Earlier this week we brought you the first part of an interview with the historian, Robert Service. This is the concluding part, bringing us up to the present day. Josh Black and Giovanni Cadioli conducted the the interview.
You’ve written that Yeltsin was “not a strategic thinker. In fact, he was not much of a thinker at all.” But should we appreciate his role more generously?
Those who are fond of Gorbachev often ridicule Yeltsin, but they underestimate the challenges faced by the Russian economy and ignore the fact that Gorbachev was unable to face up to those challenges.
Gorbachev actually said at one point, “if we privatise the land, it would set off the same violence as accompanied collectivisation.” So it wasn’t just political judgement but doctrine that held him back. Yeltsin had the courage and the intuition – he did it in a very ham-fisted way, but he did it and his achievements should not be underestimated.
It has been said that Yeltsin’s government ushered in an oligarchy but you object to the term. Why is that?
Well, it’s a technical question as to what is meant by an oligarchy. I don’t think that the businessmen were actually ruling Russia because the politicians were dealing with questions of foreign or cultural policy about which the ‘oligarchs’ were either indifferent or had no influence.
Berezovsky boasted that he ruled Russia, and that has entered the media discourse but it’s seriously misleading. My guess is that, had Yeltsin lived a longer, healthier and more sober life, he would have turned on the oligarchs in the same way that Putin has. He wasn’t a forgiving person.
You were an expert witness in the trial between Berezovsky and Roman Abramovich. What do you think the wider significance of that case was?
It was a sign of the times inasmuch as legal business that couldn’t safely be conducted in Moscow was exported to the London courts and big questions of property rights and fair practice were at stake.
Forty per cent of business in the commercial High Court is now connected to the former Soviet Union connected. It’s sad that the Russians can’t do it in their own country but it’s indicative that the leading figures want a more moderate way of settling disputes than they had in the 1990s. In that sense it was very significant.
The question of whether this was an oligarchy was a bone of contention when I was being cross-examined. I asked the judge to stop the trial so that I could explain my views on this, and I wagged my finger at the counsel when he used the term again.
You’ve written that, at the beginning of the Putin years, Russia was a chariot being pulled in an uncertain direction by wild horses. Do you think that’s still true after thirteen years of Putin?
It’s still a pretty wild set of horses being driven down a cul-de-sac. In the original description by Nikolai Gogol, these horses are running in the open. The tragedy for Russia is that ‘Sovereign Democracy’ is bound to fail – the idea that it is going to pull Russia alongside the Asian Tigers is seriously mistaken.
Some ministers, including Dmitri Medvedev [former-President and current-Prime Minister] recognised this, but no one has done anything serious about releasing the resources and the human capital to bring about change. A historic chance has been lost.
There was a new orderliness when Putin came to power. A lot of that process has been attributed to his personal charisma and too little to the tremendous advantage he has been given by the rocketing oil price on world markets.
Just as Yeltsin has been underestimated, Putin has been overestimated. He does have something to fear and under the surface I think there is the potential for trouble in Russia.
What do you think the next steps for historians of Russia or the Soviet Union might be?
There are lots of areas that have been largely neglected by historians over the years. The 1920s and 1970s have been shunted to the sidelines, and many questions of national, social and local history have been overlooked.
I thought when I was doing my doctorate that there would soon be a whole series of local histories – about Saratov or one of the other cities or villages. Only a few exceptional books have been written on local histories.
If you were to recommend a handful of books for a new student of Russian and Eastern European Studies?
I think I would start with some imaginative literature… Bulgakov’s Master and Margarita, Blok’s The Twelve. Delve into the classics. Listen to Shostakovich.
For non-fiction, I would recommend memoirs; Mandelstam’s account of life with the poets, The Gulag Archipelago and perhaps Into the Whirlwind.
Professor Service, thank you.