How Will Boris Yeltsin Be Remembered?

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Former Russian President Boris Yeltsin died Monday at age 76. In a column published today, Leon Aron asks whether Yeltsin will be remembered as a "hard drinking quasi-autocrat" or an important figure in the transformation of Russia after the Cold War.


As we mentioned, the man who oversaw the collapse of the Soviet Union died today in Moscow. Boris Yeltsin was 76 years old. He was president of Russia for eight years, succeeding Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. Michael McFaul is a Russia scholar at Stanford University's Hoover Institution, and he joins us on the line from a conference he's attending here in Washington. Thanks so much for taking the time out from your conference.

Professor MICHAEL MCFAUL (Russia Scholar, Stanford University): Sure. Thanks for having me.

ROBERTS: So, how do you think Boris Yeltsin will be remembered? What is his legacy?

Prof. MCFAUL: What period are we talking about?

(Soundbite of laughter)

ROBERTS: Is it different for different periods, you think?

Prof. MCFAUL: I think so. I think today - for most Russians - he'll be remembered as a failed president. I think 10 to 20 years from now, depending on what happens to the future trajectory of Russia - Post-communist Russia - he could be remembered very fondly. That is, he is the guy - as you just said -who destroyed communism. Destroyed the Soviet Union. Destroyed the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. Those were tremendous achievements - let's not forget how much of the 20th century was centered around our dealings with the Soviet Union and the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. But he wasn't very good at construction - good at destruction, bad at construction.

ROBERTS: Which is ironic, considering that was the trade he started in.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. MCFAUL: Yeah. I haven't made that connection. You're absolutely right. And, let's be fair to him. It was very difficult. How do you make a market? How do you make a democracy? How do you make an independent country out of an empire? These are really, really big, tough issues that anybody would have struggled with. And, you know, he did it okay, I guess, with those three big transformational things.

ROBERTS: Here in the U.S., a lot of us will remember him standing on top of the tank outside the Kremlin - or was it the Russian White House in 1991 - when there was an attempted coup against Gorbachev. He protected Gorbachev. It was this sort of heroic moment. Do you think that was the high point? Was it sort of down hill from there?

Prof. MCFAUL: Well, absolutely, that was the high point. I've written a book about this period, and I remember going through the press clips. And I think on that day - the first week after that - he was on the cover of all the weekly magazines. And one of them is Boris Yeltsin brings democracy to Russia after a thousand years of tyranny, or something like that. So, you know, I would like to have that on my resume as something I had done.

But, yes, after that, it was the difficult phase of trying to introduce market reforms in a population that didn't understand them, a congress that - a parliament that rejected them, and then resorting to the use of force against that parliament to try to keep them going forward. That was the beginning of a much more tumultuous time for him as president, after August 1991.

ROBERTS: And use of force in Chechnya.

Prof. MCFAUL: And tragically, the use of force in Chechnya twice. Let's remember, first in 1994. And what was interesting or tragic about that first war is that I think that Yeltsin understood that that was a mistake. And in order to win reelection in 1996, his pollsters most certainly told him that he had to end the war. And so he did a very important thing as well. He ended that war in 1996.

But he, again, with his prime minister - Mr. Putin at the time - started again, and that war still continues.

ROBERTS: You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

He was often characterized in the media as sort of a hard-drinking man, you know, big, red face, maybe even given to a sort of semi-totalitarian nature. Do you think that was fair?

Prof. MCFAUL: The final comment is no. Semi-totalitarian nature: no. I disagree with that. I think instinctually, he thought what he was doing was bringing Russia into the modern world. And by that, he understood it mean democracy and capitalism and cooperation with the West. And I think in terms of his objectives, there's no question that that's what he thought he was doing. And he most certainly did not under - on his clock - do some of the more authoritarian things that President Putin has done.

So when things got dicey, you know, say with the media, he never shut down the media, for instance. He never renationalized the media, those kinds of things. Having said that, let's remember what his schooling was. I forgot about his construction career. You're absolutely right. But he was trained and educated in the Soviet Union. He was a Communist Party official. And so his ability, therefore, to execute democratic reforms or market reforms, things that he didn't really understand that well, I think led to a lot of his shortcomings.

ROBERTS: And Putin with his choice as successor. Do you think some of his efforts might have been clouded by people's current response to Putin?

Prof. MCFAUL: I've always wondered what President Yeltsin thought of his choice of Putin. And I think it would be a mixed assessment, but of course, I don't know. I've never seen it, and he never - by the way, it's very interesting -never ever criticize Putin in a public way in the time that he was an ex-president. Very striking.

I think - the plus and the minus is that Mr. Putin most certainly was the person that brought quote, unquote, "stability to Russia." And that would've happened no matter who was chosen. He just happened to be there, and that was the person at the right time. And society, most certainly, demanded that. I would hope and think - if my understanding of Yeltsin was correct - that he also would have been dismayed with the autocratic turn that has happened under Russia - in Russia under Putin today.

ROBERTS: Is his reputation and ultimately his legacy in Russia going to be different than what we in the West think of him, do you think?

Prof. MCFAUL: Yes, absolutely. I mean, for him - for us, he destroyed our enemy of the 20th century. I mean, let's give him credit. He wasn't the only one, and Mr. Gorbachev had a lot to do with that. But this was a person that ultimately, in December of 1991, signed a piece of paper that dissolved the Soviet Union. And then he got rid of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. These two institutions more than others, for us, that was a great, great thing in terms of our security, in terms of our prosperity.

For Russians, however, he brought - he was the one that began the very difficult process of moving from a command economy to capitalism, and the very difficult process of moving from an authoritarian regime to a democratic regime, and the very difficult process of going from an empire to an independent state. And all of those things were traumatic for most citizens of Russia.

So they - when they hear Boris Yeltsin, they think of that very traumatic transformational time. And, you know, it's great to think about revolutions and write about them as I do academically. But it really is not very pleasant to have to live through a revolution. And that's what happened under Boris Yeltsin.

ROBERTS: So would any leader during that time have been vilified to some degree, or do you think Yeltsin had aspects that brought it on himself?

Prof. MCFAUL: I think any leader would have been vilified, yes. And I think even in a place so pro-Democratic and pro-Western as Poland, the transformational process there in the early years derailed solidarity and derailed President Walesa. And that was in a country that had much more agreement about where they thought their country should be going.

The difference in Russia in the 1990s was that there was a big argument and a very substantial argument between the communists and the so-called democrats or liberals about whether Russia should be a democracy, and more importantly about whether Russia - for them, I mean for the debate - whether Russia should be a market economy or not. So, yeah, I think, you know, I think Yeltsin made big mistakes that I would - I can think of other leaders that I know personally that had they been there, I think they probably would've made different decisions. And 1993, in Chechnya, the war particularly stick out.

But no matter what, yes. He - whoever was there would've been remembered for this tumultuous period - as, by the way, Gorbachev is. Gorbachev is still a very unpopular figure inside Russia today.

ROBERTS: Michael McFaul is a Russia scholar at Stanford University's Hoover Institution, and author of "Russia's Unfinished Revolution: Political Change from Gorbachev to Putin." Thanks so much for speaking with us.

Prof. MCFAUL: Thanks for having me.

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Yeltsin, Catalyst for Russian Change, Dead at 76

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Former Russian President Boris Yeltsin waves after meeting with Palestinian President Yasser Arafat.

Former Russian President Boris Yeltsin waves after meeting with Palestinian President Yasser Arafat in Bethlehem, Jan. 6, 1999. Andre Durand/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

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Yeltsin in His Own Words

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Yeltsin the Writer

Former Russian President Boris Yeltsin was, besides much else, a prolific writer, penning three memoirs in his lifetime. The books are, at times, candid and revealing. Read some excerpts.

In Depth


Russia is taking a newly assertive role on the world stage. A five-part series explores President Vladimir Putin's Russia and compares it to the Soviet Union.

Boris Yeltsin stands atop an armored personnel carrier in Moscow in 1991. i

Russian President Boris Yeltsin (left) reads a statement from atop an armored personnel carrier in Moscow in August 1991, as he urged the Russian people to resist a hard-line takeover of the central government. hide caption

itoggle caption
Boris Yeltsin stands atop an armored personnel carrier in Moscow in 1991.

Russian President Boris Yeltsin (left) reads a statement from atop an armored personnel carrier in Moscow in August 1991, as he urged the Russian people to resist a hard-line takeover of the central government.

Former Russian President Boris Yeltsin, who became the country's first democratically elected leader and oversaw the dismantling of the Soviet Union, is dead at the age of 76.

No additional information was given by Kremlin spokesman Alexander Smirnov, who confirmed Yeltsin's death. The Interfax news agency cited an unidentified medical source as saying he had died of heart failure.

Yeltsin, a larger than life figure, leaves behind a mixed legacy. He was a bold reformer who steered the fledgling democracy through its early, turbulent years, and also an unpredictable leader, prone to strange behavior. His critics claim he was a man who was ultimately unable to accomplish his goals. Most Russians will probably remember Yeltsin as the leader who presided over their country's steep decline.

"He had this controversy, this contradiction in him," said biographer Lilia Shevtsova. "He belonged to the past and at the same time he symbolized the future. And of course he was torn between these two alternatives and that's why he was so good at dismantling the Soviet system, so bad at building a new system."

Some images of Boris Yeltsin remain etched in our minds. In August 1991, for example, a vigorous Yeltsin leaps onto a tank after a coup attempt by communist hardliners. Yeltsin tells the cheering crowd that he had been fielding calls from around the world, congratulating Russians for taking a stand for democracy.

Within a few years, though, the world would come to see a different Yeltsin. His drunken bouts became evident, including an incident when he picked up a baton and started conducting a band during a trip to Germany.

Then there were the repeated trips to the hospital, where Yeltsin recovered from heart bypass surgery, pneumonia or, as the Kremlin often claimed, "a simple cold."

One constant in Yeltsin 's life was his keen sense of political drama. He knew how to grab headlines. It was fitting then that he chose the last day of 1999 to tell the world he was quitting politics.

"I am leaving. I'm stepping down before my time," Yeltsin said. "I understand that I have to do this. Russia must enter the new millennium with new politicians, new faces and intelligent, strong and energetic people. Those of us who have been in power for many years must go."

By the time he made this speech, Yeltsin looked much like the old, stiff Soviet leaders of the past. He had trouble speaking and walking. His family and close advisers were accused of taking kickbacks, and he was blamed for allowing a small group of influential oligarchs to rob the country.

Yeltsin built up vast powers, which he handed over to Vladimir Putin in exchange for guarantees that he would never be prosecuted, said Shevtsova.

"He began as a terminator of the Soviet system, he began as a grave digger," said Shevtsova. "But how did he finish? He ended being a helpless, inadequate, pathetic old man, hostage of the close Kremlin entourage and of his own family — a kind of a puppet on the string... a very dramatic and tragic personality."

Yeltsin, a construction boss from the central region of Sverdlovsk, spent much of his early career rising through the ranks of the Communist Party. He moved to Moscow in 1985, but soon fell out with then Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. Yeltsin lost his party rank and went on to enter parliament on a populist platform.

He took the presidency in 1991. By 1993, Yeltsin 's political battle with parliament turned violent. When lawmakers barricaded themselves in parliament, refusing Yeltsin 's attempts to disband the Soviet era body, Yeltsin ordered in the tanks. The White House, as the parliament building was called, was blackened by fire. Scores of protesters died in the violence.

Later, Yeltsin sent troops to quell a separatist movement in Chechnya. The defense minister had predicted a quick victory. But what Yeltsin got instead was a two-year war that Moscow lost. Tens of thousands were killed. Russian troops returned to Chechnya in 1999, just before Yeltsin left office.

In an interview about his memoirs, Yeltsin called Chechnya his biggest mistake. "Of course nobody can lift the burden of responsibility for Chechnya from me," Yeltsin said. "That responsibility, the grief of so many mothers and fathers can't be lifted from my shoulders."

Mindful of his legacy, Yeltsin often tried to highlight his successes, saying he put Russia on a path toward democracy and helped Russia maintain its place in the world. But as he left office, Yeltsin also acknowledged his failures.

"I want to ask your forgiveness for the fact that our dreams didn't come true," Yeltsin said as his presidency came to a close. "Things that seemed simple turned out to be excruciatingly difficult. Forgive me for the fact that I did not live up to the hopes of many, that we could move forward in one fell swoop from a grey, totalitarian, and stagnant past to a bright, rich and civilized future. I myself believed we could."

After retirement, Yeltsin quickly faded from the scene, secluded in his government mansion outside Moscow. Some of his accomplishments also faded fast. The free press he proudly promoted was muzzled, for example, as the Kremlin asserted control over independent television stations.

And without a new legal framework firmly in place it has been easier for Yeltsin's appointed successor, current President Vladimir Putin, to reassert control over the country's resources and civil society.



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