By Peter Finn
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, April 24, 2007
MOSCOW, April 23 -- Former Russian president Boris Yeltsin, who died Monday of heart failure, will be buried Wednesday in the history-rich clay of Moscow's Novodevichy Cemetery, where elites of the Soviet Union and Russia, poets and politicians, scientists and spies, have traditionally been laid to rest.
President Vladimir Putin declared Wednesday a national day of mourning. But there was little sign of spontaneous grief over the former president's passing at age 76. Russia is deeply ambivalent about the legacy of Yeltsin, the country's first post-communist leader, who ushered in democracy but struggled to contain the chaos it first engendered.
"We will do everything so that the memory of Boris Nikolayevich Yeltsin, his noble thoughts, and his words 'protect Russia' always serve us as moral and political guidelines," Putin said in a statement. "A man passed away, thanks to whom a whole new epoch was born. A new democratic Russia was born, a free state open to the world, a state in which power truly belongs to the people."
Despite the fond farewell, much of Yeltsin's Russia has been systematically dismantled by his successor. A boisterous, competitive, developing democracy with a crusading press has withered as the Kremlin has reined in parliament, taken control of broadcast outlets and weakened dissent to the point of extinction.
Yeltsin will not be buried in the Kremlin, the final resting place of most leaders of the Soviet Union. It was unclear whether that was a political statement by Putin's office or followed the wishes of the late president.
Revered by supporters in Russia and abroad as a bearish, sometimes unsteady but ultimately courageous man who had felled the Soviet Union and fathered a new Russian democracy, Yeltsin is widely seen here as a drunk who brought Russia and its people to their knees while the country was looted by his businessmen buddies.
He is also faulted here for the bloody humiliation of the Russian military in the breakaway republic of Chechnya and for Russia's perceived subservience abroad because of its lost superpower status.
"I hated him," said Igor Zhurkov, a 45-year-old construction worker. "The country was in total chaos under Yeltsin. Everything was stolen from the people, who were turned into beggars."
Yeltsin's battered image, trapped in the poverty of the 1990s, is not helped by the contrasts with today's much more prosperous Russia and with his successor, the sober and self-confident Putin.
But for all the derision, there were glimmers after Yeltsin's death Monday of a larger legacy that may ultimately be celebrated here.
"He made a lot of mistakes, of course, but he did change this country," said Valentina Surikova, 61, a retired doctor. "We could breathe freer than we do now."
International condolences, which poured into Russia, almost universally emphasized Yeltsin's democratic legacy.
"President Yeltsin was an historic figure who served his country during a time of momentous change," President Bush said in a statement that offered condolences to the Yeltsin family. "He played a key role as the Soviet Union dissolved, helped lay the foundations of freedom in Russia, and became the first democratically elected leader in that country's history. I appreciate the efforts that President Yeltsin made to build a strong relationship between Russia and the United States."
Yeltsin defined himself for the ages when he climbed onto a tank in August 1991 and beat back an attempted coup by hard-liners against Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, who was loosening the Communist Party's grip on power. By the end of that momentous year, the Soviet Union was no more, Gorbachev was sidelined, and Yeltsin, the first elected president of Russia, seemed to hold history in his fist.
The leaders of some of the former Soviet republics, now independent countries, were among the most effusive in their praise of him Monday. "I remember with gratitude Yeltsin's role in the peaceful reconstruction of Estonian independence in 1991, and his contribution to the removal of Russian troops from Estonia in 1994," Estonian President Toomas Hendrik Ilves said in a letter to Russia's leaders.
But the marginalized Gorbachev resented Yeltsin deeply, a fact that again seeped out Monday. "I express my deepest condolences to the family of the deceased, on whose shoulders lie many achievements in the service of the country, and serious mistakes," Gorbachev said in a statement.
When Yeltsin resigned on New Year's Eve 1999, turning over the presidency to his prime minister, the then little-known Putin, he acknowledged the shortcomings of his years in office.
"I want to ask your forgiveness for not fulfilling some hopes of those who believed that . . . in one go . . . we would be able to jump from a gray, stagnating totalitarian past into a bright, rich, civilized future," said Yeltsin, who by then was a weary, puffy-faced shadow of the firebrand of 1991. "I believed in this myself. It didn't happen in one jump."
His declining health and alcohol-fueled gaffes, particularly abroad, were a source of acute embarrassment for many Russians, who saw in them a mirror of the country's weakness. In particular, Yeltsin's apparent acquiescence to the NATO alliance's expansion eastward and his inability to do anything about NATO's bombing of Serbia in 1999 poisoned attitudes toward the West.
Russia's new assertiveness, seen recently in Putin's lambasting of the U.S. global role at a conference in Germany, is a stark and welcome change for many Russians.
Yeltsin disappeared from public life after leaving office and was largely silent on Putin's record. The two occasionally met, and last year Putin hosted a 75th birthday party for Yeltsin at the Kremlin.
Over the past six years, the Kremlin's centralization of power, its re-nationalization of strategic industries, particularly the country's natural resources, and its squeezing of political freedom have been justified here as necessary antidotes to the chaos of the Yeltsin years.
Buoyed by soaring prices for oil and natural gas, Russia under Putin has enjoyed the kind of economic boom and fiscal stability that Yeltsin could never have imagined. The president's approval ratings stand at 80 percent, while Yeltsin's rating, when people are asked to recall him, is in the low single digits.
The collapse of Soviet industry meant abject poverty for tens of millions of people, while a connected few exploited the privatization of state assets to become widely resented billionaires known as oligarchs. Many of those tycoons, notably Mikhail Khodorkovsky and Boris Berezovsky, are now in prison or in exile.
"I have lost my mentor, and Russia has lost the greatest reformer in all its history," Berezovsky said Monday.
Much of the wealth that the country's vast natural resources generate now flows to state accounts. The poverty level has been halved, and a sense of rising prosperity has softened resentment over the persistence of the oligarchs. Today's tycoons are politically silent except to pledge fealty to Putin's vision of a strong state.
Putin has also apparently tamed Chechnya, which Yeltsin disastrously invaded in 1994. A second war began in 1999.
Yeltsin's "greatest mistake was the first Chechen war," said Lyudmila Alexeyeva, head of the Moscow Helsinki Group, a human rights organization. "He was able to realize his mistake, but at the price of tens of thousands of lives. But he did admit the mistake and stopped the war. He was very humane. When he was leaving, he said to people, 'I'm sorry.' Not many leaders can do that."