Boris Yeltsin, the first elected president of Russia in all its long history, died Monday at 76.
He may have been a flawed character, a leader who will leave an ambiguous legacy. Ultimately, however, as Leon Aron, author of “Yeltsin: A Revolutionary Life” and a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, wrote, “the leitmotif of Yeltsin’s political life … is likely to be the furtherance of liberty.”
The touchstone picture, of course, is Boris Yeltsin atop a tank on Aug. 19, 1991, standing up in the face of an attempted coup. The future of Russia was hanging in the balance as a coterie of hard-line communists tried to take over the liberalizing government Mikhail Gorbachev had spent several years establishing.
Showing great moral and physical courage, Yeltsin leapt atop a tank outside the Russian White House, which the coup leaders controlled, and rallied the people against them.
He could easily have been killed then, but he prevailed, and in December presided as president over the formal dissolution of the Soviet Union.
It is easy to forget — and younger people never knew — the sense of permanence and inevitability that surrounded the communist regime in the Soviet Union in the early 1980s. Gorbachev, who became first secretary of the Communist Party and premier in 1985, understood some of the weaknesses of the system and gently pushed perestroika (restructuring) and glasnost (openness), reforms designed to preserve the Soviet system.
But Boris Yeltsin, who had likewise come up through the Communist Party leadership system, became dissatisfied with the slow pace of Gorbachev’s reforms and eventually with communism itself, publicly quitting the party in 1990.
As Russia’s first elected president, Yeltsin voluntarily granted independence to Ukraine, which Russia had ruled for centuries. He institutionalized freedom of speech and of the press — it’s hard to imagine the still-unsolved murder, in 2006, of investigative journalist Anna Politovskaya during Yeltsin’s time — and presided over the first free, multicandidate elections in Russia’s history.
He began the process of liberating Russia’s economy from the death grip of total state control.
As Arnold Beichman, a research fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution said, Yeltsin was a larger-than-life character who “really opened up the Soviet Union, just as Vladimir Putin has begun to close Russia down.”
John G. Dunlop, monitor for Russian elections in 1995 and 1996, said Yeltsin’s first term — right up to the invasion of Chechnya in December 1994 — “can be assessed very positively.”
As a leader, Boris Yeltsin had an innate grasp of the big picture and a charismatic personality. If the privatization of the Russian economy was often accompanied by corruption and favoritism, if Yeltsin had health problems and a taste for the bottle and was sometimes out of commission, if the attempt by force to prevent Chechnya from leaving Russian rule was a mistake that set the stage for a return to the old ways, if he anointed Vladimir Putin, who has shown marked authoritarian tendencies — well, perhaps it’s an illustration of the old saw that revolutionaries should not be rulers.
Was Boris Yeltsin an imperfect hero? No doubt. But he was an authentic hero, one of the more notable of our time.