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Book Review September 6, 2002
 
The Russian Hack
By John Dolan Browse author Email
 
Page 3 of 5
 
"This business of helping Yeltsin overcome the worst of the past -- including his own past -- isn't for the faint of heart. It's going to be a two-steps-forward, one-step-backward deal."

I guess that's what happens when you apply a little Arkansas positive thinking to Leninist ratios.

Talbott's own account of Yeltsin is equally false in its depiction of Yeltsin as regular guy and loyal pal. "Yeltsin kept saying in a low, choked voice, "Moi drug, moi drug..." Very touching, except that that's what drunken thugs traditionally say in Russia, just before sticking a knife into the friend's liver.

Perhaps the most sickening scene is Talbott's account of the Yeltsins at home:

"Then, clasping Clinton's hand, [Yeltsin] led the way [to] a picture window that looked out on a manicured lawn and a stand of birches. [Clinton and Yeltsin] sat...while Naina bustled about, serving tea and generous helpings of a rich multi-layered cake that she proudly said she'd been up half the night baking."

Ah, the Yeltsins at home! Even Leon Aron didn't go quite this far in attempting to portray Yeltsin as Ivan Q. Public. Appalling to reflect that Talbott's more naive readers will actually think that, in reading Talbott's account of Yeltsin's complexion changes, hospitality and mood shifts, they are actually learning something about what happened in Russia in the 1990s. The irony is dizzying: if Talbott had chosen virtually any other family in Russia -- if he'd just picked the 17th Ivanov in the Moscow phone book -- he could have used their domestic life to portray what was happening in Russia. The only family which could not be used as metonymy is the one he chooses: the Yeltsins -- because that family's whole purpose was to distract both the Russian people and the foreigners away from what was happening to the Ivanovs.

It's maddening, the way Talbott details Yeltsin's jester antics while ignoring what was happening to tens of millions of ordinary Russians who were foolish enough to trust in The West. At least Aron was consistent; his Yeltsin biography simply omits any mention of what Yeltsin's robber-baron backers were doing while "Ol' Boris" cavorted onstage. For example, Aron never so much as mentions the Loans for Shares scheme, probably the most outrageous of all the state-sponsored scams of the Yeltsin era.

Talbott is not the simple liar Aron is. He's more the squeamish moderate, the ideologue who wrings his hands while signing death certificates. (As he says when reporting a disastrous speech by his master, Clinton: "I coldn't bring myself to applaud, but I didn't have the heart, or the guts, to criticize him either.")

And like the squeamish moderate he is, Talbott admits -- briefly -- that there was some nasty stuff going on while Bill and Boris chatted:

"Yeltsin signed a decree implementing a scheme called loans for shares. Assets owned by the state were sold off...through an auction rigged in favor of large banks that then made massive loans to the government. As a result, a handful of financial-industrial groups ended up with some of the largest energy and metals companies in the world at liquidation-style prices."

And all this was done, as Talbott, wringing his hands, confesses, on the advice of men like Chubais and (above all) Gaidar:

"Gaidar and Chubais believed that the oligarchs would, over time, like America's own robber barons of the nineteenth century, evolve into respectable captains of industry...."

Of course, Gaidar and Chubais were particularly confident of this because their schemes placed the two of them in the first rank of the robber barons to whose moral amelioration they looked forward with such confidence. (I feel certain that I too would, "over time...evolve" into a really nice person if someone out there were to give me, oh, say Mobil Oil.)

Talbott confesses:

"...[W]e, as the reformers' constant backers and occasional advisors, should have debated it more with [Gaidar and Chubais]. We would have done so if we'd had more time, more foresight, and more influence.... In the event, however, one consideration prevailed in our thinking: our agreement with the reformers on the importance of a Yeltsin victory outweighed our disagreement with them over some of the methods they were using to ensure that victory, principally the enrichment and empowerment of the oligarchs."


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