Boris Yeltsin, who died on Monday at the age of 76 in Russia, was the country’s first freely elected President and on the whole he did a good job. There will be many who remember him in a less favorable light, but the truth is that he opened up Russia and created a spirit of good will between our two countries which had not been seen on that scale before, nor, really, since.
While he embraced democracy and the opening of a free market economy, he also presided at a time of the Soviet Union’s demise and the formation of their individual states. The Associated Press reported that Yeltsin “was a contradictory figure, rocketing to popularity in the Communist era on pledges to fight corruption…” Yet he is often accused of turning a blind eye to the private sector as it went about the job of grabbing state industries as they were privatized.
But Yeltsin, the A.P. said, “made a great debut as President of Russia. He introduced many basics of democracy, guaranteeing the rights of free speech, private property and multi-party elections, and the opening of borders to trade and travel.”
These were no small accomplishments and to navigate the waters between the old ways of the Communist state and the new methods of the suddenly “democratic” Russia took skill and daring.
He was a product of the ‘90’s. He came to office in 1989-90, and left nine years later following a New Year’s address as the millennium arrived.
In his 1994 memoir, “The Struggle for Russia,” Yeltsin writes of his terrible bouts with depression and the “hurt from people close to me who did not support me at the last minute or didn’t hold up, who deceived me. I have had to bear all this.”
Perhaps his was the solitary iron strength Russia needed to withstand the blasts of freedoms winds upon her soil. While there was much ineptitude in Yeltsin’s administration, there was also a determination that said freedom would no longer be put off. He often played his advisors off against each other and made sure that they never amassed too much power lest they challenge him.
Yeltsin was directly responsible for the adoption of a new Constitution. Part of the new agreements in the constitution called for a strong Presidency so much so that Yeltsin was able to fend off almost all parliamentary challenges.
“New democratic Russia was born, a free-state open to the world; a state in which power truly belongs to the people,” said current Russian President Vladimir Putin regarding Yeltsin’s administration. That is probably over-stating it a bit given the true nature of Putin’s grasp upon Russia’s and her current freedoms which give anything but power to the people.
However, Yeltsin did everything he could to wreck what was left of the Soviet’s totalitarian regime and in the process he was really able to force open the closed nature of the Russian society, slamming it headlong into a new century. He admitted years later that he pushed too hard and too fast. Early on he launched an economic-reform program; while it freed up prices, it also sent them soaring, wiping out many people’s savings. Inflation indeed sky-rocketed while production dwindled.
In his televised resignation speech in 1999, he said: “I ask forgiveness for not justifying some hopes of those people who believed that at one stroke, in one spurt, we could leap from the gray, stagnant totalitarian past into the light, rich civilized future….I myself believed in this that we could overcome everything in one spurt.”
Yeltsin was certainly no push-over for peace, however. There was a frequent complaint that he was too willing to use force and too tolerant of corruption.
As U.S. Secretary of Defense Bob Gates pointed out “No Americans, at least, will forget seeing him standing on the tank outside the White House (The Russian parliament building) resisting the coup attempt.” That was when Communist-hard liners tried to roll the country back in time to the good old party days. They tried to overthrow Gorbachev and roll back democratic reforms but Yeltsin took on a martyr’s role: in a great public relations image, he stood atop a tank, rallying resistance to the coup. He won that battle and then spearheaded the peaceful end of the Soviet state on Dec. 25, 1991.
Yeltsin was unorthodox and he was not an administrator, but he was first a figure head, the image of the burly bear, the Russian strong man. Yet, his politics fit the time. On social issues, he was liberal and open which pleased the people. In issues of political disputes, however, Yeltsin was more brutal. He sent in his military in October, 1993 to drive armed hard line backers of the hostile Russian parliament out of the building after they sparked violence on the streets of Moscow. In the Chechnya conflict, Yeltsin launched a war against the separatists there. Nothing was solved except that tens of thousands of lives were lost, and the Russian army had to leave in defeat and humiliation. One hopes this is not to be the fate awaiting America now in Iraq.
In any event, by 1996, it certainly seemed that Yeltsin would not be re-elected as the President. He was too worn out, unpopular and unhealthy looking in many ways. He appeared to be drunk or on medications a great deal of the time and he literally lurched on the public stages if he was there at all.
Yet, he rallied, not unlike Richard Nixon in this country and managed to win over the media and the oligarchs — the new and young wealthy class. But like Nixon in ’72, after the win came the real pain.
Quintuple heart surgery in November, 1996 spelled the beginning of a downward spiral that saw Yeltsin doing less and less. But, in point of fact, his work was basically accomplished simply in holding, just by his presence, the semblance of order in a chaotic restructuring of the entire Soviet Union. By pushing for the liberties afforded a democracy, he set a course for Russia to compete as a modern nation in the 21st Century. By giving more liberty to the individual citizen, Yeltsin recognized the superiority of the Western system and the need for his people to accept and “catch-up.” In spite of all his faults, Boris was a strongman who fought off the old guard and held the fort long enough for the concept of democracy to take seed.