Boris Yeltsin

4 minute read
Adi Ignatius

Boris Yeltsin didn’t often speak with foreign journalists, and when he did, it was obvious he couldn’t stand us.

In 1993, as Yeltsin hit the campaign trail before a referendum on his leadership, I spent days trying to get close to the Russian President. Finally, in the bleak coal-mining region of Kuzbass, I slipped past his bodyguards and stood face to face with Russia’s most perplexing figure–the leader who promised reform but later opened fire on his own Parliament, the man on whom the U.S. put all its chips even as Moscow handed the country’s assets to a new class of kleptocrats, the man of the people who would become a man of the bottle.

I began with a simple question: Did he think he would win? To most politicians, it would have been a welcome softball. But nothing came easy to Russia’s tortured leader. “I’m a President,” he sputtered, “not a fortune-teller.” And off he stormed.

He won that referendum but ultimately became a failed President, a point affirmed at the end of 1999 when he suddenly announced that Vladimir Putin, a former KGB man from Leningrad and Yeltsin’s Prime Minister, would take over. In the final, pathetic chapter, Yeltsin evidently agreed to vanish from the political scene as long as Putin didn’t pursue corruption cases against him. Putin then undid much of what Yeltsin had accomplished–tolerance (usually) of a free press, for example–and began to mold a Russia that is stronger, surer of itself yet more like the unforgiving Soviet state. Russia is still corrupt, but Putin has rekindled Russians’ nostalgia for greatness. His popularity ratings are about 60%. Yeltsin retired quietly to his dacha outside Moscow and died last Monday, seemingly forgotten.

Yeltsin was a unique political mix. He combined a folksy, Reaganesque simplicity with a Nixonian sense of political intrigue (and paranoia) plus a tendency toward accidents that recalled Gerald Ford. On one occasion he was too drunk to leave his plane for a planned meeting with Ireland’s Prime Minister–even though, I was told, aides slapped him to bring him to consciousness.

But Yeltsin had moments that made one believe Russia could shed its authoritarian shackles. His defining moment was in August 1991. While Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev was summering in the Crimea, dark forces opposed to Gorbachev and his stop-start reforms tried to stage a coup. Yeltsin’s political instincts were still sharp, and he raced to the scene, outside Russia’s White House. He climbed atop a tank and urged defiance. The putsch failed. Gorby returned to Moscow, but when he declared his unshaken faith in the Soviet state, Russia was Yeltsin’s. By Christmas, the U.S.S.R. was done. An era of change had begun.

The promise soon faded. Yeltsin and his team pushed reforms, and the halls of power were filled with M.B.A.s and Harvard types advising on stock markets and political reform. But nothing worked. A rapid-economic-development plan of “shock therapy” delivered shock but no therapy. Russia got more corrupt. It launched a war in Chechnya. It careened from crisis to crisis.

Things came to a head in 1993, when Yeltsin suspended Parliament and called for new elections. When foes in the legislature armed themselves and refused to leave, then spilled out violently into the streets, Yeltsin brought in the tanks. I remember watching from a rooftop across the street as shell after shell was fired into Russia’s highest legislative body. In the name of democracy, Russia’s President had suspended, and now was bombing, his Parliament. And the West mostly went along, convinced that it was necessary to support this flawed leader because the alternatives seemed far worse. Civil war was narrowly avoided. But greatness would elude Yeltsin ever after.

In his finest moments, Yeltsin showed a side of Russia that the West could believe in, a Russia that shared the West’s values and interests. The irony is that Yeltsin’s more enduring legacy may be that he delivered a weak nation to a successor who is fashioning once again a Russia that is a threat to the West.

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