NEW YORK — Boris Yeltsin was utterly unique. Russia’s first democratically elected leader, he was also the first Russian leader to give up power voluntarily, and constitutionally, to a successor. But he was also profoundly characteristic of Russian leaders. Using various mixtures of charisma, statecraft and terror, Peter the Great, Catherine the Great, Alexander II, Peter Stolypin (the last czar’s prime minister), Lenin and Stalin all sought to make Russia not only a great military power, but also an economic and cultural equal of the West.
Yeltsin aimed for the same goal. But he stands out from them in this respect: He understood that empire was incompatible with democracy, and so was willing to abandon the Soviet Union in order to try to build a democratic order at home.
At the height of Yeltsin’s career, many Russians identified with his bluntness, impulsiveness, sensitivity to personal slight, even with his weakness for alcohol. And yet in the final years of his rule, his reputation plunged. Only in the last few months of his second presidential term, after he launched the second war in Chechnya in September 1999, did he and his lieutenants regain some legitimacy in the eyes of the Russian public, while causing revulsion among any remaining Western admirers.
Despite his caprices, however, Yeltsin kept Russia on a course of broad strategic cooperation with America and its allies. Although he opposed America’s use of force against Iraq and Serbia in the 1990s, his government never formally abandoned the sanctions regime against either country. Moreover, no nuclear weapons were unleashed, deliberately or accidentally, and no full-scale war of the kind that ravaged postcommunist Yugoslavia broke out between Russia and any of its neighbors, although several of them were locked in internal or regional conflict in which Russia’s hand was visible.
The tasks that faced Yeltsin when he attained power in 1991 were monumental. At several crucial moments, he established himself as the only person who could rise to the challenges of transforming Russia from a dictatorship into a democracy, from a planned economy into a free market, and from an empire into a medium-rank power.
In 1992, as the emerging Russian Federation teetered on the brink of economic and monetary collapse, he opted for radical reform, prompting a backlash from vested interest groups. In the years that followed, he would tilt toward liberal economics whenever he felt powerful enough to do so.
Yeltsin was quintessentially a product of the Soviet system, which makes his turn to democracy and the free market, though imperfect, even more miraculous. The son of a poor building worker, he had a meteoric rise through communist ranks to become party boss in the industrial city of Sverdlovsk (now Yekaterinburg) in the Urals. Unlike most other party leaders, he was good at talking to ordinary people, a skill that helped him win support and then power later, but he also showed no sign of questioning the Marxist-Leninist gobbledygook that he was required to recite at public events.
It was only after Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev summoned Yeltsin to Moscow in 1985 that he began to differentiate himself from dozens of other senior party apparatchiks. Sensing the bitter frustration of Moscow’s middle class-in-waiting, Yeltsin quickly gained a reputation as a harsh, if not always coherent, critic of the party’s old guard.
Campaigners for democracy admired Yeltsin’s struggle against the conservatives in the Politburo — especially after he was forced out of the party’s inner circle in November 1987. Determined to outbid Gorbachev as a reformer, he persuaded liberals to overcome their distrust of his provincial manners. They gave him lessons in democratic theory, while he gave them tactical advice.
As the Soviet Union steadily disintegrated, with virtually all of its 15 republics straining at the leash, Yeltsin gained the leadership of the largest — the Russian Federation — which placed him in a tactical alliance with independence campaigners in Ukraine, the Baltic states and Georgia.
By June 1991, after quashing a series of challenges to his leadership, he became the first elected president of Russia; two months later, real power fell into his hands, after the failed putsch against Gorbachev of August 1991 by conservatives seeking to prevent the Soviet Union’s disintegration. For most Westerners and many Russians, his finest hour came on August 19th that year, when he stood on a tank outside the Russian parliament and defied the hardliners who had seized power.
But Yeltsin himself never succeeded in fully throwing off the intellectual shackles of the past. As president, he talked of economic performance as if it could be improved by decree. Like most Russians, he wanted the material advantages of capitalism, but had little respect or understanding for the rule of law and dispersion of power, which makes capitalist institutions work.
Nevertheless, for most of his presidency, Yeltsin kept alive — albeit with many tactical retreats — the goal of economic reform. At some level, he sensed that Russia’s potential could be unleashed only if the government either faced down, or bought off, the special interests — military, industrial and agricultural — that stood in the way. The economic orthodoxy pursued after the collapse of 1998 laid the groundwork for today’s sustained Russian boom.
Yeltsin’s tragedy, and Russia’s, was that, when the country needed a leader with vision and determination, it found an agile political operator instead. By not permitting Russia to disintegrate into anarchy or leading it back to authoritarianism, Yeltsin kept the way open for such a leader to one day emerge. Unfortunately, that man is not his handpicked successor, Vladimir Putin, who has only perpetuated the vicious cycles of Russian history.