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By John Helmer in Moscow

If life were a circus, then the only reason a contemplative man would walk behind an elephant in a ring, wielding bucket and shovel, would be for the money, not for the laughs.

John Lloyd, a onetime Moscow correspondent of the Financial Times, has made many of his colleagues and readers laugh at him. But it was his eulogy upon the death of ex-President Boris Yeltsin, just published by the Financial Times, that has been convincing. Lloyd hasn’t been clowning all this time for laughs. He’s been putting shit in a bucket for the money.

And good money it was, certainly when his then wife headed the Moscow office of a well-known English law firm, and Lloyd filled his Moscow despatches with tales of the good fortune falling from the parapets of the Kremlin for her clientele. There was the odd and embarrassing pratfall; the time, for example, when Lloyd reported, and the FT printed, that Yegor Gaidar had been voted in as prime minister, when that favourite of Lloyd, his wife’s law firm, and the FT had in fact been trounced by Victor Chernomyrdin. Thus did Gaidar’s high political career end – in retrospect, we can now say, for good – while Lloyd was telling the FT audience the reverse.

Lloyd was so convinced that what was right for him had happened to Russia that he forgot to check what had actually happened. He still makes that mistake, blaming dead Yeltsin for the failure that all Russia judges Gaidar to have been, and to be.

“Yeltsin gave the radicals strong protection at first,” writes Lloyd, “but later distanced himself, and often ruined their plans by making unchallengeable promises of subsidies or tax reliefs.” Not even Polunin, the greatest of all living Russian clowns, could inflate that balloon, the one of “tax reliefs”, and blame Yeltsin for inflating it over Gaidar’s objections. What a preposterous joke!

And then Gaidar appears again, with Lloyd close behind with his bucket. Here is how the armed destruction of the Russian parliament, ordered by Yeltsin, appears to Lloyd in his elegy: “In 1993 the Supreme Soviet, an institution inherited from the Soviet period, was increasingly challenging his right to govern. It had forced the resignation of Yegor Gaidar, neutered much reform and carried defiance to the point where a civil war threatened. Yeltsin dissolved the assembly, surrounded it with troops when it refused to disband and ordered tanks in to force its submission after a few hours’ shelling. He then carried a constitution via a referendum and promulgated decrees to underpin the market system.”

Never mind the popular ballots that elected the deputies; nor the constitutional division of power which Yeltsin refused to accept; nor the invention of “civil war”. Never mind that the Yeltsin constitution failed to carry, and was enacted by a vote jerrymandered at the last minute. The Supreme Soviet deserved to be shelled for “a few hours”, because it had voted no confidence in Lloyd’s pal, Gaidar.

Wishful thinking is such a laughable habit that Lloyd can eulogise upon the corpse of Yeltsin that “he combined the Stalinist virtues of dedicated work and leadership with a streak of self-reliant defiance of higher authority, when he felt it to be abusive.” What did Yeltsin do when he faced a self-reliant defiance of his authority – in parliament, in Chechnya? He went to war, inflicting more lethal violence on his own people than anyone since Stalin himself.

Well, history has a peculiar way of disinterring bones, and burying the good that men do. In the time of kings and queens, jokers could make a good, if precarious living. But when the sovereign breathed his last, the jester’s jokes were all forgotten.

It has been up to the French to judge whether Marshal Philippe Petain was a traitor in front of Hitler, and similarly up to the Norwegians for their prime minister Vitkun Quisling. Both were convicted and sentenced to be shot; Quisling was. Let’s leave to the Russians, when they mature, what they think Yeltsin deserves; although by dying of natural causes this week, he’s escaped the worst. So far, there are no statues of him to pull down.

Yeltsin does leave behind a notoriously rapacious family, and many corruptly enriched hangers-on, whose subsequent fate will be interesting to watch. Lloyd’s red nose and windy verbiage cannot camouflage the fact that, in following after Yeltsin and Gaidar, he’s been following the clowns all these years, and picking up the wrong shit. The real elephants of Russia have been elsewhere, and Lloyd, along with his editors, have missed them entirely.

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