More than any other man, Boris Yeltsin moved the Russian people from tyranny to a rough approximation of freedom. For that he is one of the authentic heroes of the 20th century.
In a way he personalizes Mikhail Gorbachev’s accidental liberation of the Russian and Soviet people. Gorbachev intended to reform and reinvigorate communism. He brought Yeltsin from the rural region of Sverdlovsk in 1985 to shake up the stagnant party as the Moscow party boss. But Gorbachev set in motion forces that he couldn’t contain. Once people were allowed to criticize the communist system and glimpse an alternative, things moved rapidly–partly because of Yeltsin’s unexpectedly radical leadership.
Two years later Gorbachev and the party hierarchy pushed him out of the Politburo. But he turned around and ran for the Congress of People’s Deputies, won, and then was elected to the Supreme Soviet. He created Russia’s first parliamentary opposition (in the Supreme Soviet) and then won election to the new Russian parliament. Against the continuing opposition of Gorbachev, he was elected to the chairmanship of that body, thus becoming president of the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic. He stunned politicos by resigning from the Communist Party.
And then in 1991, less than four years after being pushed out of politics by Gorbachev, Boris Yeltsin became the first elected leader in a thousand years of Russian history, winning a popular election for president. Six weeks later he hit his high point. When hard-line communists tried to stage a coup, Yeltsin courageously raced to parliament to rally opposition. He jumped on a tank to address the crowd, creating one of the iconic images of the collapse of communism.
At that point Yeltsin was the boss, eclipsing Gorbachev, and the Soviet Union was on its way out. Yeltsin effectively dissolved the Soviet Union, leaving 15 newly independent states in the vast expanse that was once the USSR. As biographer John Morrison notes,
His greatest achievement was to avoid the violent “Yugoslav scenario” and allow the Soviet Union’s 15 republics to go their separate ways peacefully in 1991-92 without civil war. Yeltsin defied nationalist demands for the restoration of a greater Russia and made huge concessions to the other successor states, notably Ukraine, but got little credit for it.
Not many political leaders happily let their subjects go. What other political leader ever gave up control over 14 countries? But by doing so, he avoided years of bloodshed. Yeltsin then set about freeing prices and privatizing state property, the largest privatization in the history of the world. As the New York Times notes, he was one communist leader capable of learning from–and feeling shame about–the success of capitalism:
On a visit to the United States in 1989, he became convinced that Russia had been ruinously damaged by its state-run economic system, in which people stood in long lines to buy the most basic needs of life and more often than not found the shelves bare. Visiting a Houston supermarket, he was overwhelmed by the kaleidoscopic variety of meats and vegetables available to ordinary Americans.
A Russia scholar, Leon Aron, quoting a Yeltsin associate, wrote that Mr. Yeltsin was in a state of shock. “For a long time, on the plane to Miami, he sat motionless, his head in his hands,” Mr. Aron wrote in his 2000 biography, “Yeltsin, A Revolutionary Life.” “ ‘What have they done to our poor people?’ he said after a long silence.”
Yeltsin wasn’t perfect. He was often boorish and apparently had an excessive taste for alcohol. Despite letting the other Soviet republics go, he launched the devastating war in Chechnya. He unconstitutionally dissolved parliament in 1993; when communist lawmakers defied him, he sent tanks to shell parliament. But it should be noted that Yeltsin at that time was seeking to defend liberal democracy against a return to communism. Imagine if Nazi legislators had stayed in the German parliament into 1949, resisting Adenauer’s policies and threatening to bring back National Socialism. Would it be undemocratic to call out the military to counter them? Fareed Zakaria’s worry in 1997 that Yeltsin’s creation of a “Russian super-presidency” might be abused by his successors looks all too prescient now. But a reversion to communism would have been worse.
And finally, after becoming the first elected leader in Russia’s history, he became something even more important–the first Russian leader to voluntarily give up power. True, he turned Russia over to Vladimir Putin, making him more like Ronald Reagan, who delivered the United States to the Bushes, than George Washington, who left us in the capable hands of John Adams and Thomas Jefferson.
Still, the words that President Reagan addressed the American soldiers who invaded Normandy could also be applied to Boris Yeltsin: “These are the champions who helped free a continent. These are the heroes who helped end a war.”
Raise a glass tonight to Boris Yeltsin, the man who freed a continent and helped end the Cold War.