Jeffrey Laurenti: Yeltsin and an American Myth

Roundup: Talking About History

[Jeffrey Laurenti, senior fellow at The Century Foundation.]

Among the more durable articles of faith on the American right is the conviction that the Reagan administration's renewal of 1950s-style confrontation with the Soviet Union felled the Communist regime. Boris Yeltsin, who died Monday in Moscow, gave the lie to this myth.

Yeltsin was, without a doubt, the political figure most responsible for uncoiling the Communist Party tentacles that gripped every aspect of people's lives in the old USSR. But he did not launch his crusade to shatter the Party's stifling system of controls because he felt intimidated by superior American military power. He was aroused by the flagrant contrast between the luxuries enjoyed by a"proletarian" party's elite and the penury of the population in whose name they claimed to rule.

Yeltsin had no experience with the military establishment that American conservatives imagine Ronald Reagan cowed into submission, nor had he had to make resource allocations between guns and butter. He rose within the state construction ministries and became a local party boss first in Sverdlovsk and then in Moscow - without the slightest responsibility for the Soviet security interests with which Reagan's Washington was consumed. As Moscow Communist party boss he led a righteous populist drive against party leaders' privileges.

To the extent it was America that stoked Yeltsin's determination to overhaul the Soviet system, his epiphany came with a visit not to an American missile silo, but to a Houston supermarket. In short, it was exposure to the economic and social dynamism of the West that intensified his zeal to change a closed and failing system.

This was the same jarring experience of a reality at odds with official Soviet propaganda that had turned an entire Soviet-raised younger generation into eager reformers. Ironically, this subversion of the sclerotic Soviet system from within was the fruit of two decades of gradual East-West detente that came to fullest flower during the presidencies of Richard Nixon and Jimmy Carter - the same detente against which Reagan and his allies on the right furiously campaigned. Between cultural exchanges and Helsinki commitments, the best and the brightest living under Soviet rule learned there could be a better and freer way.

Mikhail Gorbachev deserves the fullest credit for pushing the Soviet system to open up and liberalize, for similar motives. But he was a reformer, not a radical - and he did not realize that the Soviets' own myth of"the Soviet people" would explode as soon as it was exposed to the harsh light of truth.

Yeltsin would embrace creative destruction - dissolving first the Party, then the Union. He offloaded the Central Asian republics whose fast-growing but poor Muslim populations the CIA had foreseen as a demographic time-bomb threatening long-term Russian dominance. And he opened the door both to vigorous democracy and to buccaneer capitalism in Russia itself - leaving Russians even today deeply divided about the changes he wrought.

For Americans, however, the central point is clear: Russia shook off the Communist system not because American military power forced it to submit, but because Russians themselves wanted the change. The right, and its allies in what President Eisenhower called a military-industrial complex, want fervently to convince Americans that it was aggressive application of U.S. power that brought down the Soviets, just as it could re-make the Middle East. Yeltsin's story proves otherwise.

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