Boris Yeltsin is a lot like Ulysses S. Grant, and I think history will treat him in the same way as his American predecessor. Both men were heroes with alcoholic reputations when they became presidents of their respective countries (the difference being that Grant had saved his Union via bloodshed while Yeltsin had dismantled his peacefully) but who left office after two terms under the clouds of scandal and corruption.
As with Grant, Yeltsin’s achievements should be credited to him without reference to his failings. He was the man who did more than any other to delegitimize the Communist Party and the Soviet system, the favored son who saw the errors of his ways and whose dramatic “repentance” (when he left the Communist Party of the Soviet Union in the summer of 1990 before the fate of the U.S.S.R. became clear) started the tidal wave that doomed Mikhail Gorbachev’s hopes of making the C.P.S.U. a kinder, gentler organ of power. It was Yeltsin, unlike Gorbachev, who was willing to stake his political career on the gamble of popular sovereignty, subjecting himself to election campaigns in 1989, 1990, 1991 and 1996. It was Yeltsin who brokered the arrangements that allowed a fractious and sometimes rancorous group of anti-Soviet deputies at both the U.S.S.R. Congress of People’s Deputies and the Russian Republican legislature to coalesce into a powerful pro-democracy movement, the man who could bring together dissident intellectuals, working-class union organizers, reform Communists and Russian nationalists into a common movement. And it was Yeltsin’s personal courage and public defiance which doomed the aborted coup attempt in August 1991.
Yeltsin was the man who collapsed the U.S.S.R., but he struggled with fashioning order out of the rubble. A man schooled in the ways of the Communist Party found it difficult to accept the checks and balances of a democratic order and seemed, at times, more comfortable with the Napoleonic style of appealing to popular referenda to legitimize his actions rather than dealing with the give and take of reaching an accommodation with the legislature. He often ruled by decree and it was Yeltsin who in his second term reached out to the secret service community to provide his presidential administration with personnel, among them a former vice mayor of St. Petersburg who became his successor. He was someone who hoped that a prosperous market economy could replace a failed command system by just signing a few decrees and in so doing created conditions for the large-scale looting of the country´s assets. He came to popular attention during the 1980s by struggling against corruption among Moscow Communist Party leaders but was unable to control the corruption which beset his presidency during the 1990s. He found it difficult to accept that he had become leader not of the world’s second superpower (as his predecessor Gorbachev had been so acclaimed) but the president of a state many labelled “Upper Volta with missiles.” And when he left office the Russian people who had so cursed the Soviet system in 1991 started to look back on it as a kind of golden age. And Putin enjoys high approval ratings in part because he is seen as the anti-Yeltsin, a point I tried to convey on NRO this past week.
Perhaps, as Yeltsin challenged in the final installment of his memoirs, no one else could have run what he called the “presidential marathon” better than he did, given the hand he was dealt. LIke Grant, he will be seen as a larger-than-life figure who turned out to be a so-so president. And if Russia in the next decade becomes a more prosperous and secure place, then many may be prepared to forgive his later mistakes in light of his earlier triumphs. But like his friend Bill Clinton (Yeltsin also faced impeachment in his second term of office), Yeltsin will forever be defined by his contradictory images. And as Clinton said at Richard Nixon’s funeral, so also is it appropriate for Boris Yeltsin — that the man be judged in light of his entire record of both achievements and failings — and that, no matter the mistakes he made, the things he got right be credited to him.