• 2007-04-25

cartoon by Jevgenijs CHeKSTERS

He gave the Baltics their independence, yet he sent an armored brigade into Chechnya to intimidate the renegade province. He signed off on the dissolution of a communist empire 's one of the great evils of the 21st century 's yet he presided over the creation of a monstrous kleptocracy run by oligarchic fiends and propped up by corrupt bureaucrats. He gave millions their long-cherished freedom, but he impoverished them in the process. Indeed, in the past half-century there has been no world leader more divisive, more contradictory, than Boris Nikolayevich Yeltsin. It was easy to adore this large, avuncular man with the boundlessly warm Siberian heart, yet it isn't difficult to despise him while one sees images of the destruction of Grozny.

Yeltsin's single greatest legacy 's ending the Soviet Union 's is caught up in the same battle of hearts and minds that grips Eastern Europe today (and is currently being waged in full force around the Bronze Soldier monument in Tallinn). It depends on how you view history. For many, the breaking up of the Soviet Union was a profound tragedy; for others, it was one of the outstanding accomplishments of the 21st century. This is why Russians are likely to assess Yeltsin's legacy more critically than Westerners (much in the same way that Gorbachev's is viewed differently at home and abroad, by the way).

Yet in recent years we have learned to admire Yeltsin by comparison. If Russia's first president was severely flawed, his successor is no less imperfect. Yeltsin oversaw a peaceful dissolution of the Soviet empire (the frozen conflicts erupted after 1991, save for Nagorno-Karabakh), yet Vladimir Putin has openly expressed nostalgia for the Soviet era, even referring to its decline as one of the major setbacks of the outgoing century. In Yeltsin's Russia, freedom of press was golden, to the point it was habitually abused by narrow commercial interests. Under Putin, the roar of independent media has been diminished to a cat's meowing. Yeltsin valued plurality of opinion; Putin's leadership has systematically dissembled it.

Yelstin was extremely distrustful of the KGB; he even worked to undermine it. Former Lieutenant Colonel Putin has reestablished the spy agency's influence, to the point that nowadays critics of the Kremlin can be assassinated while, say, dining at a London sushi bar. With Yelstin, tolerance of criticism was paramount; he often chided his subordinates for leaning too hard on the media; under Putin, the Kremlin has no qualms about beating peaceful demonstrators, as the world recently witnessed. It is hard to imagine innocent protesters and foreign journalists getting mauled and detained in 1990s Russia.

In the end, history is likely to judge Yeltsin as a courageous supporter of freedom whose meager leadership talents were incommensurate with the political tasks he inherited. He was a good man who was cast a rotten lot, and in the end the lot got the best of him. As the decade wore on, he retreated into himself, allowing an unelected cabal of oligarchs to run the world's largest country in his absence. It is only now that Russia is beginning to recover from the awful leadership of the 1990s, but to Yeltsin's ostensible disappointment, it is taking place at the price of freedom. Such is the eternal paradox 's and bane 's of Russian history.