In the last years before his death at age seventy-six, Boris Yeltsin enjoyed a bit of resurgence in popularity, at least in the eyes of human rights and free speech advocates in the West. To be sure, his rule was marred by corruption and cronies who plundered the state’s coffers and some of its most prized assets (NYT). But he also stands as the first elected leader of the ancient Russian state. While he served during a period in which governance bordered on anarchy, a small middle class did slowly take root. Independent media flourished, providing coverage of the first Chechen war in wrenching detail. The ruble was devalued in 1998 and average Russians lost billions, but what emerged was the foundation of a market-based economy, however shaky, that would one day gain full admittance into the Group of Eight (WashPost).
“[B]efore we throw Yeltsin to the historical wolves, it’s important to remember that the terrible conditions Russians associate with him were not just the result of his policies but also their cause,” CFR Senior Fellow Stephen Sestanovich wrote recently in the Washington Post, referring to Russia’s ethnic separatism and the economic decline that preceded Yeltsin’s rise.
Yeltsin’s government steered Russian foreign policy generally in a pro-U.S. direction, despite episodes of disagreement and distrust. His rapport with President Clinton partially deserves credit (TIME). Of course, there were times of tension, most famously when North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) bombs fell over Belgrade in 1999 and the Russians sided with their historic Serbian allies. Though many dismissed it as bluster, Yeltsin threatened possible world war at the time (CNN). The expansion of NATO into Eastern Europe in the late 1990s also alarmed the Kremlin. And Western governments and nongovernmental organizations regularly raised concerns about Russian human rights abuses in Chechnya.
In 1991, Yeltsin came into power as a metro-riding populist. He emptied the gulags, dissolved the Soviet Union (MSNBC), and famously boarded a tank to prevent a coup (TIME). But his erratic style and hot temper left outside investors and Western officials unsure about the course of post-Soviet Russia. He put down a coup attempt by shelling Russia’s White House in 1993. He had an alcohol habit and a penchant for attending summits drunk. After his reelection in 1996, in which he was conspicuously kept out of the public eye, Yeltsin underwent quintuple bypass surgery. That further aroused concern about the stability of his leadership (Moscow Times).
Under Yeltsin, bandit-style capitalism emerged as organized crime thrived. Shock therapy (PBS)—or the rapid liberalization of the command economy—impoverished millions of Russians. A rigged auction in 1995 left the lion’s share of the state’s assets, sold at fire-sale prices, in the hands of a politically connected few—the so-called oligarchy, some of whom would later fall out of favor with Yeltsin’s successor by meddling in politics. When Mikhail Gorbachev’s planners devised glasnost and perestroika in the 1980s, democracy under Yeltsin was certainly not what they had in mind.
To his successor, Vladimir Putin, an unknown and colorless former KGB operative, Yeltsin bequeathed a messy state. Yet Putin in short order rolled back the media freedoms Yeltsin had allowed, escalated the conflict in Chechnya, and dished out important government portfolios to ex-KGB officers. He publicly mourned the breakup of the Soviet Union and winked at Stalin’s resurgence in popularity among Russians (Foreign Affairs).
In retirement, Yeltsin stayed out of politics, took to playing tennis, and avoided the limelight. Unlike Gorbachev, he rarely went abroad, mostly for health reasons. Boris Yeltsin symbolized all that was wrong and right about post-Soviet Russia: He was crass, erratic, a big drinker, filled with hope, funny, confident, conniving, pro-American but distrustful and occasionally jealous of Washington. He was a flawed democrat and Russia remains today a flawed democracy.