Boris Nikolayevich Yeltsin, who passed away on April 23 at the
age of 76, was a controversial ruler to whom the Russian people owe
a debt of gratitude. U.S. leaders worked closely with Yeltsin to
keep Russia on track during the hardest days of the post-communist
collapse, to prevent the former Soviet Union from becoming a
Yugoslavia-style bloodbath, and to keep over 20,000 nuclear weapons
under control in an impoverished country.
Yeltsin was an unlikely revolutionary. Like his predecessor,
Mikhail Gorbachev, and his handpicked successor, Vladimir Putin,
Yeltsin was a transitional figure on the long road from Russia's
communist empire to some destination still unknown.
The U.S. will remember Boris Yeltsin as someone who, despite his
limitations, meant well and worked to bring his country back to the
family of nations, to freedom and humanity, which have been so
often lacking in Russia's tortured history.
A successful member of the Soviet ruling class, he did his
utmost to bring down the communist system. In the process, he led
the dismantlement of the Soviet Union, attempting to create, for
the first time in Russia's 1,000-year history, a modern nation
state. He almost succeeded.
Yeltsin, the son and grandson of peasants from the Ural
Mountains who were punished by Stalin, was a loyal apparatchik in
the big industrial city of Sverdlovsk, the heart of the Soviet
military-industrial complex. He zealously surpassed construction
quotas and led the effort to destroy the Ipatyev House, where
Nicholas Romanov, the last czar, his family, and his entourage were
held and brutally executed by the Bolsheviks in 1918.
But when promoted to Moscow under Michael Gorbachev to become
the country's construction boss and later, Moscow city Communist
Party secretary, Yeltsin turned into a populist and challenged the
ruling Politburo. He was kicked out in 1988, only to return as an
elected member of Supreme Soviet and as the first competitively
elected chairman of the Russian Parliament. In 1991, he won
Russia's presidential elections.
Yeltsin valiantly led the Parliament and the throng of citizens
who stood against the Russian tanks of the August 1991 communist
hardliner coup. As the coup failed, Yeltsin sidelined Gorbachev and
managed the divorce of the Soviet Union member republics, which was
finalized in December 1991. Shortly thereafter, on Christmas Day in
1991, the Soviet Union expired.
The new state that Yeltsin led, the Russian Federation, faced
empty coffers, pillaged by communists. It had no working
institutions and runaway inflation. Communists and their
nationalist allies wanted revenge. The country was in turmoil.
By firing his leading economic reformer, Yegor Gaidar, in
December 1992 and appointing former gas minister Victor
Chernomyrdin as his Prime Minister, Yeltsin slowed the pace of
reforms and allowed corruption to flourish. Unlike Poland, the
Czech Republic, Hungary, and the Baltic states, Russian reforms
were piecemeal and lacked a serious legislative base.
Russia also lacked a constitution, and the anti-reform Supreme
Soviet threatened to impeach Yeltsin as it sought to amass power.
In the spring of 2003, Yeltsin took his political reform plan to a
popular referendum, which he won, and later ordered the Supreme
Soviet disbanded. He sent troops to prevent the legislature from
gathering. The Supreme Soviet and its supporters attempted an armed
insurrection. Yeltsin's power was in danger for the second time in
Despite having put down the insurrection, Yeltsin failed to
disband the Communist Party or purge the system of its supporters.
Unlike Solidarity leaders in Poland, Vaclav Havel in the Czech
Republic, and the Baltic anti-communists, Yeltsin was a part of the
old system and did not and could not fill the government with
anti-communists, who lacked any administrative or security
Yeltsin failed to see through legal proceedings against the
Communist Party and launched a war against separatist Chechnya,
which would play a key role in Russia's slide back toward
authoritarianism. He never managed to put together an effective
economic reform package, and the brief recovery of 1996-1997 ended
with the disastrous financial crisis of August 1998, which brought
the hard-liner Yevgeny Primakov to the Prime Minister's office and
set the reformers back even further.
Nevertheless, Yeltsin did not use power to suppress opposition
parties, and he allowed unprecedented freedom of the media. After
Primakov was fired, he appointed former Interior Minister Sergey
Stepashin as Prime Minister, only to replace him with the loyal and
tough head of the secret police, the Federal Security Service. The
new prime minister, appointed in summer of 1999, was Vladimir
By then, Yeltsin's health had deteriorated. He had suffered two
heart attacks, both connected to his political battles, the first
in 1988, when he became the first man to oppose the Soviet
Politburo and come out on top. The second happened during the
touch-and-go presidential election campaign of 1996. In the fall of
1996, Yeltsin underwent a quintuple bypass. The media and
acquaintances have reported serious problems with alcohol
Yeltsin often bristled at U.S. foreign policy assertiveness but
never confronted it openly. This is why NATO enlargement and NATO
involvement in Yugoslavia were relatively painless. But under
Yeltsin, the truculent security elites launched broad military and
nuclear cooperation with Iran, a major irritant in bilateral
U.S.-Russian relations. Yeltsin failed to reform Russia's security
and foreign policy.
Yeltsin left Russia weak but relatively free. The country had a
diffuse power structure, which included the presidency, the
legislative branch, elected regional governors, and outspoken
media. However, unlike in Eastern Europe and the Baltic states, the
communist security services and police were left intact, leading to
Under Yeltsin, the middle class began to grow, and freedom of
religion and movement were enshrined. Today, Russia is much
wealthier, growing steadily at about 7 percent annually since 2000.
It has a flat income tax of 13 percent and a corporate income tax
of 24 percent. Foreign investment is flowing in at unprecedented
rate, and capital flight is mostly ended.
Yeltsin, however, failed to secure his most precious
gain-freedom-beyond his presidency. The constitution he rammed
through in late 1993 granted unprecedented powers to the president.
The post-Yeltsin centralization of power includes the appointment
of governors, a pliant parliament, state control of all TV channels
and most radio and print media, and the breaking of the oligarchs'
Mass demonstrations which took place under Gorbachev and Yeltsin
today are inconceivable; recently, 9,000 heavily armed riot police
broke up a 2,000-strong peaceful demonstration. While Yeltsin
failed to leave behind the rule of law, his successors dismantled
what was left.
If Russia evolves toward a model of Western democracy, Yeltsin
will be remembered as its founding father. Like Gorbachev, he will
be credited primarily as the destroyer of the horrendous Soviet
legacy. If, however, Russia freezes in authoritarianism, Yeltsin's
legacy there will remain that of a weak and erratic ruler.
Ariel Cohen, Ph.D.,
is Senior Research Fellow in Russian and Eurasian Studies and
International Energy Security in the Douglas and Sarah Allison
Center for Foreign Policy Studies, a division of the Kathryn and
Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies, at The