Boris Yeltsin and Jenny Lopez

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A few days ago, according to Pravda (the former paper of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union now specializing in National Inquirer-like gossip), a newly rich 35-year-old Russian billionaire banker, Andrei Melnichenko, paid Jennifer Lopez $3 million to perform at a birthday party for his wife Aleksandra at their Berkshire, England, estate. Great for Jenny Lopez! But what a sad commentary on the extravagance of gangster capitalism amongst Russia’s ruling class, a class brought to power by the late but not so great Boris Yeltsin. What a tragic coincidence of death and outlandish opulence, symbolic of Yeltsin’s enduring legacy.

The week began with an announcement of Yeltsin’s death, occasioning much commentary on his role and legacy as he lay in state awaiting burial. Not surprisingly much of it has praised him as a great liberator and troubadour of justice, democracy and the American way. The praise is so excessive it almost echoes a strain of super-Yeltsin, reminding me of a conversation I once held with a Young Communist League of the Soviet Union (Komsomol) staffer who described Michael Gorbachev in a similar cult of personality way: “He’s no ordinary man.” Well neither was Mr. Yeltsin.

The New York Times described him as leaving a “giant if flawed legacy.” Tracing the development of what even they call “buccaneer capitalism” and the “usurping of political power by a new class of oligarchs,” they go on to commend his actions which insured that there would be no return to socialist property “that reduced a talented and cultured people rich in natural resources to a beggar among nations.”

Huh? A beggar among nations? The former Soviet Union? The country that defeated three-fourths of Hitler’s army and achieved strategic military parity with the U.S.? The country whose industrial might came, prior to the collapse, close to equaling many developed capitalist countries?

Clearly revealed in this single phrase is the deep class hatred of U.S. imperialists for the former USSR, a hatred that has blinded them from all sense of objectivity and balance when considering the legacy of Yeltsin and his descendants, a hatred that has led them to elevate a hopeless drunk and manic depressive to the level of superstar. No wonder, then, that they overlook his trampling over democracy and the will of the former Soviet people in the name of free markets. It should be remembered that Yeltsin defied Soviet elections and law by:

• ignoring the national plebiscite in which a majority voted for retaining the USSR;

• outlawing the Communist Party;

• blowing up Parliament with rocket and tank fire with defenseless legislators inside.

This is how the Times shamelessly portrays him: “a democrat who often ruled in the manner of a czar. He showed no reluctance to use the power of the presidency to face down his opponents as he did in 1993 when he ordered tanks to fire on a Parliament dominated by openly seditious Communists.”

Oh really? Now one can see it clearly: this is the kind of thinking that led to arming of the Taliban and Al Qaeda in Afghanistan, the support reportedly given the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas, the aid rendered the late Jonas Savimbi in Angola, and a host of other dictators and petty tyrants. All and anything in the name of fighting communism and for free markets.

And for this Yeltsin has been bestowed a mantle of greatness.

Yeltsin’s legacy lies in the greatness of his betrayal of the hopes and aspirations of the Soviet people. It is he who reduced the country to a beggar among nations, raised the infant mortality rate to Third World levels, lowered the life expectancy rate and created extreme poverty and wide-scale hunger for millions. How this could have happened in a country that boasted of “developed socialism,” how it was that the working class and people sat aside and were at best neutral while these events took place, remains a huge question. However that in no way excuses the legacy of Yeltsin or the opulent excesses of his followers, who romp in billions while their countrymen and women starve.

Joe Sims (joesims @politicalaffairs.net) is editor of Political Affairs magazine.