Former Russian President Boris Yeltsin died this week at age 76, on the heels of two decades of both extraordinary health problems and political achievements.
His presidency ran from June 1991 through December 31, 1999—almost the entirety of the 1990s, a decade that will be viewed as one of the most significant in Russia’s long history, especially if the nation ultimately becomes a stable free-market democracy. He was a tumultuous man at a tumultuous time—tough, candid, colorful, to hell and back.
He was a complete anti-communist, the healthiest trait he ever developed, beginning as a child raised under Stalin’s Red Terror. He considered the Soviet communist system a “horror house,” which, when it wasn’t busy murdering the masses by the millions, was at least a good source of joke material for Yeltsin. He enjoyed testing the limits of Mikhail Gorbachev’s glasnost, ridiculing not only his personal dacha and other political perks in the Soviet system but even Gorbachev himself.
From inside the Communist Party, Yeltsin toiled to take it apart, annoying Gorbachev by his pushiness. As that system was falling apart at the seams, Yeltsin created confusion within the administration of President George H.W. Bush over whether America should side with him or Gorbachev. Bush and his Secretary of State Jim Baker put their faith in Gorbachev. They were warned by former President Richard Nixon that this was a mistake. Yeltsin, noted Nixon, was the most pro-Western, pro-American leader in Russian history. Gorbachev, to his credit, had been the starter, but Yeltsin needed to be the closer, said Nixon.
In June 1991, the closer got his chance, winning 57% of the vote in the first democratic presidential election in Russian history. In the six months that followed, 11 of the remaining republics that made up the USSR declared independence from the motherland. On Christmas Day 1991, Gorbachev accepted the inevitable, resigning as head of the Soviet Union. The Cold War was over, the Evil Empire on the ash-heap of history—as were the perverse dreams of Lenin and Stalin.
Yeltsin’s first of his two greatest contributions began shortly thereafter: With the help of American historians like James Billington and Richard Pipes, he opened the Soviet archives, exposing the full gamut of Bolshevik barbarity. The subsequent stench could be smelled from St. Petersburg to Washington. This was a crucial step in alerting the Soviet public to the fact that the Communist Party from the outset had been a party of gangsters. Yeltsin spent the remainder of the 1990s keeping Russia’s still dangerous communists from taking back the executive branch—even while they were the largest party in the legislature. This was an achievement of colossal importance, for which history will remember him fondly.
Despite ongoing corruption, a terrible economy, and often embarrassing personal behavior, Yeltsin survived. Then, on December 31, 1999, he provided the crowning touch to his career, ending his time in office in grace rather than disgrace: He announced to the world that he was stepping down. “I have heard many times that, ‘Yeltsin will hang on to power by any means, he won’t give it to anyone,’” he said of his detractors, before informing them with characteristic bluntness: “That’s a lie.”
He explained to Russia and the world why he was resigning: “But that’s not the point. I have always said that I would not depart one bit from the Constitution. That parliamentary elections should take place in the constitutionally established terms. That was done. And I also wanted presidential elections to take place on time—in June 2000. This was very important for Russia. We are creating a very important precedent of a civilized, voluntary transfer of power, power from one president of Russia to another, newly elected one.”
Exactly. That was the point. Yeltsin understood the big picture:
For a democratic experiment to work, that first democratically elected leader must move aside and turn over power to the next democratically elected leader, following the term limits imposed by the new democratic constitution (created in Russia in 1993). Yeltsin did just that. Though Boris Yeltsin will never be confused with George Washington, his parting action was similarly profound and critical—and many a leader has been unwilling to do what Yeltsin did, especially in a country where the norm has been usurpation of power.
Alas, he ended his resignation speech by asking for forgiveness that “what seemed simple to us turned out to be so tormentingly difficult.” He apologized “for not justifying some hopes of those people who believed that at one stroke, in one spurt, we could leap from the gray, stagnant, totalitarian past into the light, rich, civilized future.”
With this concluding gesture, the tragic Yeltsin of the latter 1990s reverted to the heroic Yeltsin of earlier times. President Boris Yeltsin’s final hour may have been his finest hour.
Of course, Russia today has a lot of work to do before it becomes a true democracy. Boris Yeltsin, however, did his part. He can rest in peace, having exorcised more than his share of demons from the Bolshevik horror house.