Boris Yeltsin died yesterday. He was 76.
I still remember that day in August 1991 when my father came into my bedroom to tell me that there had been a coup in the Soviet Union. For a few days, it looked as though all of the gains we made climbing out of the Cold War were going to be lost thanks to a group of communist reactionaries. Fortunately, it wasn’t meant to be.
And it was Boris Yeltsin who seized the moment. Flanked by the people of Moscow, facing off against military forces who critically weren’t sure who to follow, he forced the forces of the old ways to back down. And in the days that followed, unthinkable things happened which surprised even those who stood shocked at the fall of the Berlin Wall. The Soviet Union collapsed; the member countries going their separate ways. Democracy reigned in Russia. The Cold War was officially and truly over.
At least, it would be, if it had been a storybook, and the authors had a chance to make “and they lived happily ever after” stick. But those days were merely the first days of the beginning of the rest of Boris Yeltsin and Russia’s life. The challenge of remaking the communist economy into a capitalist one brought in unemployment, inflation and the devaluing of the rouble, such that nasty comparisons were made with the Weimar Republic of Germany. We even had an anti-semitic fascist character, Vladimir Zhirinovsky, talking about Zionist conspiracies and making territorial claims over Alaska.
But Zhirinovsky was a baffoon, a blowhard, someone far too easy to caricature. The reality of Russia was more grim. Even after it pulled itself out of an economic collapse as bad as any seen since the Great Depression, the forces of authoritarianism were pushing back the gains made by the now demoralized democrats. Former head of one of the descendants of the KGB, Vladimir Putin, emerged as a strong leader, who promised to take Russians back to the good old days when they were strong and stable, if not free. More importantly, he was subtle, smart, and ruthless, as you would expect the former official of the KGB to be. As 1999 came to a close, Yeltsin, who was facing questions about his health, and what may have been trumped up allegations of misuse of funds, resigned and basically handed the country to Putin. And freedoms are being scaled back, and the country is becoming more belligerent on the world stage. Not good.
Boris Yeltsin gave a lot of people around the world a lot of hope, and his accomplishments on those August days of 1991 stand with the raw thrill of the people of the communist world standing up to oppression, putting themselves in front of tanks, causing powerful men to bow down. Unfortunately, once powerful men bow down, the task of taking over, of just running things, can prove daunting.