A Look in History’s Mirror

Dear Strobe,

I read your book as if it were a detective novel—I was unable to put it down until late in the night, picked it up again first thing in the morning, and didn’t stop until I had finished. This isn’t just because it is well-written (which it is) but because for 10 years I watched, and sometimes wrote about, many of the incidents you describe—albeit from the perspective of someone working in Russia, not someone managing U.S. policy to Russia. Reading your version of events felt like looking at the past in a mirror. In a few cases, I discovered that my past perception of events had been wrong. I was bemused to discover, for example, that it was you and not Al Gore (as I had incorrectly surmised) who came up with the phrase “Russia needs less shock and more therapy” at a critical moment in 1993. At the time, there had in fact been no deep economic reform in Russia at all—that is, there had been no “shock” as there had been in Poland a few years earlier. Gore’s phrase (your phrase) seemed to me emblematic of an administration determined to spend millions supporting a “Russian capitalist system” that didn’t yet exist.

Now, of course, I know it was a diplomatic slip of the tongue, which, you write, you spent most of your Christmas holidays trying to retract: “My explanations never caught up with the original sound bite and the furor it caused.” Or, in the words of your colleague Leon Fuerth, “Loose quips sink dips.”

In other cases, however, I learned that I had guessed right about what was going on in all of those private meetings in Kremlin palaces. As you must know, the centerpiece of your book is its account of the fascinating relationship between Bill Clinton and Boris Yeltsin, two men who couldn’t be more different yet appear to have identified with one another. Clinton even uses language about Yeltsin that he could easily have used about himself. “The thing about Yeltsin that I really like,” Clinton says at one point, “is that he’s not a Russian bureaucrat. He’s an Irish poet. He sees politics as a novel that he’s writing or a symphony that he’s composing. That’s one of the things that draws me to him.”

In its way, it was an admirable and unique partnership—although (intentionally or not) I think you also reveal how naive it was. Clinton appears to have accepted Yeltsin at face value: as a bona fide democrat who wanted his country to join Western institutions and the global marketplace. Yet while I don’t want to knock Yeltsin’s very real political achievements, he did also fire on his own parliament and launch the first Chechen war (which you argue the United States ought to have condemned more vociferously). Far more important, he also presided over the criminalization of the Russian economy and a “privatization” process that amounted to outright theft of billions of dollars worth of state assets—hardly the return to the “rule of law” that American Yeltsin-boosters claimed to be backing.

To those Russians who didn’t participate in this massive swindle, the very name of the first Russian president is associated with the decay of Russia’s institutions, with the deterioration of public services, and with their own impoverishment. After a while, Clinton’s personal support for Yeltsin also began to look like American support for the massively crooked system Yeltsin created: To this day, many Russians don’t distinguish between “democracy” and “corruption” and the “United States of America,” figuring them all to add up to much the same thing. Similarly, the word “capitalism” does not connote economic freedom and prosperity in Russia, but rather poverty and crime—even though Yeltsin’s oligarchic, state- and monopoly-dominated system was a far cry from what we think of as “capitalism” in the United States.

You treat the question of corruption very lightly in your book—which is why I began to wonder, at a certain point, about the president’s real motivations. Was he really supporting the formation of “democratic values” in Russia, as he so often claimed to be—and if so, why was he wholeheartedly backing a man who so often veered far away from them? Or was he supporting the man who happened to be in power in Russia, just as every American administration has done since the war, in the name of stability?

Yours, Anna Applebaum

Scroll to Top