Staunton, November 26 – Russians are so used to defining their lives in terms of the period in power of particular rulers that they are inclined to overstate the differences between many of them, with many in Soviet time stressing how different Stalin was from Lenin and now how different Putin is from Yeltsin.
But in a commentary today on the occasion of Vladimir Putin’s presence at the opening of the Yeltsin Center in Yekaterinburg, Vitaly Portnikov says that in many ways “Putin is Yeltsin, only the late Yeltsin” and not the one who remains in the minds of those who think of his behavior up to and including in 1991 (grani.ru/opinion/portnikov/m.246278.html).
Putin’s presence in Yekaterinburg on this occasion may “generate discomfort aon gthose who up to now believe that Putin has established a new state, one significantly different from that left to him by his predecessor,” especially given Putin’s declarations about his friendship for his former boss, the Ukrainian commentator says.
“If Putin really would like to break this tradition,” Portnikov continues, “he would be much more positively disposed toward the living Gorbachev than to the dead Yeltsin. But Gorbachev doesn’t interest Putin,” even though much that the last Soviet president did to try to prevent the disintegration of the USSR is more in line with Putin’s ideas than what the first Russian president did to destroy it.
The reason for this is that Putin today is the Yeltsin at the end of his rule and not the one people remember who “stood on a tank, banned the CPSU, was alongside Sakharov and Starovoitova.” The Yeltsin Putin really recalls is the one who unleashed “the insane war in Chechnya,” promised to stand with China against the US, who held on to power even as his capacities faded, and who created “a criminal corrupt state” to benefit himself and his “family.”
Out of this later Yeltsin, Portnikov continues, Putin was a natural extension. “And it is not in any way accidental that the second president of Russia so organically fits in among the relatives and comrades in arms of the first.” He saved them early on in his rule and even boosted some of them later.
That too has its own logic, the commentator says. “Putin just like Yeltsin trusts only his ‘own.’” The difference is that Yeltsin was “a living man capable of feeling a certain warmth to his wife, daughter and son-in-law, while Putin is a function of succession.” Thus, “the essence of power in contemporary Russia over the last two decades has not changed at all.”
“Yeltsin’s Russia was a feudal plutocracy, dressed up as a democratic state,” Portnikov argues. Putin’s Russia is the same except that it is now dressed up as “an authoritarian empire.” When one sees representatives of each together, however, one senses the fundamental commonality: the spiritual emptiness of both.
When Yeltsin named Putin as his successor, he wanted continuity of power and control; and that is what he got, although Putin is “much pettier and more conservative” than the man who appointed him. “He does not have the main Yeltsin talent of being capable of historical mimicry.” And that is something that gives up in an otherwise dark time.
There is thus “a chance,” the Ukrainian commentator says, “that he will all the same destroy this terrible, false, and cynical Yeltsin Russia, that he is not the one [as Yeltsin mistakenly assumed] who could save this regime.” And when that happens, “something other, new and human” might appear in its place.