Boris Yeltsin, 1931-2007

Rough-Hewn Father of Russian Democracy

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By Lee Hockstader
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Boris Yeltsin was once asked to name his greatest goal as president. He answered that more than anything, he wanted tranquillity for Russia.

Ultimately, it eluded him. But the burly Siberian who was Russia's first freely elected leader did more than anyone to raze the rotting communist superstructure of the former Soviet Union and build from its ruins the framework of a newly democratic and capitalist country.

Yeltsin died Monday at 76, a Kremlin official announced. The Interfax news agency quoted an unidentified medical source as saying that he died of heart failure.

Like Peter the Great, the 18th-century czar he once mentioned as his model, Yeltsin was no towering democrat. In launching a war against the breakaway southern region of Chechnya in 1994, he was responsible for the violent deaths of more Russian citizens than any Kremlin leader since Joseph Stalin. As president, he tolerated -- even authorized -- the excesses of a system in some ways as corrupt and morally adrift as the one it replaced.

Yet like the autocratic Peter, Yeltsin took hold of a stultifying, hermetically closed country and flung open its doors to fresh ideas, methods and influences.

His liberating reforms went radically beyond those attempted by his Kremlin predecessor and rival, Mikhail Gorbachev, and in the 1990s gave rise to a society more free, more diverse, more energized, more entrepreneurial -- and more chaotic -- than any in Russian history. Yeltsin broke the state's chokehold on prices and trade. He took a vast treasure of state-owned factories, mines and oil fields and delivered them into private hands, generating anger, envy and, for a few, enormous profits.

As the country's first democratically elected president, he stood as a guarantor of political freedoms. Millions of Russians went abroad for the first time, voted in elections and learned to rely on themselves rather than the state. But they were disappointed when democracy did not bring prosperity. The early reforms of the 1990s were painful for the elderly, the infirm and those unable to adapt rapidly to the staggering changes. Death rates, suicides, alcoholism, joblessness, prices and crime soared. Birth rates, pensions, health-care standards, factory output and state support for kindergartens and social welfare programs fell dizzyingly.

Tormented by long bouts of ill health, prone to drinking, often isolated, Yeltsin proved incapable of building all of the new institutions Russia needed. He and the reformers he brought to power had been zealous in their rush to destroy Soviet power, but they proved incapable of shaping what followed. Although he instinctively understood freedom, Yeltsin did not create the key element in a democracy, the strong civil society that connects rulers and ruled through institutions such as the press, free associations and the church.

His government also failed to establish the rule of law. Russia was racked by violence, including car bombings and contract assassinations that claimed the lives of criminals, bankers, journalists and politicians. Yeltsin's policies gave rise to a new generation of tycoons, known as oligarchs, who supported his 1996 reelection bid after he turned over shares of the state's most valuable companies to them in exchange for loans.

Yeltsin resigned from the presidency in a dramatic New Year's Eve address in 1999, choosing as his successor Vladimir Putin, an obscure former KGB official. Putin was elected president the following March and has reversed many of the democratic gains of the Yeltsin years, encountering little resistance from Russians. Where Yeltsin encouraged unruly competition in business and politics, Putin has imposed a new order from the top down.

Yeltsin was crass, imperious, clownish and confrontational, a man with a titanic ego and an astounding flair for political theater. He demanded the lead role in every drama in his dramatic life--from his schoolboy days in a bleak town in the Urals to his crowning moment when he scrambled atop a T-72 tank and faced down hard-line Communists attempting a coup in 1991.

"If a game is easy, one cannot see my best performance," he said in a 1993 interview. "But if a game is tense, I can work magic."


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