Bluff, impulsive and yet imbued with a sense of populism and power politics, Boris Yeltsin departed the Russian presidency today leaving a legacy of extraordinary achievement deeply tarnished by his own weaknesses and failures.
A peasant boy from Sverdlovsk who rose to become a provincial leader of the Soviet Communist Party, Yeltsin played a central role in slaying both the party and the Soviet Union itself, dissolving an empire without large-scale conflict or bloodshed.
Even though he had spent most of his life in the stultifying centrally planned Soviet economy, Yeltsin launched radical free-market reforms that broke the state's choke hold on prices, property and trade. As the country's first democratically elected president, he threw open Russia's doors to the West, and stood as a guarantor of political freedoms to the end.
But Yeltsin's hopes of creating a prosperous, functioning market democracy in his own time were ultimately frustrated, often by his foibles and errors. He used brute force to put down a parliamentary rebellion in 1993, and launched a disastrous war against the breakaway region of Chechnya in 1994, a conflict that killed tens of thousands of civilians and ended inconclusively in 1996, only to reignite this year.
Tormented by long bouts of ill health, prone to drinking, often isolated and captive of a coterie of advisers and financiers, Yeltsin proved incapable of building all of the new institutions needed for a new Russia. He and the "young reformers" he brought to power had been zealous and determined in their rush to destroy the Soviet state, but proved woefully incapable of shaping what followed.
"When he was destroying the Soviet legacy, he was not thinking of what he was going to put in its stead," said Valery Solovei, an analyst at the Gorbachev Foundation. "Things were expected to work out by themselves, but unfortunately it does not happen that way in real life."
Yeltsin did oversee the establishment of a rudimentary electoral democracy, and he never once tried to close the vibrantly pluralistic Russian press. "It's a great achievement for a country that has not had free elections during the whole of the 20th century and throughout all its history," said analyst Mikhail Dmitriev of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace center here.
However, Yeltsin did not bring to life a functioning civil society, the key element in a democracy that connects the rulers and the ruled through institutions such as the press, free associations and the church. Totalitarianism suffocated civil society in Soviet times, but rather than nurture it, Yeltsin ended up ruling like a monarch.
His government failed to establish a state based on the rule of law. Russia was wracked by violence, car bombs and contract assassinations that claimed the lives of criminals, bankers, journalists and politicians. Quietly, Russia was also bled dry by a new generation of businessmen, including those favored by the Kremlin, who emptied the country's scarce capital into their own pockets in offshore zones.
Yeltsin had long been a master at balancing the rival political forces around him. His court was often full of competing political clans and he proved to have a fine touch for being the supreme arbiter among them.
He started his rise to power as the Communist Party boss in Sverdlovsk, now called Yekaterinburg. Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev brought him to Moscow to shake up the party leadership and bring in younger men. Yeltsin soon became Moscow party boss, and a populist phenomenon. He was seen on the bus and subway, and attacked the party elite's special stores and medical clinics, railing against party privileges.
Yeltsin's anti-establishment campaign got him thrown out of the Politburo, the Communist Party's ruling body, but he came back. He was elected president of the giant Russian Federation and became a leader of the democratic movement. But in the tense days of August 1991, while standing on a tank, he became the leading voice opposing a coup attempt against Gorbachev.
Within months, Yeltsin signed an agreement with the leaders of Ukraine and Belarus that unfastened the binds on the restive republics and the Soviet Union was disbanded. Gorbachev resigned, and Yeltsin's era in power began. It was an auspicious, difficult time, because Russia was plunged into ever deeper economic despair; shops were barren and there were fears of famine.
He put a small "gang" of young reformers in charge under economist Yegor Gaidar, and they went to work ripping apart what the Soviet state had built over seven decades. Yeltsin's team also included a young academic from St. Petersburg, Anatoly Chubais, who undertook the largest transfer ever of state property into private hands.
"Let's compare the country we have now and the one we had eight years ago," said Leonid Gozman, an adviser to Chubais and longtime democratic activist. "Everything was under state control then, every single nail in the economy was under control. And today the private sector accounts for more than 75 percent. It was a closed country then--only 500,000 people crossed the border in 1990. In 1998, it was 12 million."
But in the frenzy of economic reform, the weakened state lost control. Tycoons snapped up valuable mines, factories and refineries, and instead of a competitive liberal market, Russia turned into a wildly unbalanced economy in which wealth was accumulated by a few while millions suffered a precipitous decline in living standards.
Yeltsin's darkest hours came in the first war against separatist Chechnya, a conflict that severely undermined his authority and led to the killing of tens of thousands of his own citizens who lived there. Yeltsin later acknowledged it was his greatest error.
In the final throes of his rule, he became a tragic, weakened and isolated figure. Yeltsin's close circle was increasingly described as a "family" of magnates and aides, including his daughter Tatyana Dyachenko, who had a strong hand in running the country and who engineered the rise of Vladimir Putin as Yeltsin's successor.
"He became the hostage of his own regime, and the victim of it," said Lilia Shevtsova, a senior associate at the Carnegie Moscow Center and author of a Yeltsin biography. "He returned to the old Russian czarist tradition. He wanted to be Boris II, and he paid the price: nepotism, favoritism and the oligarchs. The more he wanted to preserve his supreme power, the more he needed to give it away--he wanted to preserve the omnipotence, but the result was impotence."