Boris Yeltsin for most of his life was a Communist through and through. Like virtually all Soviet people, he had a miserable youth of hardship and deprivation. No doubt he sincerely believed that he could help the Party and the Party could help him. He was physically strong, energetic, a man with presence. Rising through the ranks, he conveyed the standard Communist message, that everybody had only to work a good deal harder and then everything would become perfect.
Elected to the Central Committee, and then the Politburo, he had his chance to show whether this rather simple view of Communism as hard work could be made to apply. Yeltsin was famous for issuing orders as though they produced results just because he had expressed his wish, and turning up on sites to inspect, and to encourage – which was frightening to those under orders and inspection.
The more active he was, the more he aroused suspicion in the mind of his one superior, Mikhail Gorbachev, the general secretary of the Party. A test of strength developed between the two men. Nothing quite like it had ever been seen in the history of Communism. The stakes were enormous. Gorbachev appeared to win when he fired Yeltsin. Yeltsin used the novelty of elections to fight back. Elected president of Russia, he played the nationalist card, and it proved stronger than Communism. Civil war might well have erupted between die-hard defenders of Communism and Russian nationalists. Standing on a tank in August 1991, Yeltsin successfully appealed to nationalism. It was a brave moment, and will always mark his place in history. At the same time, he fulfilled his ambition of achieving supreme power. Nobody, certainly not Yeltsin himself, realised that breaking Gorbachev necessarily entailed breaking Communism too. The Party could not survive factionalism, Lenin had always warned, and so it proved.
As president of the Russian Federation, Yeltsin revealed that Communism retained some intellectual or psychological clamp on his thinking. Much as he proclaimed himself a democrat, his grasp of democracy was poor. The transition to the new society proved painful, as people with the skills for it made fortunes from privatising the wreckage of Communism, in effect plundering public wealth. Yeltsin himself was one of them. Like the Communist leaders before him, he thought he could do as he pleased. Nothing in his life was quite so unfitting as the deal he struck with his underling Vladimir Putin, whereby Putin became the next President in return for a guarantee not to prosecute Yeltsin. His country will continue for a long time to pay the price for his egoism, his vanity, and his corruption. In the end, little was left of this one-time hero except his feet of clay.