A Glimpse of Free Speech in Yeltsin Farewell

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Dmitry Astakhov / AFP / Getty

A Russian Orthodox priest during the funeral ceremony for ex-President Boris Yeltsin in Moscow, Russia, April 25, 2007.

"The end crowns all," William Shakespeare once wrote. On the face of it, Boris Yeltsin's end was fabulous: Some 20,000 ordinary people, most leading Russian dignitaries, many world leaders and senior statesmen that included two former U.S. Presidents flocked to the Cathedral of Christ the Savior to pay their last respects. The Orthodox Christian funeral was the first such for a Russian leader in the last 113 years. And there were full military honors, President Vladimir Putin solemnly walking behind the gun carriage bearing the coffin, and the artillery salute at the VIP Novodevichye cemetery, while the nation observed an official period of mourning, albeit truncated to a single day.

National TV stations, now tightly controlled by the Kremlin, were ordered to broadcast the same coverage of the Church rites and the funeral ceremony, minimizing the chances for any unwelcome improvisation by any reporters. Still, a jarring moment occurred anyway: The state-run Channel 1 TV station invited a group of Yeltsin's old associates to share their memories of their leader. For the first time in at least four years, the forgotten politicians known as"democrats of the first wave" showed up on TV, and for the first time in years, Russians heard a lively political discussion broadcast live as speaker after speaker invoked memories of "free speech and the free media as Yeltsin' uppermost historical achievement," drawing waves of applause from the studio audience. This breath of fresh air in the long stagnant Russian TV atmosphere was the best tribute to Yeltsin — and the most bitter reminder of his worst failure.

After more than a decade of what he sincerely believed was his fight for democracy, Yeltsin surrendered his country and his subjects — whom he had so persistently urged to become citizens — to former KGB colonel Vladimir Putin. A few members of the democratic opposition still left now reproach Yeltsin for choosing a successor who dismantled the fragile freedoms Yeltsin had inaugurated. But the point was not his choice of successor as much as the method of succession, forgoing fair and transparent elections, simply announcing his resignation and appointment of Putin as his successor on New Year's Eve in 2000, followed by a token, predetermined vote. By then, of course, Yeltsin's priorities were less lofty: safety and immunity for himself and his family and inner circle, and the protection of their assets.

On the day of Yeltsin's death, his erstwhile Chief of Staff Sergei Filatov told a Russian web site that Yeltsin had confided his unhappiness with Putin dismantling everything he had created and stood for. Putin's policies, said Filatov, chagrined Yeltsin to the point of expediting his demise. This week, Komsomolskaya Pravda, a Gazprom-owned, heavily pro-Kremlin Moscow daily, ran its list of Yeltsin's top mistakes and top achievements, "built on our audiences' opinions." It held that his biggest mistake was dissolving the Soviet Union. And that his last great achievement was handing over power to Putin. If Russians are thinking this way, then Yeltsin can't be solely to blame for what came after.