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Russia's Tragic Hero

Former Russian President Boris Yeltsin waves to journalists as he leaves the German Heart Center hospital in Berlin, Germany on Feb. 28, 2006.
AP Photo/Markus Schreiber
This column was written by Masha Gessen.
Pity Boris Yeltsin. He lived to see what he had done. He planned to be remembered as the man who laid the groundwork for Russian democracy. Instead, he will go down in history as the man who steered Russia, careening wildly, through one of its brief periods of relative freedom.

Yeltsin's downfall was a classic mistake: He chose the wrong man to succeed him. By the end of Yeltsin's 9 1/2 years in Russia's top office, there was only one thing his supporters and his foes could agree on: He had an all-consuming passion and an equal talent for power. He continually purged his administration and government to ensure that no one even close to his stature remained in the public eye too long. He timed his own exit to choose his successor, and he picked Vladimir Putin, an unremarkable bureaucrat who could not upstage the larger-than-life Yeltsin even after he was gone from the scene.

In the late '80s Yeltsin himself emerged from obscurity, also seemingly overnight. In 1987, he was serving as the mayor of Moscow — first secretary of the Moscow City Party Committee, as the position was officially known — a post he had held for two years. His predecessors had been faceless men who plodded anonymously toward a seat on the Central Committee. Yeltsin's own 20-year career in the Communist Party fit this mold, but, in October 1987, he broke ranks, criticizing Mikhail Gorbachev's Central Committee for its lack of commitment to reform.

The party stripped him of his post, but Yeltsin became instantly popular among Muscovites for being different from the nomenklatura: This mayor used public transportation and sometimes shopped at regular stores. As Soviet Russia prepared for its first real elections in 1989 and 1990, Yeltsin became the first politician who campaigned in the streets. He promised the coal miners a better life, and he promised the proponents of ethnic liberation a shot at independence from the empire. They voted for him.

In 1990, Yeltsin became the chairman of the Russian Supreme Soviet, then pushed through resolutions that called for Russia's independence from the Soviet Union and for establishing the post of president of Russia. And, in June 1991, he was elected as its first officeholder. He was still locked in a bitter power struggle with Soviet President Gorbachev, but the people were clearly on Yeltsin's side: Rallies in support of Yeltsin and his reforms drew over a million people at a time in 1990 and 1991.

When hard-line Central Committee members attempted a pathetically disorganized coup in August 1991, Yeltsin was once again among his people, addressing the crowd from a tank and thus earning the reputation of the man who saved the Soviet Union from the KGB. He seized the moment, brokering a treaty that dissolved the Soviet Union, making his old nemesis, Gorbachev, obsolete.

But, because Yeltsin was the first politician to promise his people anything, he also became the first to betray them. Economic shock therapy plunged the country into poverty; hyperinflation ate up people's life savings in a matter of months. The miners' lot only got worse: They went for months and years on end without pay, as did teachers, doctors, and assorted others. When his former allies in the Supreme Soviet turned their backs on him, Yeltsin shelled the parliament building. When the people of tiny Chechnya took his promise of independence for ethnic minorities at face value, he started a war.

In both his governing and personal style, Yeltsin grew more and more like the nomenklatura against which he once rebelled. As his health deteriorated, he withdrew into a life of closed meetings and guarded limousine rides, emerging from this shell only once, for the few months it took to run and win his 1996 reelection. In the course of the campaign, he suffered at least one heart attack, from which he never fully recovered, even after the heart bypass operation he underwent in November 1996.

In the late '90s, Yeltsin resembled an aging boxer who still remembers his moves but has lost his timing. He flailed without rhythm or logic, changing prime ministers every four or five months and declared hand-picked successors about as often. But, even as Yeltsin jumped from one policy to another, he remained true to a very simplistic view of democracy: He hated the Communist Party, and he held freedom of the press to be inviolate.

But after Yeltsin resigned abruptly on New Year's Eve 1999 — tired and tearful, but, true to form, upstaging the millennium — it soon became clear that he never managed to anchor even the values he believed to be basic for Russia. The 1993 "Yeltsin Constitution," as it is known in Russia, can easily be changed — and probably soon will be, by a body appointed by President Putin — because laws protecting it were never enacted. Even without changing the constitution, Putin has already succeeded in abolishing virtually all direct elections and squeezing independent media very nearly out of existence. The bitterness Yeltsin left behind guaranteed Putin much of the public support he initially needed.

By the time Yeltsin died yesterday, he had been out of the news for years. Contrary to his record of reckless public speaking, since leaving office he had abstained from commenting on anything besides tennis, his favorite sport. After his death, the Russian blogosphere and what little remains of the independent media here lit up with reports and reminiscences filled with nostalgia. As legacies go, this one was a tragic failure: Yeltsin's passing marked the indisputable end of an era — which happened to be a time of democracy unique in Russian history.

By Masha Gessen
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