BORIS YELTSIN was a man of great contradictions who nevertheless will be remembered, first and foremost, for a single image: his defiant stand upon a T-72 tank in front of the Russian parliament in August 1991 against a coup by defenders of the dying Soviet Union. That is the right place to begin any assessment of the first democratic leader in Russia's history -- especially as he may be the last for some time to come.
On that day and for a year or two before and after it, Mr. Yeltsin fought for a Russia that would be ruled by the free market, free speech and a vibrant civil society. He led a nation that appeared prepared to leave behind centuries of imperialism and live peacefully and cooperatively with its immediate neighbors and the rest of the world. Though Mikhail Gorbachev began the dismantlement of Soviet-style communism, it was Mr. Yeltsin who ensured that the process led, albeit temporarily, to democracy and liberal capitalism. He was also the chief protagonist of the Soviet Union's peaceful breakup, which has allowed 14 nations besides Russia to pursue their own destinies, including three that are now members of the European Union and NATO. Had Mr. Gorbachev, or Russia's current leader, Vladimir Putin, had his way, neither of these extraordinarily positive changes would have happened.
Tragically, Mr. Yeltsin ended up destroying much of what he had achieved. In 1993 he ordered the army to attack the same parliament building he had defended; though the political reactionaries inside were the first to take up arms, Mr. Yeltsin's response was brutal. Even more so was his invasion the next year of Chechnya, which, while failing to crush an independence movement, destroyed the republic, killed tens of thousands and set the stage for an even bloodier war by Mr. Putin. In 1996, Mr. Yeltsin won a second free election for president, but only after striking a corrupt deal with a group of businessmen who financed his campaign in exchange for being allowed to take control of some of Russia's biggest companies. Often ill or seemingly drunk, he allowed corruption and disorder to flourish in and outside of government and embarrassed Russians with his pratfalls.
Mr. Yeltsin's final sin was to hand the presidency in December 1999 to Mr. Putin, a product of the same KGB that had attempted the coup of 1991. It may be that Mr. Yeltsin, exhausted and besieged by opponents, had little choice; the move may have spared him and his family from impeachment and prosecution. But in the following seven years Mr. Putin has extinguished most of the liberal reforms his predecessor battled for. Once again elections in Russia are a Potemkin fraud, almost all the media follow government orders and dissidents are beaten in the streets, or worse. Moscow again has imperial pretensions: Mr. Putin has tried to annex Belarus and force other neighbors to become Kremlin satellites.
A cynic might ask whether today's Russia is much different from what it would have been had Mr. Yeltsin not mounted his tank and the 1991 coup had succeeded. Yet some of his achievements are surely irreversible -- the freedom of the Baltic states, the creation of a Russian business class that lives by entrepreneurship. There is, too, the memory of the unfettered society Mr. Yeltsin presided over -- a time of chaos and misery for many, but also of free speech, free association and free elections. For now most Russians seem to approve of Mr. Putin's authoritarian remedy for the chaos. In time, they may embrace the aspirations for freedom that Mr. Yeltsin embodied at his best.