Russia is in mourning today. Officially speaking. But if the late Boris Nicolayevich could have heard the comments of his countrymen as he lay in state yesterday in the Church of Christ the Savior, he would have recognized the familiar ratio of platitude to cynicism that occurs when Russians reflect on a man larger than life. He would have endured many a wisecrack.
Out of sight and out of mind (possibly his own) for these seven years, Yeltsin has been a figure to be dismissed for even longer.
I remember the reaction to his surprise resignation on New Year’s Eve, 1999—an anticlimax even more underwhelming than the failure of Y2K to wreak global havoc. On U.S. news channels his announcement lost the historical high ground in favor of the dawn of the year 2000 creeping across the Pacific. Russians, as well, greeted the news with a shrug, and then derision. Yeltsin, whose pejorative nickname “Yolkin” plays on the Russian word for Christmas tree, had given his televised address with a holiday tree in the background. And so his countrymen snickered at a couple of fir trees, both of them dim.
In many ways, Yeltsin had earned the scorn. After nine years at the helm of a grueling societal transition, he had all but disappeared from daily governance. In between long stays at the Kremlin sanatorium where he recovered from a ceaseless “cold,” the president stepped in front of the television cameras only to greet dignitaries (often with aides on either side for physical support) or to summarily fire his entire cabinet.
And then there was the enmity he created while still all-present. His backing of economic shock therapy, his extralegal handling of a parliamentary mutiny in 1993, and his role in the naked looting of the country’s resources by politically loyal brokers all turned a hard-knocked populace against him. His 1996 reelection was secured by these same tainted oligarchs and by the ballots of Russians who recognized him as a lesser evil. It was a hard battle against the outraged babushki who took to the streets in daily demonstrations, characterizing their president in terms usually reserved for punk criminals.
But perhaps it is his choice of successor (for his play at popular democracy—including free elections—was short-lived) that best seals his sad legacy. In the cold new light of the Putin era, Yeltsin’s credit as the man who snapped the spine of the Soviet system can’t be separated from his role as the man who ushered a reactionist into the Kremlin.
Yeltsin captured international attention nearly two years after he became a household name in Moscow. He arrived in the capital in 1985, promoted from his position as a construction boss in Sverdlovsk, Siberia. In stark contrast to most Communist Party functionaries, he practiced the celebrated policy of glasnost and encouraged the Russian people to hold the Kremlin to its promise of openness. His populist confidence and unabashed criticism of the shortfalls of the official reform process ended in his ouster from the top ranks, a demotion that catapulted him onto the Western radar screen.
The October 1987 Yeltsin affair, as it came to be known, was a major turning point in the history of what was considered Russia’s fourth revolution. Not only was the Kremlin verdict riveting for the West, which saw the ghost of Stalinist show trials in Yeltsin’s drumming-out, it was also a seminal moment for domestic consumption.
Yeltsin abandoned the country to an inevitable retrenchment. In doing so, he flipped back the course of history—as easily as his present heir to the Kremlin, a black belt in Judo, can flip an opponent. During the next nine years, the Russian people would rally round Yeltsin, as an embattled visionary urging his citizens to the microphones, to the polls, to the barricades, and back to the polls, all in the name of democracy. Between 1993 and 1997 alone, Russians voted in six national elections and referendums, and only once did the turnout fall below 64 percent of all eligible voters.
Unhappily, for every blight of the old totalitarian regime that the new democratic government claimed to vanquish, a new evil arose. Post-communist Russia was overwhelmingly poor, lawless and unhealthy—and many of its citizens blamed their first president. He left office a diminished man in every respect, and he left that office in the hands of a man who shared none of the ideals that made Yeltsin the leader he was, or hoped to be.
Vladimir Putin has ended the turmoil of domestic post-communism. He has also put a stop to post-Soviet liberties. He replaced organized crime with something more organized and slightly less criminal. Then he replaced local elections, independent media, and free speech with something more predictable.
When you are a VIP in history, your death notice is pre-written. Like preserves, obituaries for men like Yeltsin are something to be canned and stocked. From time to time, their expiration date is checked, and additives, if necessary, come into play. A little more sugar, a little more salt, a dash of acid, maybe.
The easiest way to cover the spectrum and get the copy to press is to pass judgment in both directions. Hence, the overwhelming theme this week of Yeltsin as a polarizing figure. “Loved by some, loathed by others” said the Sydney Morning Herald. “Yeltsin dies of heart failure, still dividing a nation,” announced the Belfast Telegraph.
This mixed legacy was reported from all quarters. Evenhanded analyses recalled Yeltsin’s heroics as a revolutionary and his foibles as a man. Op-eds recounted the Siberian statesman’s flagging steps and miraculous recoveries. Archive footage reminded us equally of his bull-headed bravery in the face of a coup and his drunken goosing of a secretary at a photo op.
What the well-masticated material shies away from is context: the context of a revolution no less tumultuous than 1917, the context of a country creeping back under the relatively secure shadow of dictatorship.
In a biography published just before Yeltsin’s resignation, Leon Aron reckoned Yeltsin to be in the company of Charles de Gaulle and Abraham Lincoln, that rare breed of “authoritarian democrats” who react to events rather than shape them.
It is difficult today to assert that Yeltsin reacted to, rather than changed, the course of history. Stripped of his own health, judgment, and credibility, Yeltsin abandoned the country to an inevitable retrenchment. In doing so, he flipped back the course of history—as easily as his present heir to the Kremlin, a black belt in Judo, can flip an opponent.
So, as I listen to the endless regurgitations about the flawed and fearless defender of democracy, I remember this: Yeltsin apologizing to his country on the night he resigned, begging forgiveness for “not justifying your hopes.”
We assumed then he rued his past actions—his laxity on corruption, his alliance with the West, his tragic war on Chechnya, his alcoholic bouts.
But what if he was begging our pardon for what he was about to do? For what, and who, was to come next?
Among the dozens (not hundreds, mind you) of obituaries that have run around the world, one Yeltsin quote got the most play: “A man must live like a great bright flame and burn as brightly as he can.”
Funny. That’s sort of what my husband first said when I told him the news: “I wonder if we can use him as an alternative source of fuel,” he mused, “I bet he’d burn a clean flame.”
Rest in peace, Boris Nicolayevich, pickled politico, fossilized fuel.