I meant “dissent,” not “descent.” But you get the idea.

  13. Sorry, I meant “dissent,” not “descent.” But you get the idea

    I nominate that one for “embarassing typoe of the week”

    (yes, I know it’s typo)

  14. [cheap shot]And yet Bill Clinton seemed to adore him.[/cheap shot]

  15. if only Clinton had looked into Yeltsin’s soul to get an accurate measure of the man. 😉

  16. Do we give Yeltsin any credit for the fact that Russia was freer under him that at any time before or since?

  17. Also, George Washington owned slaves.

  18. “What we were calling “reform” was just a thinly-veiled mass robbery that Yeltsin perpetrated with American help.”

    Yeltsin was Chalabi before Chalabi, a con man telling neocons in X-Files “I Want To Believe” tee-shirts what they wanted to hear.

  19. Sorry, I meant “dissent,” not “descent.” But you get the idea.

    I think it works just fine the way it is.

  20. Taibbi is incredibly funny, witty and a good writer. His opinion filled obit is par for the course. I just want people to know what Taibbi’s schtick is. His take on Imus was the best of the bunch (“You throw a couple dozen talented black artists mid-level stockbroker money and they’ll be ho-calling bitch-slapping modern Bojangles acts till the end of f**king time”).

  21. I always knew he was no saint, but I guess I never realized what a colossal dick he was.

  22. I think that obituaries of politicians should all dwell on the negative. Never one to advocate censorship, I still feel it would be useful to forbid any mention of positive acts by politicians in the year following their deaths.

    What we need is a conscious effort to make the best legacy a politician can hope for to be a two-line obit mentioning their government service and perhaps where flowers can be sent.

  23. Maybe we should only allow positive things to be said about politicians in the year after their deaths.

    It would provide a good incentive structure for the more problematic ones, if you catch my meaning.

  24. I’m not a connoisseur of the work of Matt Taibbi, but he seems to hang out in the Nation/Mother Jones quarter of the commentariat. What jdb said above is probably true, but I saw no mention of what Taibbi would have preferred happen in Russia. I’m thinking he would have been in favor of Gorby staying in power, with some form of Social Democracy emerging out of the chrysalis of glastnost and perestroika. He’s probably too properly cynical about Russia to pipe up with his druthers.

    Yeltsin, drunken thief that he was, still was a transitional figure who broke the Communist Party’s hold on the Soviet Union. Taibbi never comes out and says better to live under the rule of ideological tyrants than that of mobsters, but he all but does. At least with the Kremlin run by crooks who operate without the fig leaf of Marxism-Leninism we are free of nuclear brinkmanship.

    Kevin

  25. Uh, the popularly-elected legislature, the legalization of opposition parties, and the end of nuclear brinksmanship happened under Gorbachev, Kevin.

    I know, things were moving pretty fast between 1987 and 1991, but it was Gorby that created the elected Duma, legalized other parties, and signed the arms reduction acts with Reagan.

  26. When the “ideological tyrants” staged the coup in a desperate effort to restore the old Stalinist regime, it was launched against Gorbachev, not Yeltsin.

  27. I’ve been a big Taibbi fan since reading his book Spanking the Donkey, about the ’04 election. I don’t necessarily agree with him politically– he was a Kucinich guy, believe it or not– but he is acerbic and insightful and a lot of fun to read.

  28. joe:

    Gorby did make some reforms, and the coup was staged against him, but do you seriously think that he was willing to give up the CP’s dominance of the political system? Matt Welch’s take on the man had me thinking otherwise. Jesse Walker’s post here does remind us that the Russian people, more than any politician, deserved better than the kleptocracy that they wound up getting.

    When all is said and done, Yeltsin was the man who lent his clout to those protesting the coup, and reaped the political advantage from that leadership. (Perhaps a sic would be appropriate here.)

    Kevin

  29. Kevrob,

    “give up the CP’s dominance of the political system” covers a lot of ground.

    I think he wanted free and fair elections, and believed that his party deserved to win them. Sure, he wanted the communist system to remain in place, just as a Democrat circa 1957 wanted the New Deal system to remain in place.

  30. Maybe he was both.

  31. Taibibi wrote:

    “[Yeltsin] read the writing on the wall and he threw his weight behind a “revolution” that turned out to be a brilliant ploy hatched by a canny group of generals and KGB types to privatize Soviet assets into the hands of the country’s leaders, while simultaneously cutting the state free of its dreary obligations toward the rank-and-file Russian people.”
    I am no Yeltsin fan, but this line does seem to lend support to kevrob’s interpretation of Taibibi’s views.

  32. father and became a professional thief and face-smasher, rising quickly through the communist ranks to become a boss of the Sverdlovsk region, where he was again famous for two things: his heroic drinking and his keen political sense in looting and distributing the booty from Soviet highway and construction contracts.

    I dunno, sounds like every larger-than-life soviet leader that’s ever been in power. Stalin anyone?

  33. Gasp, Jesse, that is great. LOL.

    The foregoing comments are all pretty funny too.

  34. Not many political leaders happily let their subjects go. What other political leader ever gave up control over 14 countries? But by doing so, he avoided years of bloodshed.

    Ignoring Chechnya for a second, the real reason that Yeltsin was so eager to get rid of the Soviet Empire was that most of those 14 countries were in even worse shape than Russia was. Take a look at how Belarus, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan or Azerbaijan are doing these days. All repressive hell-holes that make Putin’s Russia look like Disneyland.

    Yeltsin was a drunken thug, but he was probably the best of a bad bunch. Remember Zirinovsky? He was considered a serious contender for the presidency at one point. Not every country can produce a Vaclav Havel and Yeltsin was a hair better than Islam Karimov or Alexander Lukashenko.

  35. “if only Clinton had looked into Yeltsin’s soul to get an accurate measure of the man. ;)”

    Clinton dod offer the man cigar. ???

  36. Not many political leaders happily let their subjects go. What other political leader ever gave up control over 14 countries?

    That Boaz could write something so mind-boggling ignorant of the historical and political facts is a testament to why we need people like Taibbi. Yeltsin never gave up political control of anything. In 1991 he was president of the Russian Federation and only the Russian Federation. The leader of the USSR, with control of 14 countries, was Mikhail Gorbachev. Yeltsin knew he would never become leader of the USSR, so the easiest way to throw Gorbachev out was basically to take his country away from him. Yeltsin made a deal with the leaders of Ukraine and Belarus to break up the USSR, and leave Gorbachev ruler of nothing. Every Soviet Republic leader got to keep his own fiefdom, now free of annoying Soviet control. There was nothing particularly noble or democratic at all in Yeltsin’s actions, and at the time most of the population in the former USSR was not happy with it. It was essentially an undemocratic coup d’etat. Meanwhile, as in Chechnya, Yeltsin showed that he would not give up political control of one inch of his territory. I am surprised Boaz missed this.

  37. Nice catch, Vanya. Boaz is a very smart guy, and his primer on libertarianism is terrific. But it doesn’t sound like he knows much about Russia/USSR, and maybe he should steer clear.

    In answer to KevRob, here’s an ugly thought for us freedom lovers, but maybe worth pondering: Russia attempted to liberalize its politics before figuring out how to reform its economy. China attempted to liberalize its economy while preserving authoritarian rule. Which has done better in improving living standards for its ordinary people?

  38. Zhirinofsky would have been worse!

  39. This is probably the best obit I’ve ever read.

  40. I would rather have Yeltsin than the pussies we have as politicians in this country. At least he has balls.

  41. As a teenager he only knew two things: how to drink vodka and smash people in the face.

    Taibbi would have at least some credibility if he mentioned that Yeltsin was a straight A student in both high school and college (okay, he got one B in college). I guess that would not fit in his silly piece.

    Why exactly should I bother to read the rest?
    Never thought that I would say this, but what an amazing mix of Russophobia and Anti-Americanism.

  42. jbd:

    You make a good point comparing Russia’s revolution with China’s evolution. I’m not sure who is worse off. The political elite in China has made sure that they, or their sons and daughters, are prominent in the many new non-state companies. One could easily slap the adjective “crony” in front of Chinna’s “capitalism.” Many people, especially rural folks who have swarmed to the cities for work are not doing well at all. China still locks up dissidents and uses prisons as slave labor camps. She is also theoretically a rival superpower in the making. I’m hoping that increased prosperity might result in eventual demands by the new middle class to be given effective representation, but I’m not making predictions.

    Kevin

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