Paradoxical President: Remembering Yeltsin

Boris Yeltsin was a president of excess and contrasts. He brought his country freedom; he brought it poverty and chaos. He gave Russians democracy for the first time in their history—then allowed it to become so corrupted and contaminated that they now seem content to do without it.

As a man, Yeltsin had moments of greatness. The best of these came when he stood on a tank outside the Moscow White House, defying the Communist hardliners who attempted a putsch in August 1991—and in the process toppled the Soviet Empire. But he was also a deeply flawed man. He brought moral clarity and personal bravery to his crusade against the Soviet Communist Party, but in office quickly lost both as he lapsed into recurrent alcoholism and allowed a small group of cronies to run the country in their and their friends' interests.

He was always a flamboyant man, at once a man of destiny around whom the wheel of the century's history had turned, but also a clown. It's hard to forget the indignities Yeltsin inflicted on himself, and Russia, when less than sober—the time when he seized a conductor's baton on a visit to Bavaria and began drunkenly conducting an orchestra, the time when he kept the president of Ireland waiting on the tarmac during a stopover in Shannon because Yeltsin was too tired and emotional to leave his cabin. But brash excess was what made Boris Yeltsin what he was, first as a gadfly reformer in the twilight of the Soviet Union, then as a ruler in his own right, Russia's first freely elected president.

A chronic insomniac propelled by relentless ambition, he worked and played too hard. Long before he died today at 76, the wear and tear made him seem older than his years. Yeltsin once wrote that his country couldn't have changed without "someone like me—prickly, sharp-tongued." He might have added "brutal" too. For Yeltsin, though a committed democrat by his own lights, took some less than liberal decisions to keep himself and his regime in power. Ordering tanks to shell Communist and nationalists in Russia's then-parliament, the Supreme Soviet, in October 1993, was as ruthless an act as any of his Soviet predecessors. "The principal lesson is that democracy must be reliably defended," Yeltsin declared once his opponents had been crushed. But the bloodshed (the official death toll was 178) and the spectacle of shells slamming into the White House led to new charges that Yeltsin was a tyrant, not a democrat. "The Russian state was never based on the rule of law," says sociologist Olga Kryshtanovskaya. "This has not changed."

In the following year it was Yeltsin who ordered Russian troops into the rebel republic of Chechnya, denying to the Chechens the national freedom that he had granted to the Soviet Union's 14 other component republics. "Mad dogs must be shot down," he growled. But soon the decrepit, unprepared Russian army was bogged down in a bloody Chechen quagmire. Yeltsin's liberal supporters were deeply alienated by the war. Sergei Kovalyov, who served as Russia's commissioner for human rights, accused the president of employing "a communist way of ruling while using anti-communist rhetoric." The war was to claim over 100,000 lives and leave the province shattered. Again the paradox: Yeltsin the Democrat and Yeltsin the old-fashioned Russian Imperialist seemed to coexist at the same time.

Russians loved him and hated him. Early on, people loved him for his common touch—his blunt speech, his genuine distaste for privilege, his willingness to ride the subway with them or stand in their food lines. Later, they fumed at his high-handed methods and his economic reforms, which rushed them into a Darwinian new world of sudden wealth for some and hardship for many. As recently as 1996, Yeltsin showed an astonishing ability to bounce back politically, winning a second term as president against odds that initially seemed overwhelming. But a year later, with illness sapping his energy, most Russians just wanted him gone. His poll ratings sank for good to the low single digits.

Even after the switch to democracy, Yeltsin never joined a political party or built a movement that extended very far beyond himself. Throughout his presidency, he behaved much like a traditional Russian autocrat, ignoring his parliament, playing his advisers off against each other and ruling largely by decree. He was high-handed, mercurial and unpredictable. His staff called him "boss" or even vozhd, Stalin's term for "leader." Yeltsin sometimes jokingly referred to himself as "Boris I." When he finally got around to anointing a successor, he chose a former secret policeman with no constituency outside the security services. Like his mentor, President Vladimir Putin still hasn't joined a political party, even though one was formed to support him. Instead, Putin governs as Yeltsin did, like a tsar surrounded by courtiers and cronies.

Yeltsin's role on the world stage was also intensely personal—and personally erratic. Even as his country slipped out of superpower status, he remained on first-name terms with Bill Clinton and other foreign leaders, extracting from them more respect, and more financial assistance, than Russia may have deserved. But in the waning years of his rule, he exhausted his personal credit, and Russia's, too. His bizarre behavior on some of his foreign travels sapped his country's credibility almost as much as the failure of his economic reforms or the near collapse of his armed forces. Yeltsin inveighed helplessly against such affronts as the eastward expansion of NATO.

Yeltsin was born in 1931 to a poor farming family in the Ural Mountains, outside the city of Sverdlovsk. Young Boris became a star student and athlete, eventually playing volleyball against the best teams in the country. But he was always, by his own account, "a little bit of a hooligan." At the age of 11, during World War II, he stole some hand grenades from a local arsenal and tried to take one apart. The fuse exploded, and he lost two fingers from his left hand.

He didn't join the Communist Party until he was 30; he said Nikita Khrushchev's anti-Stalinist reforms inspired him to sign up. Already, Yeltsin's outspokennesss was getting him into trouble. The official who interviewed him for party membership was an accountant who had felt the sting of Yeltsin's tongue, so he tried to trip up the applicant. "He asked me on what page of which volume of 'Das Kapital' Marx refers to commodity-money relationships," Yeltsin wrote in "Against the Grain," his self-serving 1990 autobiography. "Assuming that he had never read Marx closely … I immediately answered, half-jokingly, 'Volume Two, page 387.' What's more I said it quickly, without pausing for thought. To which he replied with a sage expression, 'Well done. You know your Marx well'."

In 1976, Yeltsin's energetic and capable work in construction led to a job as the party's first secretary in Sverdlovsk province. By then, he was a devoted family man, married to Naina Girina and the father of two daughters, Yelena and Tatyana. As party boss in Sverdlovsk, he soon acquired a reputation for rooting out corruption and standing in line with everyone else when he could have made use of the party's lavish perks.

Yeltsin was a man who seemed to thrive on crisis. Throughout the 1980s, he pushed the Party leadership toward reform as far as he dared, before finally being expelled from the Politburo in disgrace in 1989. It was the making of Yeltsin. He stood for and won the presidency of the Russian Federal Soviet Socialist Republic, the largest of the Soviet Union's 14 component republics. The 1991 coup attempt found him clear-headed and full of defiant energy. Mikhail Gorbachev, Yeltsin's onetime ally and then nemesis, was out of the picture, held captive at his vacation dacha in the south. Yeltsin quickly became the focus of resistance to the coup. The plotters made plans to arrest him—or kill him in the process. When the first tanks arrived to begin the siege of the White House, Yeltsin rushed outside to join a friendly crowd of protesters and climbed atop one of the vehicles. He had a sense "that we were winning, that we couldn't lose," he wrote in his 1994 memoir, "The Struggle For Russia." The speech he delivered from the top of the tank contained few memorable lines; it was the gesture that counted. The reaction of the coup-makers' troops confirmed his feeling that he could win. "From their faces, from the expression in their eyes, I could see they would not shoot us," he wrote.

The Soviet Union was formally dissolved in December 1991.  Yeltsin's rule of Russia was turbulent from the beginning. He eased price controls and started selling off state enterprises and properties. The economic "shock therapy" applied by acting Prime Minister Yegor Gaidar in January 1992 went a long way toward introducing elements of a market system. But it allowed prices to skyrocket, frightening many Russians who were used to the hardscrabble security of communism. Loosening the reins of communism led to increased crime, and the auction of state property enabled entrepreneurs known as "oligarchs" to pile up assets at fire-sale prices.
Yeltsin also enjoyed most of the powers of an old-fashioned autocrat. The new Russian constitution gave the president a wide range of arbitrary powers. "We used to have a tsar," General Alexander Lebed said of Yeltsin. "Then he was replaced by the general secretary of the Communist Party, and now we have a president. It all fits our mentality."

Yeltsin's last term in office was a sad spectacle. Every day brought new examples of sleaze: financial misdeeds among Yeltsin's entourage, sordid alliances between money and power. The Chechen war flared up again, with hideous consequences. The grand design of economic reform was tarnished by the financial crisis of 1998. At the end of Yeltsin's decade in power, Russia's gross domestic product had declined by half. The president's larger-than-life persona was whittled down by years of heart trouble, depression and alcohol. His political skills were barely equal to their final task: outmaneuvering other ambitious politicians and installing in power a relative nonentity who could be counted upon to prevent prosecution of Yeltsin, his family and his cronies. Yeltsin just managed it, slipping an obscure bureaucrat, Vladimir Putin, into office as prime minister in August 1999, and then engineering one last victory in parliamentary elections the following December. On the final day of 1999, he resigned the presidency and handed it to his protégé.

Few Russians were sad to see him go. Yet for all his shortcomings, Yeltsin's accomplishments were far-ranging and unrivalled. It's difficult to imagine any other Russian politician holding the country together so effectively through the loss of empire, the collapse of the Soviet system and the wrenching transition to something like a free-market democracy. In the event, Putin has decided that as the country eventually regains its footing and some of its former stature in the world, Russia needs a firmer hand at the controls of power, and less democracy. But even as he rolls back many of the freedoms which Russians won under Yeltsin, Putin owes much to the rough-edged man who, uniquely in his generation of Russians, combined the skills of emperor, commissar and democratic political boss.