Interview: Talbott on Yeltsin's Legacy

Strobe Talbott, who served as deputy secretary of State during the Clinton administration, got to know Boris Yeltsin as well as any U.S. official. From Yeltsin's days as maverick Moscow party chief to his critical role in ending the Soviet Union to his chaotic years as president of the new Russian Federation, Talbott closely observed the rise and fall of a man he likens to a construction crane that demolished the old system but left a great deal of chaos in its wake. Or as a popular Russian joke in the late '90s had it, “Mikhail Gorbachev took us to the edge of the abyss, and Yeltsin took us one step further.” Talbott, who first gained fame as a Russia expert when he translated the memoirs of Nikita Khrushchev, says that Yeltsin's greatest mistake was to name Vladimir Putin as his successor. Putin has reversed many of the democratic and open-market reforms put in place by the former Russian president, who died Monday. Talbot, who is now president of the Brookings Institution, spoke with NEWSWEEK's Michael Hirsh. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: Put Boris Yeltsin's life and career in perspective for us. What did he achieve, and where did he fail?
Strobe Talbott:
He achieved a lot and he failed in some things, and the positive will far outweigh the negative when history renders some kind of more thoughtful judgment. He was absolutely instrumental in ending the Cold War, in the dismantlement of the Soviet empire and the beginning of Russia's integration into the West. That's a big deal. Where he failed was perhaps, most ironically, in his choice of a successor. For reasons having to do primarily with protection of his own interests and his family interests [Yeltsin's family was under suspicion of corruption in the late '90s], he ran through a series of prime ministers and heirs apparent and ended up with Mr. Putin, who has gone a long way toward reversing many of the reforms that Boris Yeltsin started.

Can you be more specific about what you see as his successes?
Speaking of ironies, Yeltsin was part of one of history's great tag teams: [former Soviet President] Mikhail Gorbachev and Yeltsin. Neither would have been entirely possible without the other. They were a duo that really did in what was worst about the Soviet Union. Certainly in the case of Gorbachev, who was only trying to reform the Soviet system, they did it unwittingly. Yeltsin, however, did intend to destroy the Soviet Union when he became the democratically elected president of Russia. They started off as comrades. Then it became almost operatic—if we still did grand opera of the Boris Godunov kind we'd have Boris and Mikhail. Gorbachev turned Yeltsin from a good communist into an outcast. And hell hath no fury like a big proud man who's been snubbed. So once he bested Gorbachev, [Yeltsin] went on not just to be president of Russia but also to drive a stake through the heart of the old Soviet Communist party. When all is said and done, his biggest accomplishment was de-Sovietizing Russia, creating a free media, pluralism and electoral democracy.

But surely Yeltsin's mistakes were greater than merely picking the wrong successor. He botched free-market reforms, allowed corruption to flourish and created a sense of chaos in Russia that, many critics would argue, directly caused the backlash that allowed Putin to come in, build a personality cult and crack down on democracy. To what extent should we lay that at Boris Yeltsin's door?
To a considerable extent. Whether we're talking about a small company or a superpower there's a huge responsibility for management succession. You have to lay at the door of Boss No. 1 the choice of Boss No. 2.

He also got some very bad advice from the West, did he not, including the Clinton administration, about how to privatize and create an open-market economy through “shock therapy” and other dramatic means?
I would say he was also guilty of not following some very good advice from the West. One of his biggest, most consequential errors was the loan-for-shares scheme in '95-'96, which created the phenomenon of the mega-oligarchs. [Then-Treasury Secretary] Larry Summers and [deputy] David Lipton argued in private against that. And here's another mitigating thought, which you can take or leave... Nobody who has made all these valid criticisms of Yeltsin has quite convinced me that any alternative route might have been better. Those who argue against shock therapy say gradualism might have been better. I mean, we're arguing counterfactuals here, like if Napoleon didn't have hemorrhoids he might have slept better the night before Waterloo. My position is that Yeltsin was like a wrecking ball that takes down a decrepit old building. What the critics are saying is that it would have been better to dismantle it one brick at a time. But I think then the building [the old Soviet system] would have remained standing...

The comeback argument to that is that, in part because of the backlash created during the chaos of the Yeltsin years, the old Soviet building is back. Maybe permanently. Putin has put the KGB in charge and, even if he hasn't recreated the old Soviet system, many of the same retrograde officials are running things. Hence, you have a regime which thrives on suppression of dissent, intimidation and even possibly assassination.
Obviously, there were things that could have been done better. There are things that could have been done that would have maintained the necessary momentum of privatization and shock therapy. But I would strongly object to the word "permanent." I think Russia is still in transition... There's a lot of fragility to the Putin system, as we saw on the streets of Moscow the other week when there was a demonstration and crackdown. That the regime was sufficiently afraid of it to crack down as they did was evidence of fragility. Russia is still in flux. And Yeltsin's foreign-policy successes still endure.

What were they?
You have to give him credit for keeping Russian troops' withdrawal from the Balkans on schedule; for being part of the solution rather than part of the problem in the Balkans; for not letting NATO enlargement blow up, creating a partnership with NATO that was hard to do; for going with the Ukrainian denuclearization deal, which involved real compromises for the Russians. And what may have been his single greatest foreign policy achievement, which was to instantly and vigorously recognize the inter-republican borders [of the old Soviet Union] as international borders. He could have easily been a Russian Milosevic, and there was terrific pressure on him in '92 and '93 to do that.

But again, aren't we seeing a backlash against those policies today, with Putin playing tough with Georgia and Ukraine?
Yes, we're seeing a burst of that. And we're also seeing in the methodology and the mentality the KGB-ization of the Russian government. That's entirely Putin's fault.

Not to harp on this too much, but Putin is actually quite popular because of these policies. Don't people prefer him to Yeltsin, whom they remember as a mere drunk who mismanaged Russia and let things go to hell? Putin was elected on a platform of restoring order and Russian greatness.
I think a drunk on top letting things go to hell is a grossly simplistic and unfair assessment. First of all, that drunk was sober a lot of the time. And he was doing a lot more than letting the country go to hell. He was sending the Communist Party of the Soviet Union to hell. And God bless him for that.