Tuesday, April 24, 2007

boris yeltsin, RIP

Yeah, yeah, we think of Boris Yeltsin, who just died, and we see modern Russia, a kleptocratic society descending into renewed dictatorship under Yeltsin's hand-picked successor, Vladimir Putin, and we think "he wasn't so hot." But remember also Yeltsin defying the Communist Party, resigning and being elected to the Soviet legislature against a Communist candidate, and being overwhelmingly elected President of the then-Russian Federated Soviet Republic in elections the Communists didn't dare fix.

And also remember that without Yeltsin, those right-wing reactionary Communists who mounted the coup against Gorbachev in August 1991 may have succeeded. Yeltsin climbed on that tank, rallied popular support against the coup, and was the single biggest push to collapse the reactionary Communist forces. He also helped guarantee the independence of the 14 non-Russian republics in the old USSR.

His presidency was mixed, no question. But Yeltsin played a pivotal role. Anne Applebaum puts it well: In truth, he belonged neither to the Soviet Union, which Gorbachev had hoped to revive, nor to the West, which Putin now rejects. Had we ever been realistic about him, we would have understood his limitations from the beginning -- and appreciated his strengths. And had we not embraced him uncritically, we would have been less disappointed when things turned out differently from what we, too, had hoped.


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