The Good Czar

The strange nobility of Boris Yeltsin.


"Yeltsin died of grief," declared the headline of an obituary on the liberal Russian website The former president of Russia, wrote columnist Andrei Ryklin, simply could not bear to watch the destruction of the freedom he had worked so hard to bring to his country.

That's reaching a bit. If anything hastened Boris Yeltsin's death at 76 (a fairly ripe old age, especially for Russian men), it's far more likely to have been years of heavy drinking. Nonetheless, there is a certain grim symbolism to the fact that his final days were marked by some devastating blows to what remains of Russian liberty.

Earlier in April, 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. 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 owners instructing their staffs to focus on the positive in domestic news coverage and ignore opposition leaders.

Every day in President Vladimir Putin's Russia is a reminder that the window of freedom the country enjoyed in the Yeltsin era (and even, in some respects, in the tail end of the Gorbachev years) is closing. Enjoyed is a relative term, since it was also a period of chaos, poverty, and corruption.

But as the Russian journalist Vladimir Kara-Murza noted in another obituary, 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 and take over TV stations. (It should be noted that Yeltsin did shut down some far-left and far-right parties and papers, including Pravda, during his 1993 standoff with pro-Communist hard-liners in Parliament, though this ban proved a temporary measure.)

Yeltsin's flaws were not limited to drunken antics. He went to war in Chechnya'"twice. He also initiated the consolidation of presidential power that allowed Putin, his handpicked successor, to emerge as an authoritarian strongman. While he came to admire American capitalism, he had little if any understanding of how markets work. He was far from a free market radical, and his economic reforms ran aground on graft, mismanagement, and the lack of an effective legal framework. (That said, you can legitimately wonder whether there was any "good" way to clean up the wreckage of the Soviet economy.) Yeltsin was almost certainly corrupt, and he was surrounded by corrupt minions.

The man who dissolved the USSR and became the first president of Russia inspired extraordinary hopes but 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 the fact that many of our dreams, yours and mine, never came true" and for "not having justified the hopes" of those who believed a better life could be achieved quickly. 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 piece 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. (It's hard to tell whether this poison-pen obituary, which among other things holds against Yeltsin the squalor in which the president grew up, was motivated more by Taibbi's politics or by his taste for provocation.)

At the other extreme, some obits on liberal Russian websites bordered on hagiography. Andrei Illarionov, the former Putin economic adviser who resigned in December 2005, wrote that Yeltsin lived his entire life as a free man'"never mind that he spent much of his career as a provincial Soviet party boss'"and died a free man, his death a heroic final protest against his successor's authoritarian policies.

Somewhere between the hagiography and the hit piece lies an elusive truth. Kara-Murza described Yeltsin as "a man nurtured by a totalitarian system who sincerely repented and chose freedom, for himself and his country."

This career apparatchik left the Communist Party when it was still the party in power and made common cause with dissidents such as Andrei Sakharov. In his defining moment, he led the resistance to the hard-liners' coup in August 1991, standing atop a tank as he urged Muscovites to defend freedom.

To some extent this was showmanship, and in later years many Russians quipped that Yeltsin never got down from that tank. But it was also an act of genuine bravery. For millions of Russians, writes Kara-Murza, it was a moment when they felt like "citizens, not slaves."

One little-noted aspect of Yeltsin's presidency was his decisive rejection of the Soviet period. He 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 catalog 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, "We have to win so that Russia can never be called an evil empire again."

This attitude shifted under Putin, who speaks reverentially of Soviet-era "achievements" and of the valuable services rendered to the Motherland by the KGB (his former employer), and who refers to the dissolution of the USSR as a tragedy. He also brought back the old Soviet anthem (with changed lyrics) and dusted off the old Soviet flag as the banner of Russia's armed forces. This symbolic restoration was followed by a very real rollback of post-Soviet freedoms.

Yeltsin buried the Soviet Union. Now Putin's Russia has buried him. In yet another paradox, both Putin and his liberal opponents sought to canonize Yeltsin and claim him as their own. Putin extolled his predecessor as the founder of Russian democracy, with the official media following his lead; dissenters hailed him as "the liberator of a slave country" (in the words of the pro-demo-cracy activist Valeria Novodvorskaya) whose legacy had been trampled and betrayed. Some commentators, in Russia and in the West, have expressed the hope that the foundation of freedom laid in the Yeltsin era '"in the political and social order, and in people's minds'"was strong enough to survive Putin's assaults.

Perhaps. Ryklin's obituary 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 legacy will amount to anything more than another Russian fantasy of the "good czar" who will protect the people from its oppressors is something only history will tell.

Contributing Editor Cathy Young is the author of Growing Up in Moscow: Memories of a Soviet Girlhood (Ticknor & Fields).

Discuss this article online.