Boris Nikolaievich Yelstin is dead. Many are sure to evaluate his legacy over the coming days and years. Almost universally hailed as “democratic” in the West, Yeltsin’s rule was a complicated mix of democracy, authoritarianism, oligarchy, theft, corruption, crime, and gangster capitalism. It was a time of hope and fear for the average Russian. Gone was the authoritarianism of the Soviet system, but that vacuum also produced an uneasy feeling of what came next. A spirit of democracy quickly filled that vacuum only to flutter out as “western” democracy became associated with the utter destruction of the Russian social and economic base. Time doesn’t permit to cite the relevant statistics on the precipitous collapse of the standard of living in the 1990s.
Yeltsin, among many things, will be remembered for standing on a tank in Moscow thus preventing counter-revolution, bombarding the White House with tanks, shaking his tail feather during his election campaign, arriving to Berlin drunk, and playing tennis.
Yeltsin will also be remembered for the Chechen War. It was hardly a “small victorious war,” as he and his handlers hoped. Russia’s defeat led to a brief d?tente between Moscow and Grozny in the form of a quasi-independent, though not internationally recognized, Ichkeria.
Yeltsin will be remembered for introducing the world of Vladimir Putin. A virtually unknown figure in 1999 when he became Prime Minister, Putin was originally viewed in Russian oligarchic circles as a manageable bureaucrat who would rule in their name. He wasn’t and what Russia looks like today is very much a result of Putin’s efforts to tame the oligarchy. In this sense, present day Russia is also in part laid in Yeltsin’s lap.
Lastly, in thinking about Yelstin’s presidency, one can’t help make analogies to the 1920s. Also an economically chaotic and socially disastrous yet politically and culturally vibrant time, the 1920s was the hope for a new, democratic Russia. Small “d” democracy was too squashed in the 1920s resulting in Stalin. Stalin, like Putin, was also viewed as manageable by the Bolshevik oligarchy. This underestimation ushered in their demise in the Terror of the 1930s.
While I reject any comparison of Putin to Stalin, the similar historical trajectory of the 1920s and 1990s can’t be denied. Chaos begot stability, but stability came with the cost of crushing of democracy. In my view, it is Yeltsin’s role in this historical echo that will stand out as his most enduring legacy.
Obituaries on Yeltsin abound. Here is a tentative list.
More obituaries and analysis are sure to follow in the coming days.