The Good Czar: The Strange Nobility of Boris Yeltsin

By Young, Cathy | Reason, July 2007 | Go to article overview

The Good Czar: The Strange Nobility of Boris Yeltsin


Young, Cathy, Reason


"YELTSIN DIED OF grief" declared the headline of an obituary on the liberal Russian website EJ.ru. The former president of Russia, wrote columnist Andrei Ryklin, simply could not bear to watch the destruction of the freedom he had worked so hard to bring to his country.

That's reaching a bit. If anything hastened Boris Yeltsin's death at 76 (a fairly ripe old age, especially for Russian men), it's far more likely to have been years of heavy drinking. Nonetheless, there is a certain grim symbolism to the fact that his final days were marked by some devastating blows to what remains of Russian liberty.

Earlier in April, anti-government demonstrations in Moscow and St. Petersburg were dispersed by security forces with a brutality unseen since the waning days of the Soviet empire; dozens of demonstrators were beaten badly enough to seek hospital treatment, and many were arrested. The day before Yeltsin's death, a front-page story in The New York Times reported new moves to curb free speech on Russia's still relatively independent radio stations, with owners instructing their staffs to focus on the positive in domestic news coverage and ignore opposition leaders.

Every day in President Vladimir Putin's Russia is a reminder that the window of freedom the country enjoyed in the Yeltsin era (and even, in some respects, in the tail end of the Gorbachev years) is closing. Enjoyed is a relative term, since it was also a period of chaos, poverty, and corruption.

But as the Russian journalist Vladimir Kara-Murza noted in another EJ.ru obituary, Yeltsin's Russia was "a country which had independent television and no political prisoners," a country where opposition parties flourished and where the president could embarrass himself with drunken antics but did not muzzle critics or send goons to crush peaceful protests and take over TV stations. (It should be noted that Yeltsin did shut down some far-left and far-right parties and papers, including Pravda, during his 1993 standoff with pro-Communist hard-liners in Parliament, though this ban proved a temporary measure.)

Yeltsin's flaws were not limited to drunken antics. He went to war in Chechnya--twice. He also initiated the consolidation of presidential power that allowed Putin, his handpicked successor, to emerge as an authoritarian strongman. While he came to admire American capitalism, he had little if any understanding of how markets work. He was far from a free market radical, and his economic reforms ran aground on graft, mismanagement, and the lack of an effective legal framework. (That said, you can legitimately wonder whether there was any "good" way to clean up the wreckage of the Soviet economy.) Yeltsin was almost certainly corrupt, and he was surrounded by corrupt minions.

The man who dissolved the USSR and became the first president of Russia inspired extraordinary hopes but left office with an extraordinary apology. In his televised resignation speech on the eve of the new millennium, he asked the people's forgiveness "for the fact that many of our dreams, yours and mine, never came true" and for "not having justified the hopes" of those who believed a better life could be achieved quickly. While this statement highlighted Yeltsin's failures, it also points to a certain--dare one say--nobility.

Russia is often seen in the West as a land of paradox and enigma. In that sense Yeltsin was truly its son. The coverage of his death reflects these contradictions. A startlingly nasty piece by Rolling Stone columnist Matt Taibbi, who lived in Russia in the Yeltsin years, branded the deceased "a mean, thieving country drunk," a mob boss with a whole country as his turf. (It's hard to tell whether this poison-pen obituary, which among other things holds against Yeltsin the squalor in which the president grew up, was motivated more by Taibbi's politics or by his taste for provocation.

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