Commentary

In the End, Yeltsin Went the Way of Freedom

Boris Yeltsin lived and died a free man.

The most important things he did in his life he accomplished on his own, right from the banya he built one log at a time with his own hands for his grandfather as a young man, to giving up his place in the Kremlin on the last day of the 20th century. This kind of independence is the mark of a free person.

Yeltsin was a dissident. Brought up in a family that had suffered Stalinist repression, he lived his whole life in defiance of it. In 1986, against all of the rules and traditions of Party bigwigs, he took to the streets alone to tour Moscow’s trolley buses and stores, with no escort or fanfare. In the summer of 1991 he ordered the pilot of the plane bringing him back from Kazakhstan to land at a different airport, thus allowing himself and those around him to elude capture by the KGB agents waiting at the planned landing place. On Aug. 19 of that year, against the advice of his assistants and advisers he went to the White House, despite the uncertainty and real possibility that he could be killed.

Dissidence is a sign of a free person.

Yeltsin answered for his deeds. Both for his great accomplishments — the victory over communism, the peaceful dissolution of the empire, the liberation of the economy and the introduction of a democratic constitution — and for his gravest mistakes — Order 1400, which dissolved the parliament in 1993, the first war in Chechnya and the falsification of the State Duma elections in 1996. He didn’t hide behind anyone or try to shift the blame. He didn’t just talk about taking responsibility — he took it. Not only for his own errors, but for those of others. He didn’t try to hide moments of incompetence, make excuses for his weaknesses or resort to meanness in blaming others. He took all of the responsibility on himself. Whether it was for those who lost their lives defending the White House, for hyperinflation and economic decline or the horrors of war, he took the heat for others, and paid for it with a fall in his own support and popularity.

To be able to shoulder responsibility and bear up under its weight is the sign of a free person.

Yeltsin made mistakes and, in keeping with his character, they were enormous. But he turned out to be the rare Russian politician who wasn’t afraid to admit to them and, when possible, fix them. From the demolition of the Ipatiyev house in Yekaterinburg where Tsar Nicholas II and his family were executed came the erection of a monument on the same site. He began the first Chechen war and brought it to an end. As he left office, he apologized to the Russian people.

The ability to accept responsibility for your errors is a sign of real strength, and this kind of strength can only belong to a free person.

Despite his strong political instincts, Yeltsin could be remarkably naive. He could believe sincerely in the invulnerability of the ruble on the very eve of the 1998 devaluation, for example. But no matter how mocking, grinding and baseless the attacks in the press became, he never targeted them with a word of political rebuke or tried to restrict the activities of journalists.

Freedom of speech is only understood and valued by a truly free person. The idea of freedom of speech was central for Yeltsin.

Yeltsin loved and clung to power. It’s hard to imagine anyone who fought so hard to achieve power and then to retain it. For him, it was a rare and valuable instrument. Its value was in what it could be used to achieve, and not just for itself. He didn’t become a slave to power. He was greater than power.

Yeltsin needed power to use it for Russia. It was as if there was nothing he wasn’t willing to do for the country. In striving for its freedom and prosperity, he performed great feats and made tragic mistakes. He clung to power and then surrendered it for Russia. He pulled the country out of communism, out of empire and out of its past — for the future. He pushed it forward, toward civilization, openness and freedom.

Every person creates in his own image, and it impossible for an unfree person to create a free society. Russia is free because Yeltsin and those around him in 1991 were already free.

For his dear Russians, the result was always either something wonderful or something catastrophic. Perhaps he didn’t have the necessary education, vision or experience. But it is clear now that this small-town boy from the Urals showed more consistency, patriotism and human decency than any graduate of a big-city university.

No slave can be a patriot. A slave belongs to money, assets, corporations, friends or power itself. A patriot belongs only to his country. Patriotism is in the character of a free person.

Yeltsin spent his whole presidency looking for a successor — not to defend Yeltsin’s interests, but those of the country. Prior to the 1998 economic crisis, he looked for this figure among his young economists. All of them, from Yegor Gaidar to Sergei Kiriyenko, failed the test. Following the crash, his focus shifted to young members of the security services, all of whom failed the test even more quickly. Vladimir Putin, the eighth figure to be examined, looked like the best of the lot. The choice was made and Putin was given everything: power, resources, emotional support and so on. Most of all, he was given one important and heartfelt command: “Take care of Russia.”

But initial doubts eventually turned to questions, and these questions ultimately turned into objections. Yeltsin reacted painfully to the betrayal not of himself, but of Russia. But there was nothing he could do to halt the march backward. His private concerns and his public appeals were cut off quickly. It had turned into his biggest mistake.

All that had been done in those years, in the course of an immense struggle that claimed so many victims, was lost. Everything created by Yeltsin in the name of Russian freedom has been systematically and methodically destroyed.

What could he do once the awful mistake had already been made? When nobody was guilty aside from Yeltsin himself? When he no longer had the power, health, time or even the opportunity to speak out and try to reverse the error. What could he do? Could he just sit back and listen to, tolerate and resign himself to what was happening? Could he have reconciled himself to it and, by his silent agreement, sanction the destruction of the free Russia he had created? That would have meant fighting for freedom all your life and, at the end of it all, helping bury it. Not a chance. Yeltsin refused to play along. Trapped at a dead end, Yeltsin found a way out — the exit for a free person.

Yeltsin made the most important decision in his life himself. His heart couldn’t stand the pain of today’s Russia.

So he left.

As a sign of protest.

As a sign of refusual.

As a sign that he would not accept what was happening to the country.

He never surrendered his freedom to anyone. He remained free. Forever. A free man of a free Russia.

Andrei Illarionov, former economic policy advisor to President Vladimir Putin, is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute.