Monday, April 23, 2007

And So, Farewell Then

Russia's former President Boris Yeltsin has died. When most people think of Yeltsin, they think of a drunk first, and a corrupt politician second. While he was both of those things, hopefully history will look at him more fairly than that. He was a long way from being all bad.

Like the Soviet leaders that went before him, Yeltsin came from the provinces. In his case, Yekaterinburg (then called Sverdlovsk), where as mayor he ordered the demolition of the house where Tsar Nicholas and his family were murdered. The only sign of Yeltsin I found when I went there was a photo of him visiting a local off licence, but at least he was smiling, which is more than his successor Vladimir Putin ever does.

Yeltsin went to Moscow in 1985 and became the youngest member of the ruling Politburo, and then his career suddenly got interesting. He dramatically stormed out two years later, complaining about the slow speed of reform and even tearing up his Communist Party card as he left; brave stuff for a man whose father spent time in the gulags. He became very popular with the public, who agreed things weren't moving fast enough, and Yeltsin was soon a powerful figure. That would come in very handy in 1991, when a group of Soviet hardliners attempted a coup, and put Mikhail Gorbachev under house arrest.

Ever the drama queen, Yeltsin saw that this was his big moment. Sensing the public was with him and not with the nervous-looking plotters, he led the resistance to the coup from Moscow's parliament building. In one of the most glorious moments of the 20th century, he stood on a tank and gave a forceful speech, almost daring the plotters to send in the Red Army to get him. They gave the order, but the soldiers refused, and Yeltsin had personally brought the Soviet Union down all on his own. Not only that, but he did it avoiding the massive bloodshed everyone feared.

When in office, he got his wish for faster reform. Too fast, sadly. When politicians turned against him in 1993, he sent the Army back to the scene of his finest hour, and told them to blast the parliament away. This time they did as they were told; it was probably the most shameful episode of Yeltsin's career.

He made Russia hurtle too quickly into the free market era. As we all know now, it allowed a small number of people to get very rich, and forced just about everyone else into worse poverty than they experienced in the old Communist days. Yeltsin also surrendered Russia's superpower status, and ordered the bloody and ill-advised war in Chechnya. Indeed, the impotence of Russia under Yeltsin on the international stage helps explain why Putin sometimes acts like he's trying to take on the rest of the world all at once.

But he did some good things as President, many of which are being stripped away by Putin. Among them, Yeltsin's devolving of power to Russia's regions. He also set Russia up as a friend to the west, a totally different stance to his successor, who wants Russia to once again be a challenger to the US and EU. Putin's making sure there will be a lot more confrontations between Russia and the west in the future, over things like energy.

In the final reckoning, there's no getting away from Yeltsin's failures. But it's time to turn his reputation around a little bit. Ending the Soviet Union peacefully is a far greater achievement than anything any of today's world leaders will ever manage. We've all got a lot to thank him for.

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