The Legacy of Boris Yeltsin


Boris YeltsinBoris Yeltsin, the former president of Russia who died on Monday, will be buried in Moscow today. The event is full of symbolism. This is the first funeral of a Russian head of state since the Soviet Union collapsed. So, instead of the Halls of Columns, the former trade unions’ headquarters where Russian leaders used to lie in state, Yeltsin’s coffin was placed in the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour in the Kremlin, the church which Stalin, the Soviet dictator, blew up during the 1930s, and which Yeltsin rebuilt, as an exact replica. And, instead of being interred near the Kremlin walls in Red Square, Yeltsin is laid to rest in a select cemetery, together with Russia’s true luminaries. In historical terms, therefore, Yeltsin’s departure is also an indication of how far Russia has moved in the last two decades.
 
But, apart from this honour and its imagery, the reality remains that few Russians will mourn Yeltsin’s departure. For the Russia which he wanted to created was not born. And his legacy, although important, has created the problems which the world faces with Russia today. Yeltsin was a great man, who also left a great deal of problems.
 
Western leaders have rushed to praise Yeltsin’s memory. Former US President Bill Clinton, whose term of office coincided with that of Yeltsin, said that “history will be kind to him”. George H W Bush, another previous American president, called him a “historic figure”, while Lady Thatcher claimed  that Yeltsin “deserves to be honoured as a patriot and liberator”. Equally important are the statements of former and present leaders from Central and Eastern Europe, the lands which the Soviet Union used to rule. Some local variations notwithstanding, all of them praised the former Russian president for his actions; most of them acknowledged that they owe their current independence to what he did at the beginning of the 1990s.
 
Yet very few of these leaders now care to remember that, when Boris Yeltsin initially came to prominence, he was dismissed in the West as just a trouble-maker. At that time, the West was still supporting Mikhail Gorbachev, the man who tried to reform, but keep the Soviet Union together. Compared to Gorbachev, who loved long academic seminars about the merits of “socialism” versus “capitalism” and who said all the right things for Western ears, Boris Yeltsin appeared as just a gruff populist, who wanted to “disrupt” the “status quo”. When, at the beginning of his public career, he tried to visit the West, he was usually shunned. And, when Gorbachev himself maltreated him – by concocting together with the KGB various allegations about his alleged private conduct – few in the West lifted a finger in Yeltsin’s defence. Now, he is lauded as a hero. But it is wise to remember that the West had treated him like it has treated all former Soviet or Russian leaders: when he challenged the established order, he was hated; when he came to power, he was embraced and, when he disappointed in his performance, most Western leaders shrugged their shoulders but still decided to support him, on the argument that “there is no alternative”.
 
But fate ultimately favoured Boris Yeltsin. When the military in Moscow mounted a coup against Gorbachev in August 1991 - in order to save the Soviet Union – Yeltsin was the first politician to understand that the Soviet Union was finished. And, while most of the world’s leaders were hiding behind meaningless communiqués (France’s President Francois Mitterrand went as far as to accept the coup’s results) Yeltsin had the courage to get on a tank, and call on Russians to stand up to the military. It was the finest moment of his life. But almost everything thereafter was, ultimately, a disappointment.
 
Yeltsin is now accused by many ordinary Russians – including the current leaders in Moscow - for “giving up” on the Soviet Union, without getting anything in return from the West. The accusation is grotesque. By the time he became leader, the Soviet Union disintegrating; he was in no position to bargain, or extract any concessions. Gorbachev “lost” Eastern Europe; Yeltsin merely accepted that the Soviet Union was “lost” as well.
 
The only way Yeltsin could have kept the empire together was by using military force. Wisely, Yeltsin never even considered that option, although it is doubtful that the Soviet armed forces would have been able to keep the country together, even if they were ordered to. Either way, for the first time in world history, an empire disappeared within weeks, without firing a shot. Yeltsin’s decision made it possible for Britain – which waited until the very last possible moment – to recognize the independence of the Baltic States. And it made possible Ukraine’s peaceful independence.  It is easy to see why world leaders praise him today, and why history will be kind to this man. But is equally obvious why a leader associated with such a rapid national decline is not fondly remembered at home.
 
But that event apart, most of Yeltsin’s other activities had turned out to be big failures, and this was evident while he was still in government. The Russian leader granted his people a large degree of freedom: media and cultural activities exploded, and people suddenly felt liberated. But there was no attempt to create a coherent civil society, and no effort to portray Russia as a new liberating experience, after the horrible years of the Soviet Union.
 
And there was no realization that the country needed to build workable state institutions. When the Russian parliament began opposing the president, Yeltsin simply sent in the tanks to storm the building. And, instead of encouraging ministries to take responsibility, he kept all the decisions among his friends. Politicians came and went; governments were reshuffled, and a new “czar’s court” was quickly established, composed of Yeltsin’s trusted individuals and, of course, his immediate family. No leader can work miracles, single-handedly. But Yeltsin did not even try very hard.
 
More importantly, the country’s resources were distributed – in a “spontaneous privatization” among a handful of people; that is how Russia’s so-called “oligarchs” were created. These fabulously rich men often paid no taxes. But they did contribute to Yeltsin’s re-election campaign in 1996 and, allegedly, greased the palms of many of his close collaborators.
 
The result for ordinary Russians was terrible. Rampant inflation destroyed their lifetime savings; food shortages abounded and their country, which used to be admired and feared around the world, became the subject of universal pity. Of course, Yeltsin was largely a victim of events beyond his control; trying to create capitalism without capital can never be a clean, coherent process. Nevertheless, at no point did he give an indication that he either understood what the problem was, or knew how to fix it.
 
Paradoxically, Yeltsin’s legendary fondness for alcohol was not, on its own, a hindrance: on average, ordinary Russians consume 15 litres of pure alcohol a year, more than any other nation on earth. But their leader’s public appearances while drunk became legendary. On one occasion he arrived for a visit to Ireland, but was unable to stand up; his plane took off again, leaving behind a stunned Irish president and the guard of honour, waiting on the airport’s tarmac. Such episodes heightened the national humiliation which all Russians felt. And they also indicated a personal reckless streak, an inability to control his life, something which permeated Russia’s politics as well.
 
Vladimir Putin, the country’s current president – and another Yeltsin creation actually -  is the exact opposite. He does not drink or joke much. But he has imposed order, and he has vowed to restore his country’s credibility. More importantly, he believes that confrontation, rather than co-operation with the West, is better placed to meet Russia’s objectives. All of Yeltsin’s practices and instincts have now been repudiated.
 
Nevertheless, the scars left by Yeltsin still run deep. Because of him, most ordinary Russians remain resentful of the West. And, due to their past experience, Russians are suspicious of the market economy. Yeltsin promised to make his country more like the West. But he leaves behind a Russia which rejects the Western model of development.
 
A great man, certainly. But a deeply flawed one, who created just as many problems as he tried to solve. To him, we owe the peaceful end of the Cold War. On his shoulders, however, rests the responsibility for the currently awkward relationship we have with Russia.

Jonathan Eyal
Director, International Security Studies




Explore our related content