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Book Review September 6, 2002
The Russian Hack
By John Dolan Browse author Email
Page 4 of 5
You might want to read that passage again, just to make sure it said what you think it did. If you think I'm misquoting it, I direct you to page 208 of The Russia Hand. When you read it again, you will see that it did, indeed, say plainly that Talbott (and Larry Summers of the Treasury Department, possibly the most vile of all the Americans depicted in this book) simply decided that letting Gaidar and Chubais hand out the Russian government's assets to a handful of thieves was a price worth paying to secure Yeltsin's reelection.

What is most painfully clear in this book is that Gaidar was a genius, a genuine Dr. Evil. He played Clinton and Talbott like the suckers they were. Knowing that the Americans reduced every Russian political dispute to a simple Presidential model with only two sides, one of which is Democratic/good and the other necessarily Undemocratic/evil, Gaidar could terrify the Americans into accepting any sleazy deal with the threat of the "reds and browns" (communists and nationalists) who would take over if the kleptocracy fell.

It was a beautiful strategy, because the more horrors it imposed on ordinary Russians, the more urgent became the need to bolster Yeltsin's regime -- simply because everybody hated it so much. Gaidar was able to convince Talbott and Bill that complaints about starvation and corruption were not actual manifestations of suffering but ominous signs that Communism or Fascism were "on the rise" in Russia again.

When Yeltsin, frightened by growing rage at the looting of Russia, tries to fire Gaidar, and even Clinton begins to realize how much ordinary Russians hate Gaidar, Gaidar goes nuclear, dragging out the ol' Fascist-coup threat: "Gaidar warned that his country faced the danger of a form of fascism 'beside which everything Russia has experienced will pale in significance.'" (Gaidar stayed fired; the Fascist threat never materialized; but Talbott and his boss still considered Gaidar a hero. Some people just can't learn.)

Sometimes the phantom menaces scripted for Yeltsin by Gaidar and Chubais are so laughable you have to wonder if Gaidar was having fun, seeing how much utter nonsense he could get away with:

"Yeltsin turned [to Clinton,] suddenly grim: 'I'm warning you: if the Communists win, they'll go after the Crimea and Alaska....'"

Alaska?! Yet Talbott reports this line in all seriousness. The fact that the Russian Army lacked the funds or logistical infrastructure to hitchhike home from Estonia at the time seems not to have occurred to him, or to his boss, Bill. Zhirinovsky must have felt like Rodney Dangerfield: "Tough crowd, tough crowd! Gaidar steals my best joke, the we'll-retake-Alaska line, and the Americans don't even think it's funny!"

The saddest figure in the story is Georgi Arbatov, longtime Americaphile, who tries again and again to warn Talbott against Gaidar and Yeltsin:

"There...was Georgi Arbatov, spewing accusations about how the government was bankrupting the state and beggaring the people. Gaidar, he added, was 'a stooge of the West.' The scene saddened me. Arbatov had helped open the [Soviet] system....Yet here he was, personally embittered and siding with the forces of reaction."

The thought that Arbatov might simply be telling the truth does not occur to Talbott, because it interferes with the ideological pattern he has imposed on Russia. But Arbatov keeps trying. At a state dinner, Talbott reports:

"Arbatov buttonholed me like the Ancient Mariner and told me..., 'Stop thinking in stereotypes! Work with the communists!' He said. 'They're more pragmatic and reasonable than the reformers. Abandon Yeltsin! He's dragging us down. If you cling to him, we will all blame you for the disaster that is about to engulf us!'"

Talbott reports Arbatov's words without the least sense that these terrible predictions have been proven right. As far as he's concerned, Russia is right on course, and any collateral damage incurred along the way was minor and inevitable.

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