Boris Yelstin died today. For liberating Russians from the troubles of the one-party state and the planned economy, he deserves immense gratitude. Yet his nepotistic and capricious rule spawned colossal lawlessness and corruption, paving the way for the authoritarian successor, Vladimir Putin.
Gorbechev fired Yelstin in ’87 for personal reasons, only for him to become president of the Russian Federation in 1990. When Communist party hardliners mounted a coup against the Soviet leadership in 1991, it was Mr Yeltsin, denouncing the putschists while perched on a tank, who symbolized the successful democratic resistance.
As the other 14 Soviet republics became independent, Mr Yeltsin appointed a short-lived government of young reformers, led by Yegor Gaidar, who unleashed breakneck economic reform on the ruined country. It was deeply unpopular: price liberalization made evident the destruction of savings under Soviet inflation. Privatization meant to many Russians a field day for robber barons. The institutions needed for a properly functioning market economy were pitifully lacking, and that was their problem. It was in the Yeltsin era that the world learnt the term “oligarch”, to describe the over-mighty tycoons who fascistly fused political and economic power.
Yet those reforms worked, by many indicators. Russia has a growing consumer-goods market., even if we are ambivalent towards consumer culture. The robber barons were a lot better than the “red directors” they replaced, whose thinking and loyalties were still rooted in the Communist-run planned economy. His economic reforms were for the better. But his political reforms were not.
Shelling Russia’s parliament in 1993, supposedly to dislodge Communist and other hardline deputies who had seized control there, reintroduced the “virus of violence” into Russian political life. So did the shameful Chechen war of 1994-96, which unleashed the might of the Russian war machine on the small breakaway republic. His rigged victory over the Communist Gennady Zyuganov in the 1996 presidential election spawned a habit of official vote-rigging that has largely destroyed the credibility of Russian elections, and everywhere else.
All the same, Mr Yeltsin stood for three fundamental principles. He believed in freedom of speech, including freedom of the press, no matter what. He wanted Russia to be friends with the west. And he despised the Communist party and everything it stood for—particularly the KGB.It was a tragedy that he did not dissolve it fully in 1991, when he had the chance. It was an irony that the candidate his family chose as a safe successor, the cautious, little-known ex-KGB man, Mr Putin, should have done so much to reverse his legacy, blaming so many of Russia’s ills on what he calls the “chaos” of the 1990s.