Sorry for the recent silence. I have been terribly busy with anti-war meetings in Edinburgh and Glasgow at the weekend, and then to Dundee for a University Court meeting on Monday, with lots of pre- and post-consultations. Got back home at 1.30am Tuesday (because the University values its Rector so highly it insists he travels Easyjet). Then quite literally up all night dealing with correspondence, and an 08.55 flight from Heathrow. Now blogging from Moscow.
Couldn’t resist the chance to mingle with the crowds at Yeltsin’s funeral. Astonished by how pinched and old Clinton looks – George Bush senior appears hale. The UK sends the Z team – Prince Andrew and John Major. Not so much damning with faint praise, as faint greys.
I am impressed by the many thousands of Muscovites, filing past the coffin all night and lining the short funeral route. I vox pop the funeral crowds, who are of course a self-selecting biased sample, but the Western media seems rather too glibly to accept the line from the state controlled Russian media that Yeltsin’s mistakes are remembered more than his achievements. At night I wander down to the White House and look at the cars whizzing past, over the spot where he climbed on the armoured vehicle (not actually a tank) to save Russian democracy and prevent the restoration of Soviet dictatorship. John Major is not really inappropriate as a mourner, because he had been speaking to Yeltsin from London moments before he did that. It is worth remembering that the troops had opened fire. Major says Yeltsin genuinely thought he would die then.
The media talk of Yeltsin as Russia’s first democratic President. I fear “only” might be a better word than first. Certainly mistakes were made in the uncontrolled rush to capitalism, as Abramovich and his like looted the country. It was done much better in Central Europe, with voucher schemes and other ways to get some immediate benefit to ordinary people. But hindsight is a wonderful thing, and it must not be forgotten how fragile the new Russian revolution was, and how real at first was the fear of Soviet reurgence. There was reason to hurry.
That does not excuse the ensuing creation of robber barons or Yeltsin’s decline into a drunken, jovial tool of corruption. But he had many decent human qualities, one of which was a lack of arrogance. Nobody noticed his resignation as President because it was the Millenium and we were all getting pissed. But he apologised to the Russian people for his mistakes, and especially the Chechen war. Do not expect Blair to follow.
Outside the White House is a girl with short blonde hair carrying two red roses. She too is looking at the road and thnking of Yeltsin. I point out that with today’s traffic, the army would never have got there. She has tears in her eyes – “He gave us our freedom”. She is bitterly amused that the only other person who thought to go to the White House on this evening is a passing Scot. I tell her she looks too young to remember all this. She says she was in her first year at Unversity when he resigned. But she remembers the White House, as a child. “He used to be handsome”.
We go for a pizza – thus adding a new tactic to my range of pick-up techniques. In the “Golden Drum” pub, the consensus is that at least Yeltsin ended Gorbachev’s anti-alcohol drive. His memory fades in a night of beer and vodka. Perhaps he wouldn’t mind that.