Yeltsin: Hero or Opportunist?

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TIME's Yuri Zarakhovich asked two Muscovites from opposite ends of the social scale and with very different fortunes as a result of the Yeltsin era to give their own politial epitaphs on Russia's first post-Soviet President. The prosperous business executive and the lowly janitor had remarkably similar conclusions about Boris Yeltsin and his legacy.

Sergei Boguslavsky, Head, TSRT (Center for Reputation Technologies) private PR firm:

"Yeltsin was one of those few Russian leaders who became figures of world history. He was very Russian in everything, in his controversies in particular. He was also a true, born leader, capable of going against the tide of public opinion. He did so when he quarreled with Gorbachev in the Soviet Politburo. He did go against the tide, when he presided over the dissolution of the Soviet Union. He did so when he hired Yegor Gaidar and his team to launch his reform.

[an error occurred while processing this directive]"But no, I don't recall anything heroic about him, because there has never been any heroism. Not even when he climbed that tank in Moscow in August 1991 to thwart the hard-liners' putsch. There has been an enormous and stunning political intuition and cunning. He always felt how things would turn out — and that was why he was always capable of turning the situation his way. August 1991 was no exception: he had instinctive grasp of things. He felt instinctively what he had to do to win. At the time, he knew as instinctively that he had to apologize publicly for the death of the three young boys who died in the August confusion. They were given heroes' burial, and Yeltsin made a moving and appealing apology to the people. 'Forgive me, your President, for having failed to save your children.' The country wept. Five years later, he offered no apology for thousands dying on the both sides of the war in Chechnya. He was a born politician, with all the qualities that entails.

"His finale is telling: it looks like he has accomplished his objectives. He has provided security for his physical family — and for the Family, as the whole agglomeration of vast financial and political holdings and interests that has grown around him and his close relatives has become known. He passed into a political oblivion in exchange for letting the Family keep and enlarge their vast assets. In this sense, he has been long dead. But he was a great politician, leader — and he made history."

Vladimir Melnikov, janitor, handyman and an occasional driver:

"There was nothing heroic left about Yeltsin. In fact, there has never been. There was nothing heroic about his climbing that tank — he knew damn well he was safe; it was a gesture to seal his victory over those inept putschists. He just found an appropriate moment that worked for him to do that.

"There wasn't anything heroic about him fighting Gorbachev either — in fact, he continued what Gorbachev started. Gorbachev ruined the Soviet Union. Yeltsin ruined Russia. He led to having this country robbed and pilfered. He hasn't done anything good to us. All he has done has been negative. The new rich have benefited under him. But he has done nothing for the ordinary people."