Why Boris Yeltsin's legacy is rosier in the West
Ahead of his funeral Wednesday, Western reflections on Russia's first post-Soviet president – and his contemporaries, Putin and Gorbachev – often contradict Russian views.
To Western eyes, it was the new, democratic Russia. Boris Yeltsin, the man who had wrested the country from the grip of communism two years earlier, was facing what he described as an armed "mutiny" by communist holdovers in the country's elected parliament. So when Mr. Yeltsin sent troops and tanks to disperse the Supreme Soviet legislature and arrest its leaders, Western leaders cheered his actions.
But many Russians were appalled.
"When I heard [then US President Bill] Clinton describing Yeltsin's actions as 'a triumph for democracy,' I was horrified," says Viktor Kremeniuk, deputy director of the official Institute of USA-Canada Studies in Moscow. "The president shelled parliament, killed lawmakers, and destroyed the only elected branch of government capable of challenging him. That had nothing to do with democracy."
Such contradictory perceptions have been made abundantly clear following the death Monday of Yeltsin – a man who brought down the last Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, shaped an independent Russia, and handpicked former KGB agent Vladimir Putin, who has led the country into what many regard as a new era of autocracy. The reflections on Yeltsin's legacy that have poured in from around the world point to a collision of Western and Russian narratives over the place of all three leaders in history. And the most controversial figure is Boris Yeltsin.
"Fate gave him a tough time in which to govern, but history will be kind to him because he was courageous and steadfast on the big issues: peace, freedom, and progress," former US president Bill Clinton, who worked closely with President Yeltsin, said in a typically generous Western accolade to the man who broke the USSR, championed democratic values, and ushered the formerly isolated, state-run Russian economy into the global marketplace.
But, in Russia, even many of Yeltsin's former close allies temper their eulogies with references to his "serious errors," while much of the commentary has been sharply negative. During Yeltsin's nearly nine years in power, Russia's gross domestic product slumped by over 50 percent, millions of people lost their savings in repeated financial crises, and life expectancy plunged to third-world levels.
"Yeltsin inherited the Russian state in 1991, and left it in much worse shape than he found it," says Roy Medvedev, one of Russia's foremost historians, who has known all three leaders. "His legacy was mostly unhappy, and I don't think the Russian people will remember him with much warmth."
That disconnect between Russian and Western perceptions was present from the outset of Mr. Gorbachev's perestroika campaign to reform the USSR. Selected as Communist Party leader in 1985, Gorbachev launched sweeping measures to expand freedom of expression, release political prisoners, and slash the USSR's gargantuan military expenditures. Gorbachev's program initially seized the Soviet popular imagination, while it was greeted with skepticism in the West. Yet ultimately, even the quintessential US cold warrior Ronald Reagan, seemed convinced. Asked whether he still regarded the USSR to be an "evil empire" during a visit to Moscow in 1988, Mr Reagan replied: "No, I was talking about another time, another era."
As Gorbachev's popularity grew in the West, it waned in the USSR. As economic travails multiplied and lineups for basic products grew, the Soviet public stopped listening to Gorbachev's lengthy speeches and flocked to a new breed of radical reformers, foremost among whom was a gruff Siberian with a shock of graying hair, Boris Yeltsin.
Largely ignored in the West, Yeltsin moved from strength to strength at home, becoming Soviet Russia's first elected president in June 1991, facing down a hard-line coup attempt that August, and engineering the USSR's downfall in December.
Gorbachev not revered at home
If Gorbachev's stock remains high around the world, it has never recovered in Russia. When he ran in 1996 presidential elections, Gorbachev won less than 1 percent of the votes.
While Russians recall Gorbachev as a leader who fumbled and lost his kingdom, many say they think of Yeltsin as the "destroyer".
"Yeltsin's main drive was to tear things down; that's what he was good at," says Gennady Chuffrin, deputy director of the official Institute of World Economy and International Relations in Moscow. "At no stage did Yeltsin attempt to build anything. Things slipped out of his hands, and were taken over by ... business tycoons, regional leaders, and criminal groups. The guiding principle of the Yeltsin era was chaos."
As that era wound down, amid war in Chechnya, corruption scandals, allegations of electoral abuse, and chronic economic decline, Yeltsin's popularity at home fell drastically but he never seemed to lose his mojo with Western leaders. In 1998, Russia was admitted into the Group of Seven major Western democracies as a full member. Despite opposing NATO's 1999 war to liberate Kosovo, Yeltsin was subsequently invited to send a contingent of occupation troops to the territory.
On New Year's Eve 1999, a faltering Yeltsin unexpectedly resigned and handed power to Putin, his chosen prime minister. The years under Putin have been some of the most stable and prosperous in Russia's history, says Mr. Medvedev. "Putin is a creator. He restored the state, the army, effective government, and did much to improve the lives of the people," he says.
Popular Putin seen as autocratic
Putin's latest popularity rating, in March, was 82 percent. And, true to the historic pattern, the new Kremlin leader is regarded with growing antipathy in the West, where he is widely seen as an authoritarian leader who's dismantled Yeltsin's democratic achievements and brought back Soviet-style economic controls and repression of dissent.
But if democracy is waning in Russia today, some Russians have an easy answer: Blame Yeltsin.
"After destroying parliament, Yeltsin wrote a new constitution to create a super-presidency," says Mr. Kremeniuk. "Putin has used that constitution without changing a single word. It was Yeltsin who replanted the seeds of autocracy in Russia."