March 26, 1989—Less than a year after one-time supporter Mikhail Gorbachev had declared his career over, Boris Yeltsin was voted into the new Congress of People's Deputies, in the first free elections in the seven-decade history of the Soviet Union.
In light of the seizure of Crimea by current Russian strongman Vladimir Putin—a move with distinct echoes of the Nazis’ grab for Austria and the Sudetenland in the 1930s—it is time to amend the brief one-phrase description of Yeltsin, in Marilyn Berger’s 2007 New York Times obit, as the “Reformer Who Broke Up the U.S.S.R.” Now, we should probably add a pithier version of the following phrase: “And Paved the Way for a Russian Hitler.”
It was Yeltsin, after all, who placed Putin in position to uproot the democratization then barely surviving in Russian soil. Yeltsin, who gained the attention and affection of Muscovites as the populist hope of Gorbachev’s perestroika policy in 1989, resigned as President of Russia a decade later, in the waning days of the millennium and his own nation’s aborted experiment with democratic capitalism—leaving public life stymied by enemies, deeply ill, and mentally and physically exhausted.
In contrast to the political firestorm that broke out in the 1940s over “Who Lost China,” nobody has asked “Who Lost Russia” when it mattered most, in the 1990s. Perhaps this is because there is no clear-cut consensus that, without an effective leader of democratic forces in Moscow, Western efforts to influence Russia could have succeeded. Who lost Russia? You can start—and end—with boorish, battling, boozy Boris.
“Yeltsin: A Fighter for Social Justice," read one of the posters in that 1989 election. For some time, he had given signs of not toeing the Soviet line. He hadn’t even joined the Communist Party until age 30, comparatively late for anyone hoping to find gainful employment in the nation.
Noticed and promoted by Gorbachev to be in charge of construction for the entire U.S.S.R., he began to push economic reform faster than the Soviet President preferred, losing a post as Moscow party chief and membership in the Politburo as a result. But ordinary citizens soon applauded his ideas for ending the nation’s occupation of Afghanistan and for widening residents’ exposure to more consumer goods and products.
Seeing his former protégé gain nearly 90% share of the popular vote in his race to enter the Congress of Deputies, Gorbachev ensured both that he would be strengthened in future face-offs with Kremlin reactionaries and that he would need to watch a potential rival in any freer Soviet state that might emerge. In fact, within months Yeltsin had enhanced his position as the most prominent gadfly in the Soviet system. A May 1990 article of his in The Washington Monthly, for instance, assailed “The Kremlin’s Creature Comforts”:
“Obsequiousness and obedience are rewarded in turn by privilege: special hospitals, special vacation retreats, the excellent Central Committee canteen, the equally excellent service for home delivery of groceries and other goods, the Kremlin telephone system, the free transportation. The higher you climb up the professional ladder, the more comforts surround you and the harder and more painful it is to lose them. Therefore, the more obedient and dependable you become.”
In 1991, when Yeltsin rescued Gorbachev from house arrest by standing atop a tank and urging supporters to defy Kremlin coup plotters, his credibility reached a zenith. By the end of the year, when he declared the old U.S.S.R. over and moved into the departed Gorbachev’s office as the first popularly elected Russian President, editorial writers around the world were quick to provide death notices for authoritarianism emanating from the great Eurasian land mass.
They didn’t reckon with the mass dislocation produced by Yeltsin’s quickly enacted economic reforms, the furious attempt of the old guard to reverse change, and the feeble response to that resulting from Yeltsin’s increasingly frail health.
Responsibility for the expiration of democracy’s hope particularly rested with Russia’s alcohol-sodden leader. Bill Clinton had identified him as a “candidate for tough love” after Yeltsin had slurred his response when the newly elected U.S. President phoned to say that relations between the two countries would be at the top of his priorities. In seven years, Clinton met one-on-one with Yeltsin 18 times. It was all born out of a conviction that, as Clinton put it to Russian hand Strobe Talbott, a drunken Yeltsin was still better than the alternative (even if that same drunken, underwear-clad Yeltsin, on a 1995 visit to Washington’s Blair House, the guest accommodation used by visiting dignitaries, ended up outside the building trying to hail a taxi because he wanted a pizza!).
When he resigned his office, several months before his term was due to expire, it seemed at first that Yeltsin had done the West yet another favor in his choice of a successor. Putin might have been a former KGB agent, the conventional thinking went, but at least he seemed inclined, if only because of hard-headed pragmatism, toward the West.
That hope, we know now, was an illusion born of wishfulness. Putin was not a carefully chosen successor, but the fourth Prime Minister that Yeltsin had appointed in less than two years. Yeltsin’s absences were longer and more frequent as the ‘90s went on. Instead of guiding his nation toward democracy, he had improvised desperately to stay in power. At the end, he was in no condition to do much of anything.
Given Putin’s background in one of the main Soviet institutions geared toward consolidation of power, his eventual slow-motion putsch could have been anticipated. Yeltsin was far more disappointing. He is proof that policy sometimes doesn't trump all--that the personal failings of leaders play an inordinate role in their nations' fate.