The Hero of His Time

Boris Yeltsin was utterly unique. Russia’s first democratically elected leader, he was also the first Russian leader to give up power voluntarily, and constitutionally, to a successor. But he was also profoundly characteristic of Russian leaders. Using various mixtures of charisma, statecraft, and terror, Peter the Great, Catherine the Great, Alexander II, Peter Stolypin (the last tsar’s prime minister), Lenin, and Stalin all sought to make Russia not only a great military power, but also an economic and cultural equal of the West.

Yeltsin aimed for the same goal. But he stands out from them in this respect: he understood that empire was incompatible with democracy, and so was willing to abandon the Soviet Union in order to try to build a democratic order at home.

At the height of Yeltsin’s career, many Russians identified with his bluntness, impulsiveness, sensitivity to personal slight, even with his weakness for alcohol. And yet in the final years of his rule, his reputation plunged. Only in the last few months of his second presidential term, after he launched the second war in Chechnya in September 1999, did he and his lieutenants regain some legitimacy in the eyes of the Russian public, while causing revulsion among any remaining Western admirers.

Despite his caprices, however, Yeltsin kept Russia on a course of broad strategic co-operation with America and its allies. Although he opposed America’s use of force against Iraq and Serbia in the 1990’s, his government never formally abandoned the sanctions regime against either country. Moreover, no nuclear weapons were unleashed, deliberately or accidentally, and no full-scale war of the kind that ravaged post-communist Yugoslavia broke out between Russia and any of its neighbors, although several of them were locked in internal or regional conflict in which Russia’s hand was visible.