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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.

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