The indispensable man

April 24, 2007

Boris N. Yeltsin was a destroyer at a time when there was much that was in need of destruction - primarily the sclerotic and decrepit Soviet Union, where an entire tottering system was devoted to the ideology of nothing-makes-sense. He turned on his one-time comrades and, drawing upon deep and vocal public support, he stood up for Russia - and in doing so stood up as well for the other 14 Soviet republics - and thereby swept aside the U.S.S.R.

His death yesterday at age 76, more than 15 years after the Soviet crackup, puts in relief one salient and dismal fact about Russia today: Mr. Yeltsin, the first democratically elected president in 1,000 years of Russian history, outlived the democracy he did more than anyone else to bring into being.

The legacy of the man who stood on the tank and faced down the coup in 1991, who rallied millions to his cause because he was charismatic in a Russian way, and because he was right - what is it today?

On the one hand, there is greater wealth and personal freedom than in Soviet days. But there are no longer free elections for regional governors, candidates in this year's parliamentary elections will be largely restricted to Kremlin sycophants, there almost certainly will be no real choice in next year's presidential election (if there is one), and the press is completely brought to heel. Opposition demonstrators are arrested. This is not democracy, and it is not the new Russia that Mr. Yeltsin promised his countrymen when they put their faith in him not so long ago.

In his first hopeful, difficult, emotional years as president, Mr. Yeltsin presided over a country where the press flourished as never before. Astonishing amounts of vituperation were heaped upon him; he shrugged it off, because that was just what happened in a country that was struggling to be "normal" (to use a favorite Russian aspiration). Elections really were free and fair - and so were the referenda and the subsequent elections and the elections after that.

But he wasn't a democrat at heart; he didn't know how to horse-trade with other politicians, for one thing. He resorted increasingly to fiat, he went to war against an intransigent (if irresponsible) parliament, he gave away billions in state property in exchange for corruption of the airwaves. And, finally, he delivered the presidency into the hands of Vladimir V. Putin.

Mr. Putin, who presides over a more stable country, and whose sobriety contrasts favorably with Mr. Yeltsin's exuberance, owes more to Mr. Yeltsin's legacy than it might seem. In an era of lucky oil wealth, his principle achievements have been to regularize corruption to make it appear less offensive, to squelch opposition across the board rather than in an ad hoc manner, and to ensure a systematically servile press.

Mr. Yeltsin - tough, funny, passionate - was for a few brief electrifying years the indispensable man, a hero of his time. But he held on to power too long, and Russia must bear that burden.

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