Yeltsin’s Critical Inactivity – Government (300 Level Course)
Boris Yeltsin took the office of the Russian presidency in 1991 under a black cloud, following a failed coup against then president Gorbachev. Yeltsin’s presidency has become synonymous with failure and by the question of “what went wrong?” This question of what has gone wrong during the Yeltsin era is an almost bottomless topic. Yeltsin struggled through his first term from the attempted coup in 1991 to the foolish decision to invade Chechnya in 1994. Still all of these troubles can be contributed to the critical time period immediately following Yeltsin’s coming to power.
This time period can be analyzed in three ways. First, in the actions that Yeltsin took. Second, in the actions that Yeltsin did not take. Thirdly, by what steps that Yeltsin should have made. These three things point to a final conclusion. Boris Yeltsin as the new Russian president should have moved quickly to schedule new elections and the adoption of a new constitution.
Boris Yeltsin came to power during a tumultuous time in Russian history. In hindsight, the table was set for immense change and he was the only man to do it. He had the popular support of a people that were otherwise up in arms. Yet when studying the events of ten years ago in today’s classroom, little attention is paid to this important question of “what steps did Yeltsin take?” Why is such little attention paid to this question? Because Yeltsin did next to nothing to create change. In his own memoirs, Boris Yeltsin says, “the idea of dissolving the Congress and scheduling new elections was in the air, although we did not take advantage of it.” Years later he himself admits to his inaction at such a critical time. At a time when Russia was as vulnerable as they have ever been, their new president chose an attack on an economic front, leaving the reorganization of the government to compromises and political games. This is an evident failure on the part of Boris Yeltsin.
So just what did the newly elected president of Russia do at this time? Yeltsin attempted to impose central control on the far-flung territories of the new Russian Federation. However, in this endeavor he was entirely by himself. Whereas Gorbachev had the Communist Party for backing, with its crumble by 1991, Yeltsin was all alone. So without the vast party apparatus and the potent ideology that the Communist Party had provided Russians leaders, this attempt became an administrative nightmare. Therefore all that Yeltsin could do in an effort to form a lasting chain of command was to appoint presidential representatives to be his eyes and ears in the Russian territories following the coup. Yeltsin took all of these steps with the best of intentions, yet they were in too small a scale to provide any change of be of any effectiveness.
This leads to the question of what Boris Yeltsin should have done. What he should have done was to scheduled new elections. The Communist Party was the rock that Russia stood upon. It’s membership declined so badly that Yeltsin banned the party in September of 1991. Yeltsin should have also worked to adopt a new constitution. Yeltsin’s memoirs told of his fears that the adoption of new elections or a constitution would only lead to another revolution, as in 1917. Yet this is simply a cowardly excuse on Yeltsin’s part, as the conditions were far from the same as some seventy years earlier. Yeltsin leads the reader to believe that he was not powerful enough to prevent such a catashphrophe. Yet despite everything that had transpired from 1990-1991, the public preferred Yeltsin to his communist opponents in parliament. These were the same men that Yeltsin was afraid of, in a time when he could have used his popularity to reappoint them with non-communist members who supported him and adopted a new constitution. However like many world leaders before him, he neglected to take action when it was necessary and sat idle hoping for change instead of going out and getting it.
Therefore no one should feel any sympathy for Boris Yeltsin. If they should feel anything at all, pity may be more appropriate. Yeltsin should have acted to revive Russia, but instead he let its reigns slip out of his hands. There were things that he simply did not do. The steps he did take were clearly not aggressive enough. And he seemed totally oblivious to the steps that needed to be taken. What should pain any historian however is Yeltsin’s clear cut ignorance. Hindsight is the most reveling perspective that anyone can have. They can easily see what they should have done, even if at the time it was not at all clear. It is in this one opportunity then that Yeltsin could earn some respect for himself, by admitting that although it did not look like it then, today he realizes that he should have acted on new elections and a new constitution. But he only states that he would not change anything, and thus, buries his own reputation.