As the mid-term election results come through in the USA it is evident that Obama has had a kicking. Not as hard a kicking as some had predicted, but that doesn’t make the pain any easier to bear for him and his party.
But, while the western news has focused on the latest unravelling of the American Dream, another event has hardly figured in the western media (as far as I can see at a cursory glance): Viktor Chernomyrdin has died at the age of 72. He was Acting President of Russia for less than 24 hours (5-6 November 1996) while Boris Yeltsin got his act together, was Prime Minister of Russia from 1992-98, and served as Russian Ambassador to the Ukraine from 2001-09. He then became a Presidential Adviser.
Chernomyrdin is the latest of a generation of people who grew up in the Soviet Union as Marxist-Leninists, became free market capitalists overnight while retaining power and shaping the next generation. What is usually missed out of such a judgement is that these were also the guys who – despite the rather startling volte-faces, quick-and-easy changes of radical conviction, and evident corruptions – managed the phenomenal changes brought about by the end of the Cold war and the collapse of Communism.
We know the end of the story; they did not. They created their new world without knowing whether or not it would work or simply condemn them to more misery. Which simply goes to show that even the weirdest examples of human inconsistency can also exhibit courage, noble determination, vision and political skill. Kazakhstan would not be where it is if it had not been for the vision, skill and determination of Nursultan Nazarbayev – even if there are huge questions about how he did it and why.
Populations are fickle. America has not seen all its problems solved in two years (during which the banking system brought the world to its collective knees… in the wrong sense). We don’t do long-term, do we? We complain that politicians are short-term thinkers, but we don’t allow them any long-term space for bringing real change. The American culture of instant gratification bites again. But, it isn’t possible in democratic America to do what Chernomyrdin’s generation did with steely determination in the former Soviet Union – democracy means more than giving people a vote, after all..
Anyway, the best thing about Chernomyrdin was his ‘skill’ with words. He was famous for his gnarled language and my favourite saying of his was:
Better to be the head of a fly than the buttocks for an elephant.
Surely this would have been worthy of an Eric Cantona or a Rafa Benitez? In a funny sort of way, it does describe what many in the old Soviet Union were trying to do: mutate from one to the other. If you see what I mean. Big is not always best…
Yeltsin has gone and now Chernomyrdin has followed him to the grave. Their generation will not survive for much longer. Amid all the critiques of such a flawed politicial elite I hope there will be room for some appreciation of those who, with limited vision and even more limited experience, tried to change their world. They didn’t get everything right; but they didn’t get everything wrong either.