The Quarrels of the Russian Opposition

The Anti-Corruption Fund (FBK), founded in 2011 by Alexei Navalny, has for many years produced a number of documentaries based on its investigations into corruption in the highest echelons of Putin’s power, including Putin himself and his former Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev. After Navalny’s imprisonment in January 2021, one of his colleagues, London-based Maria Pevtchikh, took over from her former boss.

Exposing corruption has always been the central theme of Navalny’s work and that of his foundation. In 2011, it was he who gave the name “party of crooks and thieves” to the ruling United Russia party. For him, it was a party and a central power that not only falsified the November 2011 Duma elections, but also systematically steals from Russian citizens, appropriating the country’s wealth.

This accusation of theft and corruption enabled Navalny to develop an idea of the “beautiful Russia of the future”, a Russia where Putin would be deposed and where a fairer distribution of wealth, based on an uncorrupted judicial and political system, would enable Russian citizens to enjoy a dignified life.

In September 2023, Navalny wrote an unexpected text, entitled My Fear and Hatred, in which he explained that his fiercest hatred was focused not on his judges, the FSB or even Putin, but on Boris Yeltsin and his close entourage, because “it wasn’t in 2011 with Putin, but in 1994 with Yeltsin, Chubais, the oligarchs and the whole Komsomol and Party clique, who called themselves ‘democrats’, that we took the road not to Europe but to Central Asia.”

Why was Navalny writing this text, in his seclusion which was nothing but permanent torture? Because, in his view, after the break-up of the USSR, the country missed a historic opportunity to build a democratic society due to the actions of the Yeltsin entourage, and he feared that if Russian society did not learn lessons from the past, it would once again miss its historic chance to become a rich and free country at the next historic turning point.

On April 16, 2024, FBK presented the first episode of the four-part series en titled The Traitors, which deals with “the story of a great conspiracy” and “who took over Russia and how”. A few days later, the second episode was released, and we are expecting the third and fourth in the coming days. Maria Pevtchikh, the author and presenter of this series, inspired by Navalny’s quoted text, recounts how Boris Yeltsin, with his democratic pretensions at the end of the Soviet era and the beginning of the post-Soviet era, remained nothing more than a nomenklaturist who allowed his own family and, above all, a group of greedy oligarchs to seize the country’s wealth, the “unique enterprises that had been built up over decades by the entire country”. They are the “traitors”. She also recounts how the main state TV channel, Ostankino, was fraudulently privatized by Boris Berezovsky, the main “villain” of the story, in exchange for TV support for Yeltsin during the 1996 presidential elections. It tells the story of “loans against shares,” in which the flagships of Russian industry were sold for paltry sums to a few oligarchs and bankers. Finally, she tells how the teams of “political technologists” hired by the beneficiaries of these golden deals enabled Yeltsin, a sick drunk, to win the election by creating a dark image of Gennady Zyuganov, a Communist who promised not to return to the Communist system. But Yeltsin’s propaganda cleverly and falsely associated him with the Gulag, famine, the prospect of losing free privatized housing, the travel ban, and so on. For Pevchikh, it was Yeltsin who created the system in which Putin’s reign became possible. 

I could have waited until the next two episodes to write about this series, but it has already caused a storm on the Russian Internet. The first episode has been viewed five million times, the second, just released, two and a half million. It is not so much the documentaries themselves as the reactions of the public that prompt me to react. Roughly speaking, viewers of this film can be divided into two main groups: some say it was time to expose the rotten roots of the Yeltsin system (Putin has always said so, by the way: he came to power on the back of criticism of the “horrible” 1990s) and the others defend the achievements of the Yeltsin era, claiming that it was a period of nascent democracy and freedom, and that it was Putin’s arrival and his hold on the country that turned it into an autocracy.

I know a lot about the history of the Yeltsin era, and I did not find any new revelations in this documentary. Despite a few factual errors, Pevchikh’s narration is basically correct. Nevertheless, I am shocked by this film. On the one hand, it does not explain the complexity of the Soviet legacy: the entrenchment of communist practices, endemic corruption, the inefficiency of the economic model, the debacle, hyperinflation, the lack of qualified managers, and so on. One almost gets the impression that Maria Pevtchikh dreams of the past greatness of the USSR, where enterprises were state-owned, but she does not mention that they did not belong to the people at all. The nomenklatura enjoyed all the profits created by the work of the Soviets, passing on a small portion in the form of starvation wages.

However, what shocks me most is another point. Without going into the debates on the 1990s, which are certainly fascinating and important, I refuse to understand what the immediate point is of trampling on a dead lion, Yeltsin, when it is Putin who is waging a murderous war in Ukraine and openly asserting his desire to destroy this country and uproot, if not exterminate, its people. Putin’s regime glorifies the murderers and rapists of Ukrainian women and children, but the Russian Internet squabbles over the role played by Berezovsky and Chubais. I am trying to imagine a discussion within the German resistance in 1942 about the harmful role of the Weimar Republic in bringing Hitler to power, while he was exterminating Jews. Or a heated discussion among Stalin’s Gulag prisoners about the weaknesses of Nicholas II that led him to abdicate.

The FBK has the right to choose its subjects and the extras for its attacks. But the immense interest of society shows one thing: it still has not understood that it bears a heavy moral responsibility for the war waged by its leaders in its name. And the Russian opposition – which can now only be active by emigrating, as all political freedoms have been stifled and crushed by Putin’s regime (not Yeltsin’s) – need to understand that only Ukraine’s victory and Russia’s total defeat can give it a chance of that “free and happy Russia of the future” Alexei Navalny dreamed of. Of course, to have this chance, we willll have to acknowledge crimes, pay reparations to Ukraine and judge criminals. For the time being, no judgement on Yeltsin, creating divisions within the opposition, will advance this agenda.

Let me add one last point. The first Chechen war, launched in 1994 by Yeltsin’s regime, is barely mentioned. In the first episode, Pevchikh says only: “The Chechen war was very unpopular,” and in the second, we see a clip of General Alexander Lebed, also a candidate in the 1996 presidential elections, promising to stop the war in Chechnya if elected. Yet this first war is already the matrix for Putin’s future wars. Is this omission a coincidence? Or is it a conscious or unconscious desire on the part of Maria Pevchikh and Russian society to ignore this war, at a time when a horrific war is decimating Ukraine?

Born in Moscow, she has been living in France since 1984. After 25 years of working at RFI, she now devotes herself to writing. Her latest works include: Le Régiment immortel. La Guerre sacrée de Poutine, Premier Parallèle 2019; Traverser Tchernobyl Premier Parallèle, 2016.

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