In April 1993, as Yeltsin was campaigning for votes to win a national referendum to reaffirm his tenuous hold on power, I spent days trying to get close to him. Finally, in the bleak coal-mining region of Kuzbass, I slipped past his detail of beefy bodyguards and stood face to face with Russia's most perplexing figure: the leader who promised reform but who later opened fire on his own Parliament; the man on whom Washington put all of its chips even as Moscow handed the country's assets to a new class of kleptocrats; the man of the people who would become a man of the bottle.
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I opened with the simplest of questions: Did he think he would win? To a smooth politician, it would have been a welcome softball. But nothing came easy to Russia's tortured President. "I'm a President," he sputtered with obvious disdain, "not a fortune teller." And off he stormed.
He won that referendum but ultimately became a failed President, a point affirmed at the end of 1999 when he suddenly announced that Vladimir Putin, a relatively unknown former KGB man from St. Petersburg before becoming Yeltsin's Prime Minister, would take over. In the final, pathetic chapter, Yeltsin quietly agreed to vanish from the political scene as long as Putin agreed not to pursue corruption cases against Yeltsin and his family. Putin then undid much of what Yeltsin had accomplished for example, a tolerance (usually) of a free press and began to construct a Russia that is stronger, more sure of itself, yet more like the unforgiving Soviet state. Russia is still a corrupt place, but Putin has rekindled Russians' nostalgia for greatness. His popularity ratings are never less than 65%. Yeltsin retired quietly to his dacha outside of Moscow and died on Monday, seemingly forgotten.
I once wrote that Yeltsin was a unique political mix. He combined a folksy Reaganesque simplicity with a Nixonian sense of political intrigue (and paranoia) plus a tendency toward accidents that recalled Gerald Ford. He once fell into a small river near his dacha outside of Moscow, surely drunk, possibly related to a tawdry love affair. On another occasion he was too soused to leave his plane to meet with the Irish Prime Minister even as aides committed the ultimate lese majeste and slapped him hard to bring him to consciousness.
But Yeltsin had moments that made one believe Russia could shed its authoritarian impulses and emerge as something of a Western-style democracy. His finest hour, really his defining moment, was in August 1991. The leader of the country, Mikahil Gorbachev, was in the Crimea on summer vacation, and dark forces opposed to Gorby and his stop-start reforms tried to stage a coup.
Yeltsin's political instincts were still sharp, and he raced to the scene outside of Russia's White House. He memorably climbed atop a rebel tank and urged defiance. Troops involved in the attempted power grab defected, and the putsch failed. Gorbachev returned to Moscow and, remarkably, declared that he still believed in communism. Russia was suddenly Yeltsin's. The Soviet system crumbled and by Christmas day of that year, the Soviet Union itself was finished. The era of reform had begun.
But the promise of that moment quickly turned sour. Yeltsin and his team were optimistic about pushing rapid change, and about cooperating with the West. The halls of power were filled with Harvard University types who were advising on stock markets, political reform, defense initiatives. But nothing seemed to work. A rapid economic-development plan of "shock therapy" delivered the shock, but no therapy. Russia got more corrupt. Russians felt more desperate (another enduring image of Yeltsin's Russia: the poor babushkas on the streets desperately trying to sell whatever they could knives and forks, books, old socks). Russia lost territory. It launched a war in Chechnya. It careened from crisis to crisis.
Things came to a head in 1993. Russian politics were paralyzed and Yeltsin, with dubious constitutional justification, suspended parliament and called for new elections. When his foes in the legislature wouldn't leave, and accumulated a stockpile of arms, Yeltsin brought his tanks to the Parliament building. I remember watching from a rooftop across the street as the tanks fired shell after shell into Russia's highest legislative body. In the name of democracy, Russia's president had suspended, and now was bombing, his own parliament. And the West mostly went along, convinced that it was necessary to support this flawed leader since the alternatives seemed far worse. Civil war was narrowly avoided. But greatness would elude Yeltsin ever after.
In his finest moments Yeltsin showed a side to Russia that the West could believe in, a Russia that shared the West's values and interests. But Yeltsin's ineptness, and a recalcitrant opposition, meant that in the end he could only deliver a weak nation to Vladimir Putin, who is fashioning once again a Russia that is a threat to the West.