It was a few days after the start of the new millennium, and the U.S. Embassy in Moscow was holding a reception at Spaso House, for decades the elegant residence of the American ambassador. Russia’s tumultuous Boris Yeltsin era had come to an abrupt, shocking end on New Year’s Day, when the Russian president who had brought down the Soviet Union and turned his country into a chaotic, fledgling democracy announced his resignation. His successor was the man he had named his prime minister just four months earlier, a man barely known to most Russians, let alone to the outside world: former KGB officer Vladimir Putin. As Jim Collins, a soft-spoken career diplomat who was then the U.S. ambassador to Russia, made the rounds at that reception, querying guests as to what they thought of the dramatic shift atop the Kremlin, the overwhelming sentiment was relief. The Yeltsin era, which had begun with so much promise, had turned into a shambolic, deeply corrupt dystopia.
Yeltsin, who had burst to prominence with a burly energy—his climb atop a tank in central Moscow to turn back revanchists who sought to save the Soviet dictatorship is one of the iconic moments of the Cold War’s end—had become chronically ill and increasingly fond of his vodka. A group of politically connected businessmen had raped the country economically and spirited most of their gains offshore. Its budget was busted, its civil servants unpaid. (I did a story then about a colonel in the Soviet Rocket Forces who killed himself because he could not afford to throw his wife a birthday party.) The once mighty—and mightily effective—KGB had to watch its best officers go off to work for private businessmen, leaving the state security services demoralized and increasingly corrupt. Russia was in chaos.
Collins listened to the various opinions offered and then offered his own. “They need someone,” he said, “who can get control of this place.” In other words, he too was relieved that Yeltsin was gone.
Full Article: Inside Putin’s Campaign to Destroy U.S. Democracy.