Yeltsin's Two Russian Faces

NEW YORK: Even by Boris Yeltsin’s wayward standards, the last few weeks have been frantic. The Russian economy has cracked, as has the ruble, foreign bank loans are not being repaid, and Yeltsin’s new/old choice for prime minister - Viktor Chernomyrdin - is having trouble getting his nomination approved by the Duma. Once again there is talk that Yeltsin is finished.

Russians are unaccustomed to parading themselves before the world as vulnerable and in need of a begging bowl. So, to hear a procession of investment bankers proclaim that, realistically speaking, Russia’s economy is of no more importance to the world than Santo Domingo, was more than humiliating: deep down many Russians suspected that this might very well be true.

For centuries Russia appeared strong and powerful. The guilty secret was that Russians made themselves appear strong because they were afraid that the world (i.e., the West) would discover their weaknesses. Here the all-powerful Tsar was key to protecting the great Russian soul from the "evil" western influences of freedom and disorder. Those freedoms had to be kept out if the country’s rampant vulnerabilities were to remain a family secret.

The time came, however, when Russia could no longer hide its flaws behind its vast steppes and iron curtain. It became obvious that Russia, for all its bravado, was in fact an economic, political, and social basket case, and the country was in such a state precisely because it lacked those bracing Western freedoms.