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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Both Creator And Creation Of a System

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It is a measure of his legacy that Boris Yeltsin, a Communist Party apparatchik until the age of 60, was buried with full Christian rites last week. During the eight years of his presidency, Russia had neither prisoners of conscience nor political emigres. You'd have to scour Russian history pretty thoroughly to find another such time. It hasn't happened since.

Coming to power on the crest of a popular revolution, Yeltsin gave the country a breath of freedom, but not true democracy. As a lifelong insider, he didn't understand that democracy, liberalism and even glasnost couldn't really work in Russia as long as it was ruled by the army of entrenched Soviet-era bureaucrats. After 75 years of communism, there was no one to turn to with hands-on experience working in the real world.

Worse, reformers he inherited from Gorbachev's perestroika were ambitious young men who had cynically joined the Young Communist League in Brezhnev's last sclerotic years in order to advance. When the opportunity arose, they did what all Soviet citizens were conditioned to do: Steal everything quickly, before you get caught.

Instead of smashing the power of the old bureaucratic party apparatus, reformers and new entrepreneurs began working hand-in-glove with the system to pillage its assets.

Ironically, former-Yukos CEO Mikhail Khodorkovsky could have become the true heir to Yeltsin the liberator. Although he acquired his wealth like everybody else, by bribing and suborning the bureaucracy, in the early years of this decade he developed an alternative vision of Russia. Harboring strong political ambitions, he began working toward an Open Russia, as the name of his foundation implied -- one in which the bureaucratic stranglehold on Russian society would be loosened.

This is the main reason why he is now cooling his heels in prison in Chita. It is also why Boris Berezovsky, another former oligarch, is rightly furious about his exile to London. He, of all people, had no intention of changing the system.

Those who wonder why under President Vladimir Putin and his KGB entourage corruption not only has not been stamped out, but flourishes like never before simply do not understand the nature of the system. The KGB Putin joined in the 1970s was a different organization from the one of the 1930s. Back then, the secret police were an instrument of Stalin's personal reign of terror. It slaughtered millions of Russians, but it was also used to put the fear of God into the Soviet bureaucracy, layer after layer of which was systematically fed into the gulag.

When Stalin died, the first thing his successors did was to change the nature of this monster, turning it into the protector of Party rule and the bureaucratic apparatus, to make sure that semiliterate buffoons continued to rule the Soviet Union for three more decades.

This, in essence, is what the Putin government is doing now. It has become the natural order of things, which is why the team the president has assembled haphazardly from classmates, former colleagues and dacha neighbors has been able to gain full control over Russia and to function so smoothly. The stakes are now much higher than during the Soviet era, when top bureaucrats were rewarded with shoddy apartments, dachas and imported VCRs. Now, bureaucrats crowd the world's costliest tourist destinations while their wives drive up prices at top boutiques.

Over the past week, Yeltsin has been praised, especially by foreigners, for what he did in the final decade and a half of his life -- for providing freedom and laying the foundations for prosperity in Russia and parts of the former Soviet Union. Unfortunately, what Yeltsin bequeathed to the country he founded was shaped by his first six decades. Symbolically, his funeral interrupted the long six-day workweek, extended so that post-communist Russia could mark the Day of Workers' Solidarity on May 1.

Alexei Bayer, a native Muscovite, is a New York-based economist.