GWENDOLYN STEWART is a Fellow at the Davis Center for Russian Studies at Harvard University.
In these troubled times, an ailing Boris Yeltsin seems the almost too-perfect symbol for an ailing Russia. This is not how the second term of the first Russian president was supposed to turn out. Back in 1996, when the Communists under Gennady Zyuganov appeared poised to take over the presidency (they had already won a plurality in the Duma a half-year before), the ultimate rallying cry was "better a sick Yeltsin than a healthy Zyuganov." The Communists, it was thought, could do positive harm; Yeltsin at least could hold the country together as the fruits of "market democracy" ripened. Should worse come to worst, there were constitutional provisions for choosing a successor now in place; the Prime Minister, Viktor Chernomyrdin, would take over for three months as acting president, and then elections would be called. There was also already at least one other obvious candidate with a proven track record of winning elections, Moscow's Mayor Yury Luzhkov. But the hope was that the reinvigorated Yeltsin, who had toured Russia during the election campaign, would move the country forward if given four more years.
It seemed that important battles had been won, even if the victories had been paid for at a bitter price. After the confrontation with the Supreme Soviet had ended in the shelling of the White House, a post-Soviet constitution had finally been hammered out and ratified by popular referendum in December 1993. The main lines of development for the new political system were clear: Russia was to be not a parliamentary but a presidential republic--too much so, it was almost certain. The war in Chechnya, fought in the name of saving the Federation, had been brought to an uneasy cease-fire with the prospect of an ending within sight. The long-promised economic upturn had still not materialized, at least not in the officially registered economy, but hyper-inflation had been wrung out of the system. Now it was time to show, in a fully contested election, that Russians had moved beyond communism, away from their past, and were still willing to bet on the future.
Then Boris Yeltsin failed to show up at his regular polling place on July 1996, the day of the crucial final round of the election, but won with 54 percent of the votes. Two months later he made the unprecedented public announcement of his need for heart surgery and on November 5, 1996, he underwent a quintuple bypass surgery. The operation was declared a success, but the president's health and the political life of Russia have been on a roller coaster ride ever since.
The Making of Yeltsin
As obvious and devastating as the Russian crisis appears today, it is necessary to place it in context, to reflect on how much has changed in just a decade. Ten years ago Boris Yeltsin was a failed Soviet politician, drummed out of the ruling Politburo and marking time in a make-work job as deputy chief of the State Committee on Construction. Ten years ago the Soviet Union was indisputably the other superpower, and the Reagan administration had committed vast amounts of American resources in an effort to close what it saw as a window of vulnerability to the Evil Empire.
At home, the Soviet Union was entering the heady days of "democratization," centered on a new Congress of People's Deputies, Gorbachev's attempt to give the country a meaningful albeit circumscribed parliament. For the first time in more than 70 years something resembling real elections were in prospect, and Boris Yeltsin seized his chance to make a new, popularly-based political career. Andrei Sakharov, the physicist turned dissident, made a fateful if somewhat reluctant decision to ally with this former provincial apparatchik. He and the other liberal "Moscow deputies" ran orientation sessions for like-minded incoming deputies. Yeltsin was open to new opportunities and new programs after his dismissal from Gorbachev's circle, and some of that "orientation" has remained with him. …