Monday, April 23, 2007

Boris Yeltsin (1931-2007)

By Michael J.W. Stickings

Boris Yeltsin died today at the age of 76.

There's not much I can add here to what's already been said. (So see, for example, The Washington Post, The New York Times, and the Los Angeles Times.

Tony Blair put it well: "He was a remarkable man who saw the need for democratic and economic reform and, in defending it, played a vital role at a crucial time in Russia's history."

I recommend this piece at Slate by Anne Applebaum, which captures the man's personal and political conflicts: "That euphoria [around the 1991 presidential election, which he won] launched an extraordinary period of Russian history -- and a presidential career best described as manic-depressive. Over the next eight years, Yeltsin had enormous bursts of creative energy, alternating with long periods of illness, alcoholism, and retreat. He could rouse himself to rally the country, and he would then vanish, leaving the government in the hands of his corrupt cronies. He was capable of speaking eloquently about freedom, yet he had an autocratic streak and brooked no criticism. He talked about economic reform, but he transferred his country's industry to a small group of oligarchs. He ended the Cold War, but he started a new and terrible war in Chechnya."

Also, see this piece at The Independent by Mary Dejevsky, which similarly offers a balanced perspective: "Boris Yeltsin will be remembered by most Russians who lived through the Eighties and Nineties, with much affection and, yes, with not a little respect. He was a unique character, a tough Siberian, a Russian through and through, and a leader who obeyed instinct, not design. A man of action, he did not plot and plan. He did not have anything that could be described as a philosophy -- either of life or of Russia's destiny. Nor was he a dissident as the term is generally understood. He did not start out as an opponent of the Soviet regime; he ended up in opposition as a frustrated regional leader who chafed at the rigidities that prevented what he saw as common-sense reforms. And in truth his legacy was mixed. He presided over enormous freedom, but also over chaos, crime and economic collapse."

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