The True Son of Russia?

The battle over Boris Yeltsin's legacy


It is perhaps symbolic that the final days of former Russian president Boris Yeltsin's life on this earth were marked by devastating blows to what remains of freedom in Russia. Anti-government demonstrations in Moscow and St. Petersburg were dispersed by security forces with a brutality unseen since the waning days of the Soviet empire; dozens of demonstrators were beaten badly enough to seek hospital treatment, and many were arrested. Meanwhile, the day before Yeltsin's death, a front-page story in the New York Times reported new moves to curb free speech on Russia's still relatively independent radio stations, with pro-Putin corporate station owners instructing staff to focus on the positive in domestic news coverage and ignore opposition leaders.

Every day in Putin's Russia is a reminder that the window of freedom the country enjoyed in the Yeltsin years is closing. Of course, "enjoyed" is a relative term, since it was also a period of chaos, poverty, and corruption. But as Russian journalist Vladimir Kara-Murza noted on the (Daily Journal) website, in an obituary titled "The President Who Chose Freedom," Yeltsin's Russia was "a country which had independent television and no political prisoners," a country where opposition parties flourished and where the president could embarrass himself with drunken antics, but did not muzzle critics or send goons to crush peaceful protests.

Yeltsin's flaws were not limited to drunken antics. He started the war in Chechnya, as well as the consolidation of presidential power that allowed Putin to emerge as an authoritarian strongman. While he came to admire American capitalism, he had little if any understanding of how markets actually work (though withering critiques of Yeltsin's economic reforms ignore the question of whether there was any "good" way to clear up the wreckage of the Soviet economy). He was almost certainly corrupt and surrounded by corrupt minions.

The man who dissolved the USSR and became the first president of Russia inspired extraordinary hopes, and left office with an extraordinary apology. In his televised resignation speech on the eve of the new millennium, he asked the people's forgiveness "for your dreams that never came true" and for "not having justified your hopes." While this statement highlighted Yeltsin's failures, it also points to a certain—dare one say—nobility.

Russia is often seen in the West as a land of paradox and enigma; in that sense Yeltsin was truly its son. The coverage of his death reflects these contradictions. A startlingly nasty obituary by Rolling Stone columnist Matt Taibbi, who lived in Russia in the Yeltsin years, branded the deceased "a mean, thieving country drunk," a mob boss with a whole country as his turf. At the other extreme, some obituaries on liberal Russian websites have bordered on hagiography. Andrei Illarionov, the former Putin economic advisor who resigned in December 2005, portrayed Yeltsin's death as a heroic final protest—a free man's ultimate refusal to remain a helpless witness to his successor's destruction of the freedom he had worked so hard to bring to Russia.

Somewhere between the hagiography and the diatribe lies an elusive truth. In the end, Russian pro-democracy activist Valeria Novodvorskaya's description of the late president as "the liberator of a slave country" is not that far off the mark. One little-noted aspect of Yeltsin's presidency was his decisive rejection of the Soviet period. This former apparatchik came to understand that Russia needed to make a clean break with the Soviet legacy. In 1992, when Russian communists sued to contest his 1991 ban on the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, Yeltsin's legal team used the case to literally put Soviet history on trial, unrolling a catalogue of the Party's crimes from the Gulag, forced famines and religious persecution to the financing of international terrorism. (In the end, the ban on the party was lifted.) Yeltsin accepted and embraced the anti-Communist view of the Soviet regime as an "evil empire." At a campaign rally during the 1996 elections, he told supporters that they had to win "so that Russia can never be called an evil empire again."

This attitude shifted under Putin, who spoke reverentially of Soviet-era "achievements," brought back the old Soviet anthem (minus the words) and dusted off the old Soviet flag as the flag of Russia's armed forces (they're still debating whether to include the hammer and sickle). This symbolic Soviet restoration was followed by a very real rollback of post-Soviet freedoms.

Yeltsin buried the Soviet Union; now, Putin's Russia has buried him. An obituary by columnist Andrei Ryklin noted that in the post-Yeltsin years, Russian liberals have often shared a wistful dream: one of these days, "Grandpa" would shake off his apathy, march into his old Kremlin office, declare his resignation a joke and send Putin looking for a new job. Whether Yeltsin's genuine legacy of freedom will amount to anything more than another Russian fantasy of the "good Tsar," who will protect the people from its oppressors, is something that only history will tell.

Cathy Young is a contributing editor to reason.

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