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American Diplomacy
Commentary and Analysis

April 1999

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COMMENTARY
 
by Keith Moon
“Yeltsin himself came to fame in the old Soviet system when, in 1974 as the regional Communist leader in Sverdlovsk (now renamed Ekaterinburg), he ordered the razing of the Ipatiev House where the last Romanov tsar and his family were executed.”

HEN AILING AND BELEAGURED
Russian President Boris Yeltsin hosted Chinese President Jiang Zemin in his Moscow hospital suite late last year, Yeltsin made sure the news cameras caught only his most energetic side: in a desperate attempt to fight off the images of senescence and obsolescence that plague the current Russian government, Yeltsin can be seen gesticulating wildly and speaking emphatically, though the slurred words themselves are barely audible on the tape. 

Reminiscent of the bleak final days of the washed-up Leonid Brezhnev and Konstantin Chernenko, when the Soviets would release official “highlight” films to prove that the men were still alive, the scene also emphasized the much older problem of orderly succession in Russia. In what has become all too characteristic for the Russian people, their “tsar” is so consumed with his own fragile well-being that little has been done to assure the economic or political stability of the country beyond his reign. Like so many of his predecessors, Yeltsin has mortgaged his people’s future for these last fading days of glory.  

The author, who earned an M.A. in Russian studies at Harvard University, teaches history and the Russian language at the Hotchkiss School in Connecticut. A frequent visitor to the Soviet Union, he wrote a commentary on the “New Russia” for American Diplomacy in March 1997. 

~ Ed.

Yeltsin himself came to fame in the old Soviet system when, in 1974 as the regional Communist leader in Sverdlovsk (now re-named Ekaterinburg), he ordered the razing of the Ipatiev House where the last Romanov tsar and his family were executed. And it was Yeltsin who allowed the DNA testing that proved (to scientists if not to the skeptical Orthodox Church) that the remains found on the outskirts of Ekaterinburg were in fact those of the tsar and most of his family. Though the remains of one of the tsar’s daughters and his hemophiliac son, Alexis, have never been found, the Romanov burial in St. Petersburg in July 1998 (which Yeltsin attended) seemed to be a final resting moment for this family that saw so much upheaval and disgrace.

But is Boris Yeltsin haunted by the very ghosts of this family that he has lately worked so hard to rehabilitate? 

Those ghosts began their journey through history with the marriage of Anastasia Romanova to Tsar Ivan the Terrible in 1547. When Anastasia died a decade and a half later, some historians say, she left a psychologically devastated husband whose “good” reign soon gave way to the instability and irrationality of his “terrible” reign in which he tried to quit his post, married half a dozen more times, and killed his only legitimate and capable heir. Ivan the Terrible had come to power at the end of two centuries of essentially unbroken rule by long-lived Muscovite leaders and their sons. The murder of the Young Ivan by his father left the country in the hands of Fyodor, Ivan the Terrible’s feeble-minded second son. Fyodor spent his fourteen years as tsar controlled by his power-hungry brother-in-law, the ambitious Boris Godunov, who had craftily married his sister, Irina, to Fyodor and ran the show from behind the throne. 

It was 400 years ago, an inauspicious anniversary for Russia, that Fyodor died. Russia tumbled into what Russians call, with the irony that only they—the most enduring of all people—can fully comprehend, the Time of Troubles. The next fifteen years included an almost comical succession of pretenders and usurpers that led from the idiot Fyodor to the Machiavellian Boris Godunov to the bizarre spectacle of the False Dmitri is (who each claimed to be the illegitimate son of Ivan the Terrible) and the opportunistic boyar Vasilii Shuiskii.  

Finally, in 1612, a council of oligarchic boyars, desperate for stability and stature both inside Russia and in the broader world community (such as they knew it), handed over the tsardom to a teenager, Mikhail Romanov. Mikhail’s family ties back to Anastasia Romanova—he was her grand-nephew—gave him dynastic credibility, and his several single sisters gave him considerable cachet in a tight world of family politics. Within a few years, the family’s control was strengthened when his father was named the patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church. 

The Romanov family, however, would not settle even then into the clean line of primogeniture that had once allowed Moscow to develop into the national center that it was. The two “Greats”—Peter and Catherine—were not the first-born of any tsar and were in reality usurpers to the throne. In the late seventeenth century, Peter’s mother and her advisors brokered a deal that allowed her physically gifted and energetic son to share power with his older half-brother, Ivan V, the more rightful heir to the throne. By the time Peter was seventeen, he had defeated his half-brother as well as his savvy and powerful half-sister, Sophia, to become tsar.  

It was, in fact, Peter’s rejection of Moscow politics and the legacy of his own Romanov blood that led him to abandon Moscow and build his northern capital, St. Petersburg, on the Gulf of Finland. Peter, like his haunted predecessor Ivan, committed the ultimate act of dynastic betrayal when he sent his own son to jail, where he later died. Peter the Great was succeeded by his second wife, Catherine I, an uneducated Livonian peasant woman who died without a male heir two years later. The almighty Russian Empire was then handed over to a twelve-year old boy, Peter the Great’s grandson Peter II, who was himself dead of smallpox by the age of 15. 

Catherine the Great’s ascent to the Romanov throne in 1762 was more disruptive still. She was little more than a minor German princess when she was married well up the European royal ladder to the ineffectual Peter III, another of Peter the Great’s grandsons, and moved to Moscow. After years of building a network of friends, lovers, and co-conspirators who toppled and ultimately killed her estranged husband, Catherine II took control of the country with vengeance and held power for nearly thirty-five years. A despot in monarch’s clothing, Catherine loved to show off her supposed European enlightenment and her appreciation for Montesquieu and Rousseau, while simultaneously doling out huge tracts of land and serfs to her favorites and lovers. Whether her son, Paul I (and therefore any of his royal descendants), even had any Romanov blood in him may be the greatest Russian mystery of them all; his son Alexander I certainly had his grandmother’s blood, though, as he too worked with a band of co-conspirators to topple and (unbeknownst to Alexander until later) kill his father in 1801.  

 

Modern lore has tried to turn the later Romanovs into something very different from the tortured, dysfunctional family that they were. These weren’t the treacly Nicky and family of Fox Animation’s mispronounced (and historically misguided) “Anastasia,” nor the demons of capitalism that Lenin and his revolutionary cronies condemned to the ash heap of history. They were, instead, the guardians of a disconnected and inept autocracy that still plays itself out in today’s Moscow. These were the last members of a badly bastardized family dynasty, one that clung to its own definition of power long after it was politically or historically sensible to do so. The curse of the Romanovs—the same curse that has twisted and turned Russia through four and a half centuries of “troubles”—has followed the leaders of the world’s largest country right up to today.  

Boris Yeltsin, a one-time Communist Politburo member in the old Soviet Union, was a grand hero in 1991, the apparent savior of Mother Russia from the desperate grabbings of the neo-Brezhnevites who had soured on Mikhail Gorbachev’s reforms. But he was (and is) no democrat: he controlled the media and bought his way to re-election in 1996 so blatantly and shamelessly that even Mayor Richard Daley the First’s Chicago would have shuddered. His yo-yo political alliances with General Alexander Lebed and former Prime Minister Victor Chernomyrdin—and the outright dismissal of two entire cabinets within six months of each other last year—have been machinations and manipulations of the democratic system, not honest uses of it.  

Now, at age sixty-seven, his reluctance to reject the trappings of autocracy have brought him and his country to a precarious economic and political precipice. Yeltsin has no son or husband to imprison or kill, though his attempts to destroy his fragile post-communist government sometimes seem just as dangerous. Whether he can assist an able successor to take control of Russia from his sickly hands may well be Yeltsin’s final legacy. 

Certainly as Russia marches towards its parliamentary elections in December 1999 and its presidential elections in June 2000, all eyes are on the potential successors to Yeltsin. It is hard to imagine, though, such dry and colorless candidates as Prime Minister Primakov or the ousted former Prime Minister Kiriyenko providing any of the dynamic theater of the current president. For better or worse, Yeltsin—even a hobbled Yeltsin—has been the only real political show in Moscow, and even an aggressive and populist candidate like Siberian governor Alexander Lebed cannot match Yeltsin’s essentially Russian charm. Smooth transitions have not been Russia’s hallmark, and the current climate in Russia promises little improvement in that respect; still, power must be passed from Yeltsin to a different president next year, and this alone should signal the beginning of a new era. After half a millennium of political upheaval, may this finally be the era of stability the Russians have long craved.  


 



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