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April 25, 2007

Yeltsin: Farewell to the Century
Posted by Heather Hurlburt

Russian Patriarch Alexy's statement for Boris Yeltsin's funeral today read, in part:

"The destiny of Boris Nikolayevich [Yeltsin] reflected the whole dramatic history of the 20th Century."

More than I've seen recognized, Yeltsin shaped the 20th century's end for his own country and much of what we think of our own country's birthright for the 21st century.

Of course that's true for Russia:  the man was born a peasant, lived through World War II, Stalin's purges and Khrushchev's thaw; came up through the Communist Party hierarchy to run a defense-industry city.  Then, brought to Moscow by Gorbachev to shake up a corrupt party hierarchy, he defied all expectations and let his reforming zeal run beyond his mentor's.  Forced out of first the Politburo and then the Communist Party in the late 1980s, his popularity only increased.  (At least two college friends of mine had honors theses on him fall apart when the man couldn't stay static long enough for a semester to run its course.)

In retrospect, the man had his own version of Cory Aquino's "people power" (another highlight of the late 1980s); he harnessed the fury of anti-corruption before Transparency International.

Yeltsin ought to be recognized as a global symbol of the 20th century, too; a child of World War II, his life story made possible by the revolutions of World War I, he thrived within the 20th century's great two-part clashes, then rose up from the Communist system to destroy it, break up the Soviet Union, dissolve the Warsaw Pact, reunite Germany, embrace Bill Clinton, and end the Cold War. (Jeff Laurenti makes the point nicely that Yeltsin's career reminds us that Ronald Reagan didn't as much win the Cold War for America as Russians won it for themselves.)

And then proved unable to build stably on the ruins.

He started the war in Chechnya, but tamped down violence elsewhere around the complex and troubled Soviet periphery.  He gave Russia freedom but could not keep order; with opportunity came a savage kleptocracy for which many poorer Russians will curse him for a generation.  A viewer could spend an hour watching YouTube clips of him on state visits, presumably drunk, falling down stairs or conducting foreign orchestras.  Yet he loved tennis, and one of his odder little legacies is Russia's current crop of top-ranked women tennis players.

Yeltsin's foibles were also utterly 20th century:  hard-drinking, uncouth, unpredictable, inalterably a man of the place and class from which he came.  (If you missed this reminiscence in the Washington Post, it gives a nice flavor.  No focus groups or foreign graduate schools or media training for him.

Much more than any appreciations I've seen of him have recognized, his greatest moments on the world stage were also some of America's greatest moments in my lifetime; and that should make us ask ourselves some questions.

Despite having left the Party, Yeltsin won the ceremonial post of Russian president (within the USSR) in 1990.  He used the post to build his popularity and push Gorbachev to move farther and faster on glas'nost (openness) and perestroika (rebuilding, restructuring).  Then in August 1991, a half-dozen generals and disgruntled hard-liners staged a coup.  Gorbachev was caught under house arrest on vacation in the south.

Yeltsin rushed to the square outside Russia's parliament and rallied the public from atop a tank.  After a few civilians were killed by Interior Ministry troops, but the crowds kept growing, the coup collapsed.

In the next two years, the Soviet Union itself would collapse and, with Yeltsin leading Russia, Germany would be reunited in NATO.

But a month later, when I went to Moscow for a human rights conference sponsored by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE, at the time the CSCE), I recall intense debate about whether it would be appropriate for a large US Congressional delegation to meet Yeltsin.  The delegation flew in from the Baltics, where there had quite recently been violence and killings of independence protestors by Soviet troops, via Georgia, where they had driven around the woods at night for clandestine meetings with Zviad Gamsakhurdia, who would soon head an independent Georgia, launch a conflict, and die in mysterious circumstances.

Steny Hoyer, to his everlasting credit, insisted the delegation meet Yeltsin, and so it did -- late at night, in an obscure office building, with lots of mysterious mumbo-jumbo and rushing outside to check who was there.  Gorbachev was the much-applauded public face of the conference.  But Yeltsin was confident.  And he was right.

What's my point?  The United States couldn't have had the 1990s we had -- couldn't have gotten used to the idea that we enjoy unchallenged world dominion and ought to into the future, couldn't have had the economic boom we did, couldn't have the high-tech military we do, couldn't have the degree of confidence we had before Iraq that we were always a force for good -- without Boris Yeltsin.


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It is difficult for any brief appreciation of so consequential a figure as Yeltsin to do justice to its subject. It will give him either too much credit or too little. I think Hurlburt here leans towards the former.

The critical thing for the United States and Russia was never that our President be able to hug their President, or that the practices of electoral democracy be encouraged in a country that wasn't ready for them. It was that the threat of nuclear annihilation be if not eliminated then at least greatly reduced. And this was Gorbachev's achievement -- one, incidentally, he shared with Reagan -- not Yeltsin's.

Yeltsin achieved what Gorbachev made possible. Gorbachev had the virtue of knowing who he was, a Soviet Communist, and the failing of incomprehension that Soviet Communism in his time was not sick but doomed. Yeltsin knew he opposed the Soviet elites who had opposed him, and the myriad obvious oppressions that Communism inflicted on ordinary Russians. But he had also been a Communist; admire though he did the wealth and freedoms of the West, Yeltsin no more than Gorbachev understood the foundation that had made them possible. He was ruthless -- more ruthless than Gorbachev had been -- in striking his enemies in the official Communist Party, but like Gorbachev he failed to see the necessity of pulling up Soviet Communism by the roots, beginning with ending the prohibition of private land ownership. Yeltsin in the end chose to expel his Communist enemies from power and change the Communist system from the top down, allowing Russians who had prospered in the old system to exploit the new. Gorbachev sought to go where he could not; Yeltsin succeeded to power, and then got lost.

This is not to underrate Yeltsin's accomplishments (it also, of course, does not consider the other great stain on Yeltsin's record, the Chechen war), but in the very largest terms Yeltsin failed to act on the truth that to be successful post-Communist Russia had to repudiate all of Communism, not just the parts that had little popular support. It must be said that he got little help from the West, and particularly from the American government, which during the 1990s preferred to base its relationship with Russia on its relationship with Yeltsin personally, and treat the Cold War period as just a really big misunderstanding. In the end, though, it was Yeltsin who having done as much as he knew how to do could not do enough to prevent the seeming democracy he had worked for from slipping away.

Points very well taken. Would it, though, have been possible for anyone in the Russian context to keep all the balls in the air... I think Russian history suggests rather not... and that being the case, look again at where he did succeed, and ask yourself how different the 1990s and '00s would look for us if he had made different choices for Russia. Saying his choices turned out well for the US is not necessarily the same thing as giving him "credit."

It is for me.

That response, though true, is also glib, or at least incomplete. I actually agree that asking a leader raised in a very distinct political culture to adapt in his late 50s and 60s to another is asking a lot. If Yeltsin had not done better than most other prominent Russians at recognizing the moment in 1991 for what it was there would have been no need for him to be on that tank. I also agree that there were many instances in that period where Yeltsin could have chosen to go one way or another with equal ease. That he usually chose to move in the direction of less state power, more freedom and more straightforward acknowledgment of the crimes of the Soviet past showed not only great courage but deep humanity.

My point is that it did not show understanding equal to the task Yeltsin faced -- by which I mean understanding both of how deep the evil inherent in Communism runs and of what a free society requires in order to endure. Yeltsin made changes but could not make them stick, and never seemed really to grasp why. Could another Russian, raised under Soviet Communism as Yeltsin was, have done better? It's a pertinent question. I don't know the answer. Looking forward, though, I think an appreciation of why Yeltsin failed is necessary to shape a correct view of Russia and our relations with her, just as an appreciation of his success illuminates what Russians at their best can do.

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