World Press on Yeltsin’s Death

As during his reign as Russian president (July 10, 1991 – Dec. 31, 1999), Boris Yeltsin is many things to many people in memoriam. A sampling of descriptions from the world media include “revolutionary,” “flawed hero,” “a muzhik,” “hero, villian, buffoon,” “a drunk,” “courageous fighter.” Russia’s first, and some might say last, freely elected president will be buried in Novodevichy Cemetery and not inside the Kremlin. His neighbors will include Chekhov, Bulgakov, and also Khrushchev.

25,000 Russians came to pay their respects at Yeltsin’s coffin in Moscow’s Christ the Savior Cathedral. When today the deputy speaker of the Russian parliament called for a minute of silence in Yeltin’s honor, the Communist Party members refused to stand. They might have considered that it was thanks to Yeltsin they still have the right to sit, or stand, in the Duma. As Garry Kasparov points out in today’s Wall Street Journal editorial, Yeltsin was the first Russian leader in history not to obliterate his opposition after taking power. Had Vladimir Putin or someone like him taken control in 1991 the Communists would have been given the same treatment they gave dissidents in the Soviet days, or worse.

Excerpts from Kasparov in today’s WSJ:

The Wall Street Journal OnlineYeltsin’s presidency was always a struggle between his democratic instincts and an entire life spent in the nomenclatura. He owed his power to the street but he was bred an insider, an autocrat. Yeltsin’s nature mirrored the duality of the system: openness versus secrecy, free will versus control. In the end, the devil won out with the appointment of Vladimir Putin.

The rise of a KGB lieutenant-colonel to the presidency only completed Yeltsin’s fall from grace. It was the logical final step after a long, slow slide. The start of the Chechen War was the first obvious step away from guiding moral principles. Decisions started to be made behind closed doors among the inner circle. The poisonous atmosphere of secrecy began to spread. …

It was clear Yeltsin couldn’t stay in power with fair elections and the abuses quickly mounted. From that point on the Putin police state was all but predestined. Mr. Putin only had to follow his own instincts and carry through what was already in motion.

Yeltsin failed the final and most important test. The fragile democratic structures he allowed to form could not survive his own need for power. He failed to create lasting institutions. The structure relied on his leadership and the freedoms that existed were there only because he allowed it. There was no way such a system could withstand the failure of the ruler who created it. …

Yeltsin had more than his share of faults, but he was a real person. He had virtues and vices in his flesh and blood. We exchanged him for a shadow of a man who wants only to keep us all in perpetual darkness. The long lines of Russians waiting to pay their respects to Yeltsin’s coffin at a Moscow cathedral demonstrate that, despite his many failures, people sensed the possibility for good in what he attempted.

Boris Yeltsin is gone and precious little remains of the freedoms he ushered in. His spirit, however, will not die with him. Daylight is starting to show through the cracks of the KGB façade as the system runs out of resources to plunder. Soon it will again be time for building and rebuilding in Russia.

Read the full article in today’s Wall Street Journal (subscription).