Russia marks the thirtieth anniversary of the dissolution of the USSR

This past week Russian media devoted a great deal of attention to the thirtieth anniversary of the dissolution of the USSR under the terms of the Belovezha Accords signed by the presidents of the Russian Federation, Ukraine and Belarus on 8 December 1991.

A new documentary film entitled “Thirty Years without the Union” prepared under the direction of Kremlin insider, journalist Naili Oskar-zade was released by state television’s Channel One seven days ago.  Then last night, another full-length documentary film entitled “Russia, Its Most Recent History” (Россия, Новейшая История”) was also prepared within Channel One and was aired on the news channel Rossiya 24. Contributors to the production included a number of top journalists – directors who have worked closely with Putin in the past on other documentaries, in particular, about Crimea’s “coming home” in 2014.  .  It is now available on youtube.

Both documentaries have in common an oral history aspect. They combine not only archival footage going back to the 1990s but also present new interviews with surviving participants in the events of that period, including heads of state like Kazakhstan’s now retired president Nazarbayev, as well as senior Russian military and statesmen.

 In what follows, I will draw on my impressions from this second film and put them in the broader context of the current informational atmosphere in Russia which is marked by greater frankness about the errors committed in the past by Presidents Gorbachev and Yeltsin and by a more accusatory tone about the role of the United States and its Western allies in the destruction of the Russian economy and subversion of its political unity during the 1990s.  We are reminded of the poorly conceived and implemented economic reforms under Gorbachev that left store shelves bare. But that was only the first step on the country’s descent into hell. The newly applied fine touches in the documentary film to the broad canvas of the impoverishment and destitution of the Russian people that we have known for years show that even rear admirals and Vladimir Vladimirovich himself were compelled to sit behind the wheel as gypsy taxi drivers to keep their heads above water financially at the start of the transition to the market economy, while the country’s top scientific talent queued before the American embassy to get migration visas and a new future outside Russia, taking with them much of the cutting edge proprietary research they had done at government expense.

The film “Russia, Its Most Recent History” fine tunes the long-existing attacks on former Soviet President Gorbachev for unforgivable naiveté in his dealings with the United States and its Western allies as the Cold War wound down. The Red Army was withdrawn from East Germany and from the Warsaw Pact countries, but Gorbachev did not consider reserving at least one base in each of these countries to ensure Russian security interests were respected, nor did he demand appropriate financial compensation for the withdrawal to provide housing and necessities to the troops arriving back in Russia. We are told that all of this was achievable had Gorbachev done his job properly, defended Russia’s legitimate interests and not been content to bask in the warm reception he enjoyed in Western capitals and media. Nor did Gorbachev do anything to secure the civil rights of the large Russian minority populations of the Baltic States as they entered upon withdrawal from the Union when the West would surely have agreed.  

This sober and accurate critique of decision-making by the widely discredited Gorbachev is now matched by equally devastating criticism of Yeltsin for negotiating terms of the break-up of the USSR by which Russia did not use its leverage with the other Union republics. We are told that Yeltsin was drunk during much of the Belovezha meeting. If only he had kept a cool head, he could have demanded of Ukrainian president Kravchuk the cession of Crimea back to the Russian Federation. But his only interest was to achieve the dissolution as quickly as possible, and so to take over state power from Gorbachev, who would face a fait accompli and have to leave office.

 The film suggests that it was Yeltsin’s lust for power that drove the dissolution, which was not necessary for implementation of the political and economic reforms that he stood for. That judgment is surely a step too far in this revisionist account.  The interview with Nazarbayev sets out the grievances of the leaders of the Central Asian republics that they were excluded from Belovezha, that it was the three Slavic republics who alone decided the fate of the Union.  Of course, that was the case: it was common knowledge that the Central Asian republics would be the strongest foes of any democratization and market reform of the Union and so their signatures on the dissolution papers were not sought.

The exposé and open denunciation of Yeltsin from the Kremlin itself is new in Russian public space. We must remember that loyalty to the man who installed him as president at the close of 1999 has long been an inviolable postulate of the Putin administration. It was left to others, like the film director and television host Nikita Mikhalkov to show the treachery of the Fifth Column liberals who were brought into government in the 1990s and protected by Boris Nikolaevich.

The film “Russia, Its Most Recent History” is Putin-centric.  It features a lot of footage of Putin out and about, speaking to the people when he was head of the FSB, conferring with the military during the Chechen wars.  It also draws on the latest interviews with Putin to put past and present in focus. This most recent Putin is assertive and very confident of Russia’s ability to stand up to all challenges from the West based on its leading position in weapons systems and the patriotic pride of troops and people. It is not from nowhere that the Kremlin was quoted today as warning NATO that “there will be consequences” if it ignores Russia’s demands and continues its eastward expansion, and that these consequences will weaken Western security.

The film jumps back and forth in time during the 1990s to make its basic points about how under Yeltsin Russia’s sovereignty was compromised, how with the intervention of Western sponsored NGOs the collapse of the Russian Federation itself was being fomented.  I do not deny that these elements all were present in that decade, but the decade itself was not uniform in the various parameters of economic performance and pauperization of the population, on one hand, or loss of an independent foreign policy on the other hand.  There were turning points that we must not ignore.

For the economy, the free fall collapse of GDP, unpaid salaries and pensions, total destitution and runaway inflation lasted until 1995-1996, when a certain stabilization took effect. In fact during the 1990s the middle classes rose and fell several times, when bank failures and state default wiped out savings, but the decade ended on a high note set during the brief but effective premiership of Yevgeny Primakov. Similarly, Russian foreign policy rose from the total disarray and submission to Washington under Andrei Kozyrev, to resumption of the pursuit of national interests under the same Primakov two years previous when he replaced Kozyrev as foreign minister in 1996. Russia and the West parted ways during the NATO assault on Yugoslavia and there was no looking back.  All of these distinctions are ignored in the latest Russian documentaries that have a propagandistic rather than historical interest guiding them, even if they make valid points about Russia’s exploitation by cunning Western statesmen in the 1990s.

Finally, in closing I draw attention to a couple of recent noteworthy public positions taken by President Putin with respect to the Fifth Column operating in the country, even if was not named as such.  First there was the remarkable public exchange this past week with film maker Alexander Sokurov during the on-line session of the Human Rights Council. Sokurov had been arguing in favor of letting go those republics of the Russian Federation which want out.  Putin at length denounced such positions as ignorant, founded on a misreading of the popular will in such places as Dagestan and Chechnya, and having as a practical consequence to turn the Russian Federation into Yugoslavia during its descent into civil war. It is worth noting that Sokurov has long been promoted among the liberal intelligentsia of Petersburg by Hermitage Museum director Mikhail Piotrovsky. It will be interesting to see whether the public belittlement of Sokurov will move his patron and friend any closer to the exit door.

In the past week Vladimir Putin also leveled an oblique criticism at Russia’s liberal protesters against the Foreign Agent registration law. Their cause has been openly led by this year’s winner of the Nobel Prize for Peace, Dmitry Muratov, editor in chief of the newspaper Novaya Gazeta. Muratov was in Oslo delivering his acceptance speech and so was getting a lot of attention in Moscow.

Putin chose to make the point that the country must be vigilant against those receiving funds from abroad who are wittingly or otherwise serving foreign interests to the detriment of Russia.  In this spirit, he remarked that in the 1990s the government was filled with foreigners working for the CIA, and he made reference to one egregious case: two Americans who were close assistants of Anatoly Chubais in his work at the head of the privatization program. Said Putin, they were on the CIA payroll and were later found by U.S. authorities to have violated their contract and enriched themselves during their stay in Russia, causing damages of $34 million to the U.S. government. Putin went on to say that their time in Russia was so personally profitable that they could pay an enormous fine without difficulty.

The telling of this story is quite extraordinary considering President Putin’s attachment to the word “аккуратно” – cautious, prudent – to describe the proper conduct of state affairs. The allegations about Chubais’s assistants being on the CIA payroll were first made by Vladimir Vladimirovich in 2013.  They were unfounded then and are unfounded today.  This is not to say that the USAID contractors involved, Harvard economist Andrei Schleifer and legal expert Jonathan Hay, were not guilty of violating the conflict of interests terms of the overarching USAID contract with the university. After all, Schleifer did pay $2 million in fines to settle his case with the U.S. Government, while Harvard itself paid $32 million to end prosecution. I mention this case in passing in my recently published Memoirs of a Russianist, Volume II: Russia in the Roaring 1990s to make the point that our Western notions of corrupt Russia get only half the story right:   alongside my narrative about Russian scoundrels whom I met and dealt with on my employers’ behalf, there were so many deeply corrupt Americans, Swiss and others who came to Russia in the 1990s and with whom I met socially in Moscow. Read the book!

Back in 2013 when Putin first mentioned the Schleifer case without naming him, and now again, knowledgeable commentators say they have no reason to believe that the CIA was in any way involved. And I say that circumstantial evidence rules conclusively against any CIA involvement: had that been the case, the charges against Schleifer, Hay and Harvard would have been quietly dropped, just as finally happened in the U.S. prosecution of businessman James Giffen, in his “Kazakhgate” trial over bribes to Nazarbayev in 2010 when the CIA refused to divulge its relationship with him.  James Giffen also figures in my Memoirs from the 1990s as a buccaneer and for a time exceptionally powerful figure in East-West trade.

With this cavil, I cede the point that Russia in the 1990s was overrun by CIA employees and other foreign agents. On the back cover of my Memoirs, Volume II, you will find my remark that in 1998 I quit as acting director of the Moscow office of a leading American NGO because I was persuaded that staff in the Washington headquarters were getting second paychecks from the Agency.  Inside the book I explain that the office had become a nest for CIA personnel: there were simply too many strange “visitors” passing through on their way to the Caucasus and other peripheral Russian territories where trouble was brewing.  That particular NGO was the long time administrator of US-Soviet academic exchanges. During my brief tenure as office director it was also responsible for a number of USAID funded assistance programs. On close inspection as an insider, I concluded that many of these programs in support of civil society or a free press seemed inappropriate for sponsorship by outsiders, least of all by the U.S. Government given the decades long adversarial if not hostile relations with Russia.

In general, the recent attention to the 1990s in Russian media breaks a long period of relative silence. The 1990s were for the vast majority of Russians a very painful experience which they would rather forget.  That obviously is changing.  In February I will be interviewed on local radio in St Petersburg by the host of a weekly broadcast entitled “The History Club.”  He tells me that there is growing interest now in the ‘90s.  We shall see. ©Gilbert Doctorow, 2021