This year there were two sad anniversaries in the first week of February: two former political superstars, U.S. President Ronald Reagan and Russian President Boris Yeltsin celebrated their birthdays in the shadow of severe health problems. Confined to hospital, they were unable to appreciate the cheering of fans and the fanfare of the mass media.
Reagan, who turned 90, has succumbed to the devastating affects of Alzheimer’s disease. Yeltsin, who is 70, is shrouded in premature senility. Neither realizes what is happening to them and their nations. Both are unable to figure out what their legacies are and what history might have to say about them.
The paths of the two presidents did not cross when they were in power. When Reagan proudly stepped down in 1989, having restored America’s self-esteem and its dominance in world politics, Yeltsin was still locked in a bitter struggle with the Soviet monolith, and only starting to gain international prominence and notoriety. The first American president he would meet with would be Reagan’s successor, George Bush. The last Russian leader Reagan met was Yeltsin’s archenemy, Mikhail Gorbachev.
Yet in terms of their contribution to history, the paths of Yeltsin and Reagan were going in the same direction: toward the dismantling of communism. Arguably, the disintegration of the Eastern bloc and the collapse of the Soviet Union are achievements that may be claimed by both men.
Reagan broke the spine of the Soviet bear by launching an arms race. He also succeeded in building the broadest anti-Soviet international coalition in history. His allies varied from Afghan jihad fighters to European intellectuals, from British Tories to leaders of communist China. By the mid-1980s, Moscow had found itself totally exhausted by the pressure. Dismayed, Gorbachev risked experimental reform. But no country, even a totalitarian one, is a lab. Unexpectedly, the mice rebelled against Gorbachev, set themselves free and in the process burned down the whole lab. The name of the smartest mouse was Boris Yeltsin.
While Reagan had been an anticommunist for 40 years, Yeltsin converted at a late stage of his life. It is not for us to say whether or not he was sincere in his earlier Marxist beliefs — many insist he was an opportunist from the start. This may be true, but the sincerity or insincerity of a politician is of little interest to history; leaders are judged by their achievements. When the communist “laboratory” experienced its first serious unrest, the mouse called Boris was the first one to identify the emergency exit before the whole building collapsed: Abandon communism, to hell with the empire, rush through the door labeled “Exit To Capitalism.”
Other mice followed and, as a result of this incredibly fast migration, the collapse of the old regime in Moscow was not accompanied by casualties in spite of its bloodstained reputation.
The mice survived the hellish collapse of the lab but then they got lost. After the first sign, “Exit To Capitalism,” presumably there were several crucial forks in the road, like “Social Cushion” or “Drown ’em All,” “Rule of Law” or “Buddies Rule,” “Proceed With Care” or “Forget About the Brakes.” The mouse called Boris chose the wrong way each time. Not surprisingly, by the time Yeltsin retired, his nation was in a complete mess.
Reagan’s choices were much wiser. However, he was presiding over an orderly estate with comfortable cushions, numerous fire alarms and other useful conveniences — not some dirty lab on fire. Hollywood is also much more sophisticated than Yekaterinburg, where Yeltsin hails from, and one learns more being an actor than a party apparatchik. But in terms of their leadership style, Reagan and Yeltsin were similar in many ways.
Both had mediocre intellects (ill-wishers say they were plain dumb). Both lacked education and erudition. Both distrusted intellectuals and appealed to “the ordinary people,” cultivating a down-to-earth approach and preferring form over substance. Both were politicians of gestures, embraces, smiles. Both had passionate supporters and sworn enemies, both were darlings of the paparazzi and the tabloids, both made great splashes with their diplomatic faux pas and their cowboy-style breaches of etiquette. Last but not least, both saw themselves as father figures for their respective nations, in an outmoded patronizing and patriarchal way. This will never re-emerge in world politics again.
Right now Reagan is being made into a saint. His blunders are being forgotten or forgiven. A major airport in Washington D.C. bears his name. Los Angeles County has declared Feb. 6 as “Ronald Reagan Day.”
Yeltsin’s blunders are still vividly remembered and discussed, and the birthday present he got from the Russian Parliament stinks: He has been declared immune to legal prosecution — with an implicit understanding of the fact that, in principle, he could have gone to jail.
Yet for a time after Reagan stepped down, he did not have as many admirers as he does now. Time can both blur and sharpen. Wait and see, maybe in a few years Yeltsin’s rule will also be a source of nostalgia in Russia. Already, his successor, Vladimir Putin, frightens people with his steely gaze and Mussolini-style punctuality. Unlike him, Yeltsin was warm — perhaps, at times, too warm — and human — again, occasionally too human. Perhaps history will yet accord him some honor, as it has Reagan.
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