April 23, 2007


Boris Yeltsin, flawed hero with a giant legacy, dies at 76 (Marilyn Berger, April 23, 2007, International Herald Tribune)

Yeltsin left a giant, if flawed, legacy. He was at once the country's democratic father and a reviled figure blamed for most of the ills and hardships that followed the Soviet collapse. Mikhail Gorbachev, his last Soviet predecessor and sometime rival for power, told the Interfax news agency that Yeltsin was one "on whose shoulders rest major events for the good of the country, and serious mistakes."

Although Yeltsin's commitment to reform wavered, he eliminated government censorship of the press, tolerated public criticism and steered Russia toward a free market. The rapid privatization of industry led to a form of buccaneer capitalism, and a new class of oligarchs usurped political power as they plundered the country's resources, but Yeltsin's actions assured that there would be no turning back to the centralized Soviet command economy that had strangled growth and reduced a country populated by talented and cultured people and rich in natural resources to a beggar among nations.

Not least, Yeltsin was instrumental in dismembering the Soviet Union and allowing its former republics to make their way as independent states.

The Yeltsin era effectively began in August 1991, when he clambered atop a tank to rally Muscovites to put down a right-wing coup against Gorbachev, a heroic moment etched in the minds of the Russian people and television viewers all over the world; it ended with his electrifying resignation speech on New Year's Eve 1999, surprising the world.

These were Yeltsin's finest hours, in an era marked by extraordinary political change as well as painful economic dislocation for many of his countrymen and stupendous wealth for a privileged few.

To turn around the battleship that was the Soviet Union, with its bloated military-industrial establishment, its ravaged economy, its devastated environment and its antiquated and inefficient health and social services system, would have been a Herculean task for any leader in the prime of life and the best of health. But in Russia, the job of building a new state from the ashes of the old was taken on by Yeltsin, the dedicated but imperfect reformer, a man in precarious health whose frequent mysterious disappearances from public life were attributed to heart and respiratory problems, excessive drinking and bouts of depression. These personal weaknesses left a sense of lost opportunity.

Yeltsin left with his fondest wish for the Russian people only partly fulfilled. "I want their lives to improve before my own eyes," he once said, remembering the hardship of growing up in a single room in a cold communal hut, "that is the most important thing."

In fact, in the dislocation and chaos that accompanied the transition from the centralized economy he had inherited from the old Soviet Union, most people saw their circumstances deteriorate. Inflation became rampant, the poor became poorer, profiteers grew rich, the military and many state employees went unpaid and flagrant criminality flourished. Much of Russia's inheritance from the Soviet Union stubbornly endures.

Gorbachev had sought to preserve the Soviet Union and, with his programs of glasnost and perestroika, to give communism a more human dimension. Yeltsin, on the other hand, believed that democracy, the rule of law and the market were the answers to Russia's problems.

During a visit to the United States in 1989 he became more convinced than ever that Russia had been ruinously damaged by the centralized, state-run economic system where people stood in long lines to buy the most basic needs of life and more often than not found the shelves bare. He was overwhelmed by what he saw at a Houston supermarket, by the kaleidoscopic variety of meats and vegetables available to ordinary Americans.

Gorbachev, of course, was a participant in the coup, not its target, but that sort of slip is emblematic of the Left's desire for him to be the hero of the story, lest Ronald Reagan get the credit for ending the USSR. Whatever his flaws, Boris Yeltsin grasped the big points about the End of History in a way that Gorbachev did not.

Boris Yeltsin, 1931-2007: A genuine man of transition. (Anne Applebaum, April 23, 2007, Slate)

It was October 1987, three weeks before the 70th anniversary of the Russian revolution. The Soviet elite had gathered in Moscow to mark the occasion. Following the customarily lengthy speech by the Communist Party general secretary, Mikhail Gorbachev, the chairman asked if anyone wanted to respond.

Unexpectedly, Boris Yeltsin, then the Moscow party boss, came to the rostrum. He spoke for a mere 10 minutes—and in that 10 minutes, he changed Russian history.

Reading that speech now, it's hard to see what the fuss was all about. Yeltsin complained that the party was lacking in "revolutionary spirit" and that the Soviet people were suffering from "disillusionment." The language was that of a party functionary, which is, of course, what Yeltsin was.

But then, unexpectedly, he resigned. And with that extraordinarily canny decision, he won instant notoriety: Never before had a Communist leader set himself up as a popular alternative to the Communist Party. Within days, half a dozen different versions of Yeltsin's speech were being sold on the streets of Moscow, their authors variously speculating that Yeltsin had condemned communism, had supported democracy, had attacked the privileges of the Communist leadership. Every person who felt dissatisfied—and there were many— believed that Yeltsin shared his views. Two decades later, in a far more cynical Russia, this mood is hard to remember. But in the late 1980s, Yeltsin was wildly popular. When the first presidential elections were held in Russia in 1991, it was inevitable that he would win.

Indeed, Gorbachev's coup was aimed at thwarting Yeltsin's rise and stopping the dissolution of the Empire.

Russia’s U.S. Grant: Boris Yeltsin’s place in history. (Nikolas K. Gvosdev, 4/23/07, National Review)

He was the man who did more than any other to delegitimize the Communist Party and the Soviet system, the favored son who saw the errors of his ways and whose dramatic “repentance” (when he left the Communist Party of the Soviet Union in the summer of 1990 before the fate of the U.S.S.R. became clear) started the tidal wave that doomed Mikhail Gorbachev’s hopes of making the C.P.S.U. a kinder, gentler organ of power. It was Yeltsin, unlike Gorbachev, who was willing to stake his political career on the gamble of popular sovereignty, subjecting himself to election campaigns in 1989, 1990, 1991 and 1996. It was Yeltsin who brokered the arrangements that allowed a fractious and sometimes rancorous group of anti-Soviet deputies at both the U.S.S.R. Congress of People’s Deputies and the Russian Republican legislature to coalesce into a powerful pro-democracy movement, the man who could bring together dissident intellectuals, working-class union organizers, reform Communists and Russian nationalists into a common movement. And it was Yeltsin’s personal courage and public defiance which doomed the aborted coup attempt in August 1991.

Yeltsin was the man who collapsed the U.S.S.R., but he struggled with fashioning order out of the rubble.

Yeltsin: The man who beat Communism: He oversaw the USSR's death and the oligarchs' birth; his drunken antics are remembered as often as his bravery. (Mary Dejevsky, 24 April 2007, Independent)
It is the classic historian's question: do individuals or impersonal forces move nations? Anyone who saw Boris Yeltsin, as I did, descend the steps from the Russian parliament and clamber on to the tank to address a message of defiance to the small crowd of Muscovites below, will retain not a sliver of doubt. Individuals move nations - brave, foolhardy, strangely guileless individuals, such as Boris Nikolaevich Yeltsin.

That scene from 19 August 1991 is preserved in slow motion in my memory, as it must be in the memory of everyone who was there. That morning, Moscow seemed a zone of timeless uncertainty. A state of emergency had been declared before dawn. According to a clumsily formulaic announcement, the Soviet President, Mikhail Gorbachev, had been removed from power due to ill health. A committee had taken over and a state of emergency declared.

Tanks had rolled into Moscow amid the Monday morning rush-hour traffic and converged on strategic locations: the Kremlin, the KGB headquarters, the defence ministry and the White House, the cavernous building of the Russian parliament. Anticipating the paraphernalia of military coups, ID checks, barred roads, I decided for no particular reason, to make for the White House.

Armoured vehicles were positioned around the building. Diplomatic cars, whose arrival apparently predated the tanks, filled the car park. Then suddenly there was movement: a small group started to come down the steps. Yeltsin was in the centre; aides on either side seemed to be trying to dissuade him. He walked slowly and very deliberately, towards the tanks. A few pleasantries with the guards, and he was on the top, reading from a scrap of paper. "I do not accept this coup," was the crucial sentiment I remember now.

Until the world allowed itself to be diverted by the drunken buffoonery of Yeltsin's last years in office, this was the image that defined him. It is also his rightful legacy. Without Yeltsin's challenge, the coup against the Soviet President might have succeeded, the Soviet Union might have staggered on, with an increasingly fearful, and repressive, Politburo in charge.

Yeltsin called the plotters' bluff. He rallied the nation. He anathematised the Communist Party and pronounced it summarily dissolved. The bizarrely incompetent coup still had two full days and two agonisingly tense nights to come, but one man in Russia had refused to accept it. At the emergency committee's embarrassing press conference that afternoon, a few brave young Russian journalists followed suit. The sparse crowd outside the White House grew through the rainy evening, as people came after work intent on seeing the night through. Young men offered themselves to fight, swearing allegiance to Russia and its President on a Bible. Those were truly the days Soviet Communism was smashed. They were also the days when Russia was reborn.

Boris on a Pedestal: a review of Yeltsin: A Revolutionary Life, by Leon Aron (David Pryce-Jones, March 20, 2000, issue of National Review)
The evolution of Yeltsin from loyal ally of Gorbachev into deadly rival is open to several interpretations, to do with personality and the exploitation of opportunity through the lying and intrigues that the Communist system standardized for everyone. But the decisive factor, according to Aron, was Yeltsin's discovery in Moscow that perestroika and glasnost were beautiful but inapplicable ideas. Ordinary people, as Yeltsin was the first Communist leader ever to admit openly, led lives of helpless degradation, while party bosses were privileged thugs. Nothing could be done to change these extremes. Taking the unprecedented step of resigning from the Politburo in October 1987, Yeltsin became an instant folk hero and martyr.

Lenin had always maintained that the only real danger to Communism lay in factionalism. The moment the party ceased to speak in a single voice, its claim to absolute authority was open to challenge. To protect themselves against such an emergency, previous general secretaries would have had Yeltsin murdered or at least exiled. Gorbachev merely demoted him. This was also unprecedented, and a credit to Gorbachev's character. At the same time, the leniency of the response revealed that he completely misread the essential nature of Communism. The instrument of force alone guaranteed the party's supremacy, and the least attempt to moderate it- never mind genuine reform-led straight to confusion and chaos.

Virtually all observers had always agreed that, for human reasons, Communism was not sustainable in the long run; but the likely ending of the Soviet system in world war and apocalypse was too frightful to envisage. The introduction of a process of election to the Soviet and then the Russian parliaments proved to be all that was necessary. The process was partial, and rigged in several respects, but it was still enough to widen factionalism out into open politics. An alternative to the Communist monopoly of power was at hand. The merits of democratic procedure have rarely been so convincingly demonstrated.

Almost certainly, Yeltsin saw in these elections only the means to have his revenge on Gorbachev. Their mutual animosity had become obsessive and total. Nobody could predict who would win, or what the consequences might be for the losers. Anxious to be on the winning side, petrified by Stalinist memories of Siberia and worse, bureaucrats and generals and even the KGB suspended all decision-making until they knew which way to jump in safety. The state was paralyzed.

Far less intelligent than Gorbachev, Yeltsin won through tactical skill, daring, the support of Andrei Sakharov and the handful of like- minded reformers who understood what was at stake-and last but most importantly, luck. Unforeseeably, the coup of August 1991 enabled Yeltsin to seize the role of popular tribune and champion of liberty, standing on a tank for all the world to applaud and remember. The August conspirators well knew that force was the prime Communist instrument, and it is again inexplicable-the hand of fortune-that they did not make sure to kill Yeltsin. In the aftermath, he duly rubbished Gorbachev, dissolved the Communist party and the Soviet Union too, granting the national republics their freedom. What Gorbachev had begun unconsciously, Yeltsin finished consciously. It was in his interest to do so, but a wonderful feat all the same, and Aron is right to acclaim it.

Posted by Orrin Judd at April 23, 2007 2:57 PM

Gorbachev, of course, was a participant in the coup, not its target

Really? Never heard that particulat theory.

Posted by: PapayaSF at April 23, 2007 3:13 PM

The left is even worse than that. As true folk-enemies and culture-traitors, they pine for the lost motherland of socialism. The pages of, for example, The Nation, continue to mourn the death of the god that failed.

Posted by: Lou Gots at April 23, 2007 5:35 PM

Sure Lenny, lots of rabbits, courtesy of J. Steinbeck.

Posted by: erp at April 23, 2007 6:55 PM