Monday, April 23 at 2:30 p.m. ET

Boris Yeltsin and His Legacy

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David Hoffman
Washington Post Assistant Managing Editor, Foreign
Monday, April 23, 2007; 2:30 PM

Washington Post Assistant Managing Editor David Hoffman, who was the paper's Moscow correspondent from 1995 to 2001, will be online Monday, April 23 at 2:30 p.m. ET to discuss the life and times of former Russian president Boris Yeltsin, who died today at 76.

Former Russian Leader Boris Yeltsin, 76, Dies (Post, April 23)

Submit your questions and comments before or during the discussion.

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David Hoffman: Hello everyone. It is a good day to reflect on Yeltsin's legacy. I was the Moscow correspondent of The Post from 1995-2001, and wrote a book about the rise of Russian capitalism then, "The Oligarchs: Wealth and Power in the New Russia," (New York: PublicAffairs, 2002)

I don't have all the answers about Yeltsin and Russia. I will try to give you my perspective, but hope you'll understand this was an enormously complex time, and we still haven't figured it all out.

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Arlington, Va.: Although I don't love what happened to Russia during and after the Yeltsin years, I think we have to admit that none of us, even here in the West, had any real idea how to transform the USSR into a capitalist democracy. Our advice was as bad as Yeltsin's management. For that reason, I think his true legacy will be that heroic stand on the tank and all it symbolized. Yeltsin will come out a hero in history. Your thoughts?

David Hoffman: I would hesitate to put it all on the tank. Yes, this was a courageous moment at which Yeltsin showed us his remarkable political instincts. But his legacy will also have to be judged by other moments as well. One of them is mass privatization, taking the entire industrial and natural resources stock and suddenly putting it in private hands. Another is Chechnya, a war that did not have to be fought.

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washingtonpost.com: For Russians, how much of Yeltsin's legacy is tied up in the conflict in Chechnya?

David Hoffman: This war is certainly one of the lowest moments of recent Russian history. I have often wondered if it could have been averted. What would have been the consequence if Yeltsin had not launched it? Tens of thousands of lives would have been spared. Would Russia have broken up if Chechnya had been allowed to go its own way, to be independent? I doubt it. Tatarstan was given a lot of autonomy short of war, and no one sent in the tanks because the Tatar flag was flying in Kazan.

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Annapolis, Md.: Yeltsin always appeared to be an opportunist moreso than a leader. He sided with the right side of change and road the wave moreso than leading the movement to a great outcome. Not a Russian expert by any means, but it appears his gaffes allowed Russia to revert back to the state it is now, which I do not see as good in the long run. Comments?

David Hoffman: I would disagree. If he was just riding the wave, he would never have dared those populist moves in Moscow, or quitting the party or climbing the tank or mass privatization. I think he was a revolutionary, but like many revolutionaries, he didn't know what to do afterwards.

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washingtonpost.com: You mention the privatization of Russian industries under Yeltsin, something Putin largely has undone. Is Russia better off with or without the oligarchs who built up empires after the fall of communism?

David Hoffman: Putin has only partially undone the privatization, and it will be impossible to reverse it entirely. The most important point is this: a lot of history shows that states and governments are lousy managers of capitalism. They should set rules but not run companies. Anyone who ever saw a Soviet state-owned factory, or one in China, or anywhere else will get the idea. If you look at the Russian oil companies about 2002, when a big study was made of them, it was fascinating: those that had been totally privatized had the best oil production, profits, etc. Well, now Putin is going back to state ownership of hydrocarbons -- oil and gas. He wants to build "state champions," like Gazprom. Well, history shows that state champions is an oxymoron when it comes to capitalism. It doesn't work.

All that said, there's no going back to the USSR, and a big chunk of property in Russia is still private.

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washingtonpost.com: What has been the source of Putin's popularity as compared with Yeltsin? Did the present and former Russian leaders maintain close ties after the transfer of power?

David Hoffman: I have no idea if they maintained contact.

Putin's popularity may be attributed to several things. One factor is that oil prices skyrocketed in his time. This allowed him to pay salaries on time, to begin to rebuild. You can imagine how history might have been different to Yeltsin if oil had gone to $70 a barrel on his watch. A second reason for Putin's popularity is that I think people hunger for order, and a pause. Too much upheaval in the 1980s and 1990s -- and Putin seems to stand for that. Yet another reason is that there is no competition. Putin has all but obliterated serious political competition. If people don't hear about competitors on television, then how are they going to know?

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Detroit: I read that Yeltsin died of heart failure. (Was this alcoholic cardiomyopathy?) How much was alcohol abuse a problem for him during his life and how much did it interfere with his governing duties and health?

David Hoffman: I heard the same. Don't forget he had major heart surgery in 1996. I don't know about the alcohol, but it was clearly part of his life, and in that he was not atypical.

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Bethesda, Md.: What will Russians say about Yeltsin a hundred years from now?

David Hoffman: I won't hazard a guess about 100 years from now, but I would suggest a couple of things about the legacy. First, although most people associate him with getting up on the tank, it was the things he did after the 1991 coup attempt that were most important. In October, he was writing up a radical economic policy speech and wrote in there, "free prices" immediately. his aides were aghast! they crossed it out. "you can't do that!" they said. they were afraid of such sudden change. Yeltsin then went on television and said: prices are free. it was revolutionary. the next year or two he freed property. he freed trade. these were mammoth changes which set russia on the path it is on today. Yeltsin also took a "let many flowers bloom" attitude to democracy. he didn't know how to build a political party, but he should have -- and if he had really built a party to support his reforms, things might have turned out differently. one part of his legacy is that his democratic reforms were relatively easy to reverse under putin.

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Fairfax, Va.: Has Yeltsin ever regretted breaking up USSR? History will not be too kind on him for this big mistake.

David Hoffman: No, I don't think he ever uttered regret, but he bombed the hell out of a lot of people in Chechnya. For what? If he meant that every republic should take as much independence as it could swallow, why did he, only a few years later, go to war against Chechnya? One of many unanswered questions.

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Freising, Germany: Corruption and organized crime were no doubt present in the Soviet Union, but often it sounds like both flourished during the Yeltsin era. Was Yeltsin in any way at fault for this, and has Putin been able to reign things in?

David Hoffman: You know, the laws of the Soviet Union, in place when it collapsed, said that entrepreneurship was criminal. These laws were only gradually replaced in the early 1990s. So, it was a lawless space. I think "organized crime" is kind of a misnomer for what happened. If there weren't rules, if the laws were old or unenforced, can there be organized crime? Yes, indeed there were some gangs, violent and thieving. But the little secret is they didn't fool with the big money. The really huge riches were grabbed by the fellows I wrote about in my book, the Oligarchs. And I would say they were ruthless hustlers in a society without rules or laws. That's where the big money lived. Yeltsin created it! He didn't know how to fix it. One way, I think, was to let it evolve. Our own American history teaches us the power of this evolution (Carnegie, etc). However, Putin didn't take that path. Instead, he decided to impose his own will on the oligarchs, and create a kind of state capitalism. Today Russia seems to have swapped one group of hustlers for another.

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Washington: What is the reaction in Russia to his death? How does Putin regard Yeltsin? It seems so many Russian leaders in the past seem to be totally disregarded by whatever current "administration" runs the country.

David Hoffman: The announcement came late so I don't know that there's been time to get much reaction yet. Tomorrow will be very interesting. This is an interesting moment to reflect on Yeltsin's legacy, but many people remember only the chaos. I will be very interested to see how the legacy is interpreted by today's leaders in Moscow, and by people.

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Fairfax, Va.: I seem to recall Yeltsin stumbling about a couple times during his tenure, and didn't he even go to some kind of "rehab" while in office to "recuperate"? Was he a heavy drinker, and how much of an effect, if any, did it have on his holding office and his credibility among his own people and the world?

David Hoffman: As I said earlier, I think alcohol was part of his life before his 1996 heart surgery, and in that respect he was more like the people he led, than different.

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Poplar Bluff, Mo.: What is your views concerning the relationship between Yeltsin and Gorbachev? What was the basis of them being rivals?

David Hoffman: Gorbachev wanted to save Soviet socialism. Yeltsin wanted to wreck it. We would not have had the change without both of them. Gorbachev's steps were absolutely revolutionary but they were also limited by his ultimately hope to create some kind of workable socialism. Yeltsin's reforms were incredibly radical, but also limited by his inability to move beyond the role of destroyer to the role of builder. In the end, Gorbachev's hopes to save socialism were probably misplaced, it was just too far gone by 1985 (although there remains an argument about this among scholars.) Yeltsin's hopes that a big-bang would solve everything obviously were misplaced too.

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Naylor, Mo.: Have you heard where Mr. Yeltsin will be buried? Aren't many Russian leaders buried in the Kremlin?

David Hoffman: The wires say Novodevichy, not the Kremlin. For those who don't know, this is a beautiful spot in Moscow, where many writers and artists also lie.

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Moscow: The current state of Russia's economy often makes me wonder, how would Yeltsin's presidency have been different had oil prices been at the level they are today?

David Hoffman: It might have been remarkably different. Yeltsin would have enjoyed the breathing room to build a real political constituency -- a party -- to support reform, and he might have not endured such disappointment over democracy. However, we can't just blame oil prices. The truth is that Yeltsin, and those who worked shoulder to shoulder with him, did not devote enough time and attention to building. My wish is not so much for a different oil price, but that Yeltsin had realized he needed to consolidate his revolution, create a functioning civil society and rule of law. These would have been sustaining gifts to Russia.

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