Back in 1994, while on a state visit to Germany, a visibly intoxicated Boris Yeltsin snatched the baton from the conductor of the Berlin Police Orchestra and attempted to lead the musicians, embarrassing himself and his country before the world. Now, after years of ill-health exacerbated by excessive consumption of alcohol, Yeltsin has passed away. How will he be remembered?
Back in 2000, I reviewed Leon Aron’s vividly drawn biography of Russia’s first post-Soviet leader, Yeltsin: A Revolutionary Life, for the National Interest, and I began by asking whether “any peacetime political leader ever [has] brought his country as low as Boris Yeltsin brought Russia”? At the end of his reign that year—and in what follows, I have drawn liberally from my review—the Russian economy was a shambles, crime and corruption were rampant, the armed forces were a shadow of their former might, and much of the society had been thrust into poverty.
Nonetheless, despised as he was at home, and in sharp contrast to his predecessor Mikhail Gorbachev, having few if any admirers abroad, Yeltsin still had achievements that are far more significant than many of his critics have ever been willing to acknowledge.
Like Gorbachev, Yeltsin was an example of a rare but not entirely unknown species: an honest Communist, a man of integrity like Gorbachev, but, unlike Gorbachev, far more earthy and practical and not so deeply in the grip of Communism’s ideological inanities. This is not to suggest that Yeltsin in his early years was in any way a heretic. After he became head of the Sverdlovsk party apparatus in 1976, his speeches were as fawning toward the “deep and profound” Leonid Brezhnev as those of any other Communist apparatchik.
Appointed by Gorbachev to run the Moscow party machine in 1985, at the dawn of the era of perestroika and glasnost, Yeltsin used his Moscow perch to declare war on the hidebound and highly recalcitrant local bureaucracy. His vigorous attacks on the establishment’s privileges gained him an appeal across the strata of the nominally classless Soviet society that rapidly outstripped Gorbachev’s. His rise as an authentic leader coincided with so many other tectonic shifts that it was little appreciated in the West, particularly a West that was in the grip of a Gorbomania that the Russian populace never shared or grasped.
Like Gorbachev, Yeltsin appears initially to have been convinced that the Soviet system could be repaired by shining a spotlight on corruption, malingering, and privilege. But unlike Gorbachev, as he ran into a brick wall of resistance from conservative elements above and desperate bureaucratic infighters below, his essentially pragmatic disposition led him to jettison cherished dogmas with relative ease. By the close of 1991, when the Soviet system dissolved, Gorbachev was pushed aside, and power fell into the hands of Russia’s first-ever democratically elected president.
Russia’s problems in every sphere were so acute that no leader, no matter how wise and no matter how stalwart, could have successfully grappled with all of them at once. And Yeltsin was not always wise or stalwart. Certainly, his personal shortcomings, including his drinking, must be weighed in the balance. But Yeltsin’s real and imputed character flaws must be placed in context. Many of Yeltsin’s critics suffered from amnesia with respect to the USSR’s recent and not-so-recent past. If one considers the morass that was Russian society under Communist rule, not to mention the rivers of blood that were flowing there another five or so decades earlier, the Yeltsin era appears in a rather favorable light.
Russia held more than a half-dozen democratic elections under Yeltsin’s tutelage, and his rule was followed by the peaceful transfer of power to a newly elected president; these were no small accomplishments for what had been recently a totalitarian regime. By the end of his presidency, he left Russia with a press that was freer and more vigorous than anything throughout its long history of dictatorship and oppression. He presided over the dismantlement of a cutting-edge army that once drained the coffers of the government. Russia, at the turn of the millennium, was no longer a military-industrial state.
It is unquestionably true that millions were thrust into poverty by the transition to a market economy, and thousands upon thousands were unduly enriched, but it is too easily forgotten that virtually the entire citizenry lived in poverty under the old regime, while a privileged elite governed every last detail of their life and squeezed every last breath out of society.
In the end, Leon Aron was quite persuasive when he argued in his biography that Yeltsin would have had to work “miracles” in order to transform Russia in the way that his foreign critics, and much of the Russian populace, seem to have assumed was possible. Russia under Yeltsin may not have done all that well, but in comparison to what it was before him, and in comparison to the resurgent authoritarianism that has come after under Vladimir Putin, it did well enough. That is Boris Yeltsin’s ambiguous legacy.