Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Boris Yeltsin, 1931-2007

You can make jokes about his buffoonishness or drunkenness, or how he didn't turn out to be a great president. But ultimately, this is the only thing that matters:

Boris Yeltsin seized history by the throat in 1991. The rest is trivia.

He climbed on top of a tank, commanded the attention of the Russian people and the world, and stared down the Communist coup plotters, whom he denounced as "a bunch of adventurists" who'd restore the "concentration camps" of the Stalin era. In doing so, he kicked in the rotten Soviet door and sealed the victories over Communism won two years earlier by Reagan, Thatcher, John Paul et al.

I was in my last semester of college and preparing to go off to grad school when the attempted coup (by people the ignorant MSM inevitably calls "conservatives") unfolded live via satellite and cell-phone on CNN, one of the first world-historical news events to do so. (Even the Berlin Wall coverage was led by the over-the-air networks.) I flipped on the TV around 2am upon coming home and stayed up until almost noon, never turning the channel away from the coverage of the Moscow announcement that Gorbachev had been deposed by Communist apparatchiki, on the eve of signing a new union treaty that would devolve the USSR. Within the next two days, Yeltsin as president of Russia, a previously fictionally-powerful position, called on the people and the army to resist the coup. Renegade army units and thousands of ordinary Russians decided that this time would be different -- they wouldn't just roll over to tyrants. They arrived at the ironically-named White House to protect Yeltsin and the Russian government from the counterattack that never came.

When I taught political philosophy in the subsequent couple of years, I made sure my students understood one thing about what Yeltsin did during those few days.

That it was, in the usual sense, illegitimate. Illegal.

As president of Russia, one of the constituent parts of the USSR, he had no power to call on the Red Army to disobey the Kremlin, any more than the governor of Massachusetts could tell the US Army not to go to Saudi Arabia and fight the (also then-recent) First Gulf War. That his denunciations of the Kremlin coup were functionally equivalent to South Carolina deciding that the federal election that produced Abraham Lincoln was illegitimate. I always used that (admittedly imperfect) analogy, knowing that my students' sympathies regarding Communism and slavery would be on the opposite sides of the two historical events.

What I wanted them to see was how the Yeltsin case spoke to the central matter in politics -- legitimacy. The right to rule. What the Yeltsin case showed concretely and in contemporary terms was that in a crisis situation (a coup being one, but a founding or a war also fits the bill), legitimacy and right aren't legal matters at all. Yeltsin's resistance to the coup won him legitimacy because the people responded to him; it was NOT the case that the people responded to his resistance because it was legitimate (because it was not, by the understanding of legitimacy that rightly reigns in ordinary times). So it is simply false to think that all political questions can be reduced to law. Though I never taught Locke explicitly as I did Hobbes, the former-named and historically-latter Englishman called the contrary situation the "appeal to heaven":
The people have no other remedy in this, as in all other cases where they have no judge on earth, but to appeal to heaven: for the rulers, in such attempts, exercising a power the people never put into their hands, (who can never be supposed to consent that any body should rule over them for their harm) do that which they have not a right to do. And where the body of the people, or any single man, is deprived of their right, or is under the exercise of a power without right, and have no appeal on earth, then they have a liberty to appeal to heaven, whenever they judge the cause of sufficient moment. And therefore, though the people cannot be judge, so as to have, by the constitution of that society, any superior power, to determine and give effective sentence in the case; yet they have, by a law antecedent and paramount to all positive laws of men, reserved that ultimate determination to themselves which belongs to all mankind, where there lies no appeal on earth, viz. to judge, whether they have just cause to make their appeal to heaven. And this judgment they cannot part with, it being out of a man's power so to submit himself to another, as to give him a liberty to destroy him; God and nature never allowing a man so to abandon himself, as to neglect his own preservation: and since he cannot take away his own life, neither can he give another power to take it.
And Locke finishes the chapter with the rebuttal to the obvious question. The "appeal to heaven," beyond law though it is, is a sufficiently drastic event that it will not be done casually. Or as Locke's pupil Jefferson put it in some piece of paper:
Prudence, indeed, will dictate that governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes. And accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed.
Or in Locke's words (I love how Locke uses, and not for the only time in the Second Treatise, the phrase "wise prince"):
Nor let any one think, this lays a perpetual foundation for disorder; for this operates not, till the inconveniency is so great, that the majority feel it, and are weary of it, and find a necessity to have it amended. But this the executive power, or wise princes, never need come in the danger of: and it is the thing, of all others, they have most need to avoid, as of all others the most perilous.
Yeltsin's great week came because he knew that the Russian people had a remedy in the "appeal to heaven," that Communism had ruined the country, that the coup meant the "sufficient moment" had arrived, and that he was the man to make that appeal to heaven.

Where, God willing, he is now. RIP, Boris.


Anonymous said...

The Blackadder says:

Excellent post.

Donald R. McClarey said...

Yeltsin deserves a spot along with Reagan, Thatcher, Pope John Paul II, Lech Walesa and Vaclav Havel as one of the chief pallbearers of Communism.

Joseph D'Hippolito said...

Undoubtedly, Yelstin demonstrated great courage in resisting the coup. Too bad he didn't demonstrate it while serving as Russia's president.

That contrast illustrates the fundamental problem with revolutions (and Yeltsin's act was indeed revolutionary, as were Gorbachev's programs of glasnost and perestroika). If they are based on ideas, then those ideas must be carried on and institutionalized by competent governance. If they are based on personalities, they must outlive those personalities and survive on more solid ideological ground.

The Second Russian Revolution (for lack of a better term) failed on both accounts. In the first case, neither the ideological nor the political infrastructure allowed for Gorbachev's ideas to bear long term fruit. Bureaucracies based on intimidation and patronage cringe from the light of accountability. Otherwise, why else did organized crime gain such an early foothold? In the second case, Yelstin unfortunately proved that he didn't have the stuff to make reform permanent. The only thing distinguishing Putin from his Marxist predecesors is the lack of overt Communist ideology; power and oppression still rule the day in Russia, sadly.

Nikolai said...

People in Russia and elsewhere called the Communist coup plotters "conservatives" because they didn't want change and wanted to conserve the system they knew. They didn't want radical change. They wanted to preserve the old (and after over 70 years in power, the Bolshevik system did feel old and decrepit).

I don't think that it was an innacurate characterization because the word "conservative", as it was used in Russia back then, simply described a frame of mind of people who didn't want to change their system.

And, for what is worth, Yeltsin never climbed on a tank. He climbed on an armored personnel carrier (APC), but I guess "tank" sounds better.

Victor said...


Agreed. Nobody would confuse Yeltsin for a particularly good president once in power, not as someone who was able to successfully institutionalize a liberal, democratic revolution.

That said, as nasty a tyrant as Putin is, the very lack of ideology beyond Russian nationalism that you cite is what matters most to me, an Anglo-American threatened with being nuked every day of my life by Gorbachev and his predecessors. The Russian nationalist Putin can even be somewhat helpful in the war against Islam, though for reasons of his own.

Even with respect to the Russians themselves, this very lack of ideology also means things like the terror famine, the doctors plot, the great purges, etc., are not in the cards.

Victor said...


I don't think that it was an inaccurate characterization because the word "conservative", as it was used in Russia back then, simply described a frame of mind of people who didn't want to change their system.

That's fine for Russian usage, where both the specific context made it obvious what was meant, and the term had no extant currency and so the etymological sense could be seen as governing.

But there is no reason for the Anglo-American press to use that term, given that it is already one of the basic terms of our politics. Other than laziness or unthinking ideological bias ("conservative = bad," basically). I wouldn't even have minded calling Gorbachev a liberal, as long as the coup plotters or the Chernenkos of the world were identified as "communists." Simply "opposed to change," without any other element being taken into account and across a variety of contexts and ideological spectra, is a shit definition of "conservative" any way you slice it.

Joseph D'Hippolito said...

Victor, the fact the Putin is a nationalist rather than a Marxist (let alone a true Stalinist) doesn't necessarily make him any less of a danger to the West. Nationalism in an of itself can be a powerful force, indeed (as the ideologically emasculated Chinese are demonstrating as we speak). In that vein, what evidence do you have that Putin is being "somewhat helpful" in the war against Islam? With his blessing, Russia is selling sophisticated arms to Iran and preventing the UN from adopting full-blown sanctions. With friends like Putin, the West doesn't need fifth columnists.

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