Russia still is not much of a democracy, but that it’s even close is largely due to the energetic, if often erratic, efforts of its former president, Boris Yeltsin, who died this week at age 76.
In 1991, Yeltsin, after dramatically quitting the Communist Party, became Russia’s first-ever freely elected leader. His presidency looked as if it wouldn’t last two months when hard-liners mounted a coup attempt against Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev that came close to succeeding. But in an iconic moment, Yeltsin mounted a tank and rallied the public to protect the Russian Parliament from the plotters, effectively bringing the coup to a peaceful end. He would not be so gentle in suppressing another coup two years later.
And that seemed to be the story of his tenure, great good counterbalanced by alarming failings.
He dismantled the remains of the Soviet Union and the apparatus of communist rule and enshrined — although the question remains how durably — the rights of private property, free speech and political freedom while at the same time aggregating power in the president’s office, a trend continued by his successor, Vladimir Putin.
He carelessly presided over the transition from a state-controlled to a private-sector economy, allowing public assets to be looted by private entrepreneurs, often by force. The new economy was marred by corruption and crime and a cold indifference to the plight of elderly pensioners. He embroiled the country in a needlessly brutal war in Chechnya.
But Russians who could afford it, a steadily growing number, could and did freely travel outside their borders for the first time in their lives. Moscow became a glittering modern capital with a problem unknown under the Soviets — traffic.
Many feared that Russia’s first free election would be its last, but in 1996 Yeltsin won an uphill re-election battle in a rough and tumble — and free — Westernstyle campaign. His precarious health was aggravated by a very public fondness for vodka, and on New Year’s Eve 1999, he resigned in favor of Putin, the most recent of his prime ministers.
Yeltsin will go down as a pivotal figure in Russian history, but in many ways that great nation’s future is still as uncertain as it was when the booming ex-party apparatchik stood on top of that tank.