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    Yeltsin unexamined

    By BILL THOMAS

    © St. Petersburg Times, published October 15, 2000


    Even when the Communists were in charge, Russia was an obsessively class-conscious society. From the nomenklatura on top to collective farmers and factory workers on the bottom, every Russian had his place. Some of those places no longer exist, thanks to the collapse of the Soviet Union, but many still do, among them the one occupied by the intelligentsia.

    Russia's intellectual elite have always been beholden to the state for income and extra privileges, which tends to make their pronouncements on matters of politics somewhat suspicious. This does not mean that Roy Medvedev, author of POST-SOVIET RUSSIA, doesn't have things to say about the ongoing mess known as recent Russian history. After all he's witnessed at least a portion of it from a front-row seat. But it does make you wonder, particularly at the mildness of his criticism of those he once served.

    Medvedev was and is a member of the Soviet and post-Soviet intelligentsia, a neat trick for anyone who could manage it. A former "consultant" to Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin, Medvedev calls himself "a historian and an activist," but his book, subtitled A JOURNEY THROUGH YELTSIN'S RUSSIA, while it may pass for history, is unfortunately missing in action.

    Medvedev, seen in Soviet days as someone Western scholars could trust, has been riding on his reputation as an honest observer for so long he's forgotten that historians are supposed to do more than just watch.

    "There was no natural or normal system for the transfer of power in Russia or the Soviet Union in the twentieth century," he writes, "and that was one of the most important causes of our country's many difficulties and failures." Actually, the Communist Party transferred power rather smoothly, even when Nikita Khruschev was overthrown in 1964. It's not the transfer of power, it's how power is used that causes problems in Russia.

    Medvedev praises his ex-consultee Boris Yeltsin, as "the only one (of Russia's leaders) to leave office voluntarily before the end of his term, and he transferred power to a successor whom he himself selected."

    In Russia that may be cause for celebration. It certainly was in the Yeltsin family, since the man Yeltsin selected to succeed him, Vladimir Putin, as his first official act, obligingly excused his predecessor from prosecution for any crimes committed in office.

    Medvedev never even mentions this fact. Or suggests that the real reason Yeltsin went through four prime ministers before he got to Putin was that in Putin he finally found one who would guarantee him a pardon.

    "The breakthrough that Russia needs," Medvedev advises, "can be accomplished without excessive strain, simply by making use of the substantial resources and favorable conditions that Russia, even today, still enjoys."

    Where's this guy been? Billions of dollars made from the sale of those resources are spirited out of the country every year "without excessive strain" and "under very favorable conditions."

    Medvedev concedes, "there is no question that many disorderly practices, habits and ways of doing things have taken root in Russia, and they need to be re-examined and changed."

    He's right. "Disorderly practices, habits and ways of doing things . . . need to be re-examined and changed." But Medvedev's book doesn't examine them and, despite his assurances, it will probably be a long time before anything changes.

    Bill Thomas, the former editor of CAPITAL STYLE magazine in Washington, is the author of RED TAPE: ADVENTURE CAPITALISM IN THE NEW RUSSIA and other books.

    POST-SOVIET RUSSIA:

    A JOURNEY THROUGH THE YELTSIN YEARS

    By Roy Medvedev, translated and edited by George Shriver

    Columbia University Press, $37.50

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