Saturday, March 21, 2015

Shock Therapy by Emmanuel Carrere

Whoever wants the Soviet Union back has no brain.
Whoever doesn’t miss it has no heart.
- Vladimir Putin

Aware of his ignorance in economic matters, Yeltsin pulled a young prodigy named Yegor Gaidar out of his hat. A descendant of the high Communist nomenklature, Gaidar professed an absolute faith in liberalism. As David Remnick nicely sums up in Resurrection, the book that follows his memorable Lenin’s Tomb, and to which I owe many insights into this era, no theoretician of the Chicago School, no adviser to Ronald Reagan or Margaret Thatcher believed in the virtues of the market as fervently as Yegor Gaidar. Russia had never anything remotely like a market, the challenge was enormous. Yeltsin and Gaidar thought it was essential to act quickly, very quickly, to force their ideas through and catch the reactionary forces that had gottent he better of all Russian reformers since Peter the Great off guard. They baptized their remedy “shock therapy,” and as far as shocks go, this one was quite a jolt.

First of all, prices were liberalized, which provoked inflation of 2,600 percent and rendered completely useless the parallel ‘voucher privatization’ initiative. On September 1, 1992, vouchers valued at ten thousand rubles were sent by main to all Russian citizens over a year old; these vouchers represented each citizen’s share in the national wealth. After seventy years during which in theory no one was allowed to work for him – or herself but only for the collectivity, the idea was to involve people as investors and foster the development of businesses and private property – in short, of the free market. Because of inflation, unfortunately, by the time these vouchers arrived, they were already worthless. Their beneficiaries discovered that, at most, they could purchase a bottle of vodka with them. So they resold them en masse to some cunning individuals who offered them, let’s say, the value of a bottle and a half.

Theses cunning  individuals, who would become billionaires in just a few months, were named Boris Berezovsky, Vladamire  Gusinsky, and Mikhail Khodorkovsky. There were others, but to go easy on my readers I’ll just ask them to remember these three names: Berezovski, Gusinsky, Khodorkovsky. The three little pigs who, as in those penniless theater troupes with more roles than actors to play them, will represent or the purposes of this book all those known as the oligarchs. They were young, intelligent, energetic, and not dishonest by nature; but they had grown up in a world where it was forbidden to do the very thing they were gifted at – business- and then overnight they were told, “All right, go to it.” With no rules, no laws, no banking system, no taxation. As Yulian Semyonov’s young bodyguard had predicted with delight, it was the Wild West.

For someone who returned every two or three months as Eduard did between trips to the Balkans, the speed with which Moscow changed was hallucinating. The drab Soviet monotony had been though eternal, and now, on the streets that had been named after great Bolsheviks and when again went by the names they’d had before the Revolution, the neon signs were as densely packed as in Las Vegas. There were traffic jams and, besides the old Ladas, black Mercedes with tinted windows. Everything foreign visitors used to cram into their suitcases with to please their deprived Russian friends – jeans, CDs, cosmetics, toilet paper – was now readily available. No sooner had people gotten used to the appearance of a McDonald’s on Pushkinskaya Square than a trendy disco opened next door. Before, restaurants had been immense, dismal places. Headwaiters who looked like surely clerks brought you fifteen=page menus, and no matter what you ordered there wasn’t any more of it – in fact there was only one dish, usually revolting. Now the lights were subdued, the waitresses pretty and smiling, you could get Kobe beef and  oysters flown in that day from the coast of Brittany. The “new Russian” entered contemporary mythology, with his bags of cash, harems of gorgeous girls, his brutality, and his boorishness. A joke from those days runs: two young businessmen notice they’re wearing the same suit. “I paid five thousand dollars for it in Paris,” one says. “It that a fact,” the other trumps: “I got mine for ten thousand!”

While a million crafty people started to enrich themselves frenetically thanks to the “shock therapy,” 150 million less quick off the mark were plunged into misery. Prices kept climbing, while salaries stayed put. An ex-KGB officer like Limonov’s father could hardly buy two pounds of sausage with his monthly pension. A higher-ranking officer who’d started his career in the intelligence service in Dresden, East Germany, and who’d been hastily repatriated because East Germany no longer existed, found himself without a job or a place to live. Reduced to working as a black-market cab driver in his hometown of Leningrad, he cursed the “new Russians” as bitterly as Limonov. This particular officer isn’t a statistical abstraction. His name is Vladimir Putin, he’s forty years old, like Limonov he thinks that the end of the Soviet empire is the worst catastrophe of the twentieth century, and he will be called upon to play a role of no small importance.

The life expectancy for a Russian man dropped from sixty-five in 1987 to fifty-eight in 1993. The lines of desolate people waiting in front of empty shops were replaced by old people walking up and down in underground passageways trying to hawk the few possessions they has. Anything they could sell to survive, they sold. If you were a poor retiree, it was two pounds of pickles, a tea cozy, or old issues of Krokodil, the pathetic “satirical”: magazine of the Brezhnev years. If you were an army general, it might be tanks or planes; some fraudulently set up private companies that sold military aircraft and pocketed the profits themselves. If you were a judge, you sold your verdicts. A police officer, your tolerance. A bureaucrat, your stamp od approval. A veteran of the Afghan wars, your ability to kill. A murder contract was negotiated at between ten thousand and fifteen thousand dollars. Fifty bankers were shot dead in Moscow in 1994. As for the wheeler-dealer Semyonov, by that time barely half his gang were still alive and he himself was dead and buried.

The big players slaughtered one another for control of industrial companies or mineral deposits, the small fry for kiosks or market stalls, and even the smallest kiosk or stall needed a “roof”: that’s what the countless security providers – all more or less protection rackets because they shot you if you refused their services – were called. The holding companies of oligarchs like Gusinsky or Berezovsjky employed veritable armies, commanded by high-level KGB officers who’d privatized their talents. Moving down a rung, the protection services no businessperson could do without recruited from the Georgian, Chechen, or Azeri mafias, and from among the police, which had become just one mafia among many.

To justify the collectivization, the famine, the purges, and, in a general way, the unassailable fact that the “enemies of the people” were the people themselves, the Bolsheviks liked to say that when you chop wood, chips fly, the Russian version of saying  you can’t make an omelet without breaking a few eggs. The free market replaced the dictatorship of the proletariat as the horizon of a radiant future, but the same proverb still served the chefs of “shock therapy” and all those close enough to power  to get a bite of the omelet. The difference now is that those who see themselves as broken eggs are no longer afraid of being sent to Siberia, and they speak out. Moscow is the scene of numerous demonstrations by retirees reduced to begging on the street, unpaid soldiers, nationalists maddened by the liquidation of the empire, Communists who mourn the days when everyone was poor but equal, and people who are disorientated because they no longer understood their own history. And it’s understandable: how to know what’s right or wrong, who are the heroes and who the traitors, when you keep celebrating the October Revolution year after year, repeating all the while that this revolution was both a crime and a catastrophe?

Eduard Limonov doesn’t miss a single one of these demonstrations when he’s in Moscow. Recognized by the people who read his articles in Dyen, he’s often congratulated, kissed, and blessed: with people like him, Russia is not lost. Once, invited by his comrade Alksnis, he gets up on the platform where the leaders of the opposition are speaking one after the other, and takes the megaphone. He says that the supposed “democrats” are profiteers who’ve betrayed the blood shed by their fathers during the Great Patriotic War. That the people have suffered more in one year of supposed “democracy” than in seventy years of communism. That anger is brewing and people should prepare for civil war. This speech differs little from the others, but after each sentence the immense crowd applauds. The words come naturally to him, and they express what everyone feels. Waves of approval, gratitude, and love wash over him. It’s what he dreamed of when he was poor and desperately alone in his room at the Embassy Hotel in New York, and his dream has come true. As when he was mixed up in war in the Balkans, he feels good. Calm, powerful, borne aloft by like-minded individuals: right where he belongs.


  1. Boris Yeltsin was always good for a laugh, which is probably why on the occasion of his death people outside of Russia are not calling him words like scum and monster, but instead recalling him fondly, with a smile, as one would a retarded nephew who could always be counted on to pull his pants down at Thanksgiving dinner.
    Like most people who lived in Russia during the 1990s -- and Russia was my home throughout Yeltsin's entire reign as Russian president -- I have a wide variety of fond memories of the Motherland's drunken, bloblike train wreck of a revolutionary leader. My favorite came in 1995, at a press conference in Moscow, when a couple of American reporters perfectly captured the essence of Yeltsin by heckling him as he stumbled into the room. As he burst through the side entrance with that taillight-red face of his, hands wobbling in front of him in tactile search of the podium, the two hacks in the back called out: "Nor-r-r-r-r-r-m!" Such a perfect moment, I almost died laughing. Boris Nikolayevich, of course, was too wasted to hear the commotion at the back of the room.

  2. Boris Yeltsin probably had more obituaries ready in the world's editorial cans than any chronically-ill famous person in history. He has been dying for at least twenty consecutive years now -- although he only started dying physically about ten years ago, he has been dying in a moral sense since at least the mid-Eighties. Of course, spiritually speaking, he's been dead practically since birth...I once visited Boris Yeltsin's birthplace, in a village in the Talitsky region of the Sverdlovsk district in the Urals, in a tiny outhouse of a village called Butka. I knocked on the door of the shack where Yeltsin was born and stepped in the soft ground where his room had once been. Boris Yeltsin was literally born in mud and raised in shit. He was descended from a long line of drunken peasants who in hundreds of years of non-trying had failed to escape the stinky-ass backwater of the Talitsky region, a barren landscape of mud and weeds whose history is so undistinguished that even the most talented Russian historians struggle to find mention of it in imperial documents. They did find Yeltsins here and there in the Czarist censuses, but until the 20th century none made any mark in history. The best of the lot turned out to be Boris's grandfather, a legendarily mean and greedy old prick named Ignatiy Yeltsin, who achieved what was considered great wealth by village standards, owning a mill and a horse. Naturally, the flesh-devouring Soviet government, the government that would later make Boris Yeltsin one of its favored and feared vampires, liquidated Ignatiy for the crime of affluence, for the crime of having a mill and a horse.

  3. In those early days of the revolution, you see, the most worthless, drunken and lazy of the peasants became temporary big-shots with puffed-up communist titles and accompanying important-looking little red vinyl badges just by ratting out the rich farmers, called kulaks, of which Ignatiy was one. They would "razkulachivat" (de-kulak) the kulaks by denouncing them to the secret police and having them sent to prison camps -- and once they were safely gone, the little bastards would appropriate the boss' shit for themselves and spend their days getting drunk in his haystacks, a peasant version of paradise on earth.

  4. That was what Marxism looked like in the 1930s in Russia. Boris Yeltsin's father Nikolai saw this happen to his family and so he moved away from Butka, to the city of Kazan, to work construction at the site of a machine-building plant. During that time the Yeltsin family lived in a workers' barracks where men, women, children and the elderly slept on top of each other like animals and fought, literally fought, with fists and lead pipes, for crusts of bread, or a few feet of space upon which to sleep at night. The communist government found its leaders among the meanest and greediest of the children who survived and thrived in places like this. Boris Yeltsin was such a child.

  5. As a teenager he only knew two things; how to drink vodka and smash people in the face. At the very first opportunity he joined up with the communists who had liquidated his grandfather and persecuted his father and became a professional thief and face-smasher, rising quickly through the communist ranks to become a boss of the Sverdlovsk region, where he was again famous for two things: his heroic drinking and his keen political sense in looting and distributing the booty from Soviet highway and construction contracts. If Boris Yeltsin ever had a soul, it was not observable in his early biography. He sold out as soon as he could and was his whole life a human appendage of a rotting, corrupt state, a crook who would emerge even from the hottest bath still stinking of booze, concrete and sausage

  6. It's worth noting that Yeltsin's future political adversary, Mikhail Gorbachev, grew up in almost identical conditions of mud, misery and starvation in the Stavropol region. But while Gorbachev's childhood turned him into a pathologically self-hating wannabe, a scheming, two-faced party intellectual who privately lusted after French villas and foreign-tailored suits and would eventually be undone by his habit of parading in public with a wife who wore jewels and furs, Yeltsin never left the mud and never tried to. He remained a mean, thieving country drunk his whole life.

  7. Some historians will disagree, pointing to the fact that in the end, Yeltsin held huge Swiss bank accounts, sent his grandkids to school in Europe and was rich beyond Gorbachev's wildest dreams, but those people misunderstand what it is to be a sovok, or pure Soviet philistine, as Yeltsin was. The swelling Swiss bank accounts that Boris Nikolayevich lived off of as he drank his gurgling elderly self to death in the last eight years were just a modern version of the stolen haystacks the lazy Butka peasants slept on eighty years ago. Like them, Yeltsin stole whatever he could get his hands on and then lived out his days rolling in his bounty like a human pig -- because a sovok doesn't know how to enjoy anything except to roll around in it like a pig. Yeltsin was just better at it than the rest of his peers. And he survived longer than the rest of them because his "life" was, until today, just a biological technicality -- it is hard to kill what has, inside, been dead all along.

  8. Everything about the historical figure Boris Yeltsin reeked of death and decay; it was his primary characteristic as a human being. I remember clearly talking with former general and Secretary of the Security Council (who served under Yeltsin) Alexander Lebed at Lebed's dacha in Siberia -- here is what Lebed had to say about Yeltsin the man:
    He's been on the verge of death so many times...His doctors themselves are in shock that he's still alive. Half the blood vessels in his brain are about to burst after his strokes, his intestines are spotted all over with holes, he has giant ulcers in his stomach, his heart is in absolutely disgusting condition, he is literally rotting...He could die from any one of dozens of physical problems that he has, but contrary to all laws of nature -- he lives

  9. I still remember the way Lebed pronounced the word "rotting" -- gnilit -- scrunching up his smashed boxer's nose in moral disgust. He was shaken by the memory of just having been near Yeltsin. This from a hardened war veteran, a man who had coldly taken lives from Afghanistan to the Transdniester. The stink of Boris Yeltsin was the first thing capable of giving Alexander Lebed shell-shock.

  10. Yeltsin outlived Lebed, a physically mighty man who could break rows of jaws with his fists but was chewed up and spit out like a sardine when he took on the Russian state. He likewise outlived the Petersburg Democrat Galina Starovoitova, the reporter Anna Politkovskaya, the muckraker Artyem Borovik, the Duma deputy Yuri Shekochikhin, the spy Alexander Litvinenko -- they were all too human in one way or another for today's Russia, and died of unnatural causes at young ages, but not Yeltsin. While all of those people were being murdered or dying in mysterious accidents, Yeltsin spent his golden years in an eerie state of half-preserved, perpetual almost-death. I saw an intern cutting video for a Yeltsin obit at my father's offices at NBC Dateline a full ten years ago. They expected him to go at any minute. He didn't. A few years later Yeltsin got sick and again the papers here and in Russia prepped the obits. He survived, and his handlers -- people like the ball-sucking Valentin Yumashev (the real author of at least two Yeltsin "autobiographies," by the way) -- tried to prove to the Russian people (and Yeltsin's enemies) that the boss was still viable by releasing video footage on state channel ORT of the prez driving a snowmobile in the country. I remember that footage, it was one of the funniest things ever put on television. I am certain that they stapled Yeltsin's hands to the handlebars; the boss had a blank face and a little ski-hat and seemed crudely propped up on the snowmobile seat. They gave him a push and Yeltsin drifted aimlessly across the snow. The footage lasted for about ten seconds and the last thing you saw was Yeltsin's back. So much for the death-watch.

  11. This pattern repeated itself over and over again, and eventually I got so fed up with it that, when he got sick again in 1999, I ran a cover in my Moscow newspaper The eXile that showed a picture of a wobbling Yeltsin over the headline, "DIE, ALREADY!!!" But he didn't. He survived and lived to turn over power to the next vampire, the Thief Mark VII, Vladimir Putin. Then he disappeared somewhere to spend seven glorious years drinking himself to death -- a Soviet version of Leaving Las Vegas, set in Switzerland and the south of France. Like all the great Russian monsters, like Stalin and Lenin and Brezhnyev and Andropov and a million other czars big and small, he died peacefully of natural causes while murders raged all around him, a piece of fat noiselessly clogging his heart while he slept in his stolen bed.

  12. The obituaries this morning I read with great amusement. Here is a line from the Associated Press:
    Yeltsin steadfastly defended freedom of the press, but was a master at manipulating the media...
    Boris Yeltsin, defender of the freedom of the press! That should be news to Dmitri Kholodov, erstwhile reporter for Moskovsky Komsomolets, who was killed by an exploding briefcase in 1994 while investigating embezzlement of the Western army group connected with Yeltsin's close drinking buddy, then-defense minister Pavel Grachev. The day after Kholodov was killed, Yeltsin got up on national television and called Grachev "one of my favorite ministers." That was what Yeltsin thought of reporters and the free press.
    Here's another line from the Yeltsin obit:
    But Yeltsin was an inconsistent reformer who never took much interest in the mundane tasks of day-to-day government and nearly always blamed Russia's myriad problems on subordinates...

  13. "Inconsistent reformer" is exactly the kind of language the American media typically used when describing Yeltsin during a period when he and his friends were robbing the Russian state like a gang of New Jersey truck hijackers. When I sent bits of this obit to a friend of mine who had also been a reporter in Russia during Yeltsin's reign, here's what he wrote back:
    Yeah, it's a hoot. He simply had no power, for example, to prevent the misuse of the $1-$3 billion a year that his tennis partner at the National Sports Fund (Shamil Tarpishev) was getting from duty-free cigarettes...much of which inexplicably ended up in his daughter's foreign bank accounts.

  14. What we were calling "reform" was just a thinly-veiled mass robbery that Yeltsin perpetrated with American help. The great delusion about Yeltsin was that he was a kind of Democrat and an opponent of communism. He was not. He was, like all politicians who grew up in that system, an opportunist. He read the writing on the wall and he threw his weight behind a "revolution" that turned out to be a brilliant ploy hatched by a canny group of generals and KGB types to privatize Soviet assets into the hands of the country's leaders, while simultaneously cutting the state free of its dreary obligations toward the rank-and-file Russian people.

  15. Few today remember that the make-or-break moment for Yeltsin as a "democratic" leader came when coal miners in places like Cherepovets and Vorkuta went on strike in support of the revolution. Yeltsin rewarded those same miners by telling them to go fuck themselves when ruthless mine owners in his newly capitalist "reform Russia" turned them into slave laborers and left them unpaid for months and years on end. I visited Vorkuta in 1998 and found the same people who had protested in favor of Yeltsin's "democratic" revolt years before now living off tiny daily rations of rotten eggs and bacon fat. I was with one miner who brought home a single package of a boiled egg, a piece of sausage and a hunk of cheese given to him in lieu of salary at the mine, and solemnly divided it up with his wife and his two kids at dinner. The food came from past-due stocks of old food that the mine owners had traded for with a local store in exchange for coal.

  16. Those same steam-boiler-bellied mine executives -- Yeltsin lookalikes -- proudly showed me a new slate pool table they had had imported from St. Petersburg that day and which they kept in the mine's newly-furnished executive lounge, where they hung out boozing all day while everybody else worked in dangerous prehistoric conditions. I visited that mine in June of 1998; 37 people had already died in mines in Vorkuta that year.

  17. That was Boris Yeltsin's Russia. It was a place where pigs got fat and everyone else sucked eggs -- literally sucked eggs. Yeltsin wasn't a "reformer" any more than he was a human being. He was born in a Russia where the mean ones got the house with the mill and the wood floors and the losers worked themselves to death in pits and outhouses. He left behind exactly the same country. There will be some Russians who will mourn him today, because for all his faults, he was what the Russians call nash: "ours." With his drunkenness, his talent for making a slobbish spectacle of himself in front of the civilized leaders of the world, his apelike inability to wear a suit, his perfect and instinctive amorality, his effortless thievery and his casual use of lethal force, he represented a type intimately familiar to all Russians. There is a famous story in Russian history in which a Russian general who has been living in France for years after the Napoleonic wars meets a fellow countryman, who has just arrived in France from home. "Well, so what are they doing in the Motherland?" the general asks. The traveler pauses, then finally answers: "Stealing." Russia even back then was run by Yeltsins, and it will be again, even though this particular one is finally dead.

  18. The preceding comments were:
    THE LOW POST: Death of a Drunk
    At long last, former Russian president and notorious booze-hound Boris Yeltsin dies
    Rolling Stone Magazine
    Apr 23, 2007 2:05 PM