Boris Yeltsin: Flawed Hero

The First President of Russia Has Died in Moscow at 76

News | Natalia Kuptsova | May 2007

Clinton playing the saxophone for Yeltsin at his Dacha in 1994 (Photo: Bob McNeely)

The shocking news spread to every corner of the world, as fast as the fall of the Soviet Union did in 1991. The first one to come was the first one to go.

And as much instability and grief as the years of Yeltsin’s rule brought into the lives of the Russians, he will remain in their memories, and take his place in recent Russian history, as the leader who was closest to the people.

Boris Yeltsin’s finest moment came during the August 1991 coup by communist hardliners. With President Michail Gorbachev detained at his country house in the Crimea, Yeltsin led the resistance to the coup, rallying his followers from atop an armoured car and demanding that Gorbachev return.

It seemed as if it was up to a man with his feet on the roof of a tank and two fingers missing on his left hand to tip the incredibly sensitive balance of a Russian mind to, at last, be willing to make the first step toward democracy: When the coup collapsed after a few days, Gorbachev returned to Moscow. But the power had already  shifted to Yeltsin, who was negotiating with the leaders of Ukraine and Belarus to replace the Soviet Union.

The Commonwealth of Independent States was established on the night of Dec. 8. Hundreds of millions of people had gone to sleep in one country and woke up in another: a different flag, a different hymn, a different state. However, for most people, the change was too abrupt, and the time remained the darkest and most undefined 12 hours since the end of World War II.

Two weeks later, Gorbachov resigned as president of the Soviet Union that had effectively ceased to exist.

And so, the First President of Russia became the source of needed hope and, at the same time, the symbol of complete political, economic and ideological disorientation for the post-Soviet Russia.

Centering his politics on the principle "take as much freedom as you can swallow," Yeltsin seems, in retrospect, to have been a great idealist who was not willing to consider the specifics of the national mentality. Russians did not know were to stop!  They seemed to prefer to choke on their freedom, rather than give up on consuming it.

Thus Yeltsin gave freedom of speech to the media and fell into his own trap; rolled out the red carpet for privatisation reforms and ended up with most of the governmental assets in possession of the few; tried to drag an economically collapsing country out of the crisis and led it into an even bigger one. The period from his second inauguration and until his resignation on the New Year’s Eve of 2000 has proved to be the most destructive to the Russian Federation by any measure, of any since the moment of its establishment.

In 1991, production levels were dropping rapidly as ever. The shortages of most necessities, particularly food, could be compared to 1940’s. The yearly inflation rates reached the 100% mark. In addition, the newly created country took over the responsibility for paying off the 90 billion US-Dollar external debt – an unpleasant inheritance of the Soviet Union. The gold and exchange currency reserves had a worth of less than 1 billion US-Dollars, and the deficit nearly 20% of Russia’s Gross Domestic Product.

Such numbers would have been hard for anyone, and the new government tried one reform after the other. But nothing got solved. Instead, the 90s were the time of gradual collapse for the Russian economy, reaching a peak in August 1998. GDP dropped another 44%, manufacturing levels another 58%. Millions were poor, others lost everything. Yeltsin’s housing reforms provided solutions for a mere 10% of the population. Taxes were confiscatory.  Too many rubles were printed, too many coins stamped, and as a result, inflation rates had to be measured in three figures.

Only now, after more than a decade of economic instability and horrifying corruption, millions of dead bodies later, the country is starting to feel solid ground under its feet. The 1998 financial crisis finally taught the government to live within their means.

Under Putin, the budget, at last, came into balance and people began to figure out the actual meaning of the term profit. Still imperfect, the pension system was reformed. And housing is no longer just for the elite.

Yeltsin’s reforms led to widespread chaos, well illustrating the Brown’s model of the gas molecular movement. And yet, it is a metaphor that holds: With time, the vapours are starting to condense, becoming easier to handle. The formless ghosts of democracy, once let out of the tomb by Boris Yeltsin, are starting to gain shape and are breathing into life.

Every great politician is destined to be criticised. And this will be Yeltsin’s fate as well, even after his death. As no god was ever to escape the curse of the people, so will any who ever climbed the political Olympus, only to be pursued by the curse of the ones he governed.

Still, it’s hard to blame him, a man whose pedestal was only  two square meters of tank metal, almost melting in the killing heat of an August sun, and whose audience was 147 million people who turned any attempt to build a democracy into a general celebration of anarchy.

We are, indeed, a generation that had of the last part of Gorbachev, the first one of Putin and yet the whole of Yeltsin.

His lasting image will be to have brought into being in one human figure, the complex conglomerate of all political, economical and human progress, yet also the loss and tragedy, which have become the eternal traveling companions of his epoch.

Boris Yeltsin was buried in the Novodevichje cemetery in Moscow on Apr. 25, taking with him all his faults and virtues, leaving his countrymen a legacy of courage but also the tangled consequences of his most contradictory contribution to the Russian and international political arena.

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