WASHINGTON—In the course of his tumultuous stewardship as leader of Russia, Boris Yeltsin suffered the ultimate comedown: from hero of his time to the object of public derision.
At the outset, there was the Boris Yeltsin who inspired the world, the defiant reformer who climbed atop a tank to lead Russia out of communism and into the embrace of democracy.
At the end, he was a tired and enfeebled leader whose popularity had shrunk to 2 percent in the polls. The country was awash in corruption and despair, and thousands of countrymen yearned for his resignation.
But after his death Monday, historians, statesmen and even critics were beginning to look beyond Yeltsin's latter-day foibles as they acknowledged his towering accomplishment: sowing the seeds of freedom in a country that had endured a thousand years of autocracy and dictatorship.
"Fate gave him a tough time in which to govern, but history will be kind to him because he was courageous and steadfast on the big issues—peace, freedom and progress," said former President Bill Clinton, who met Yeltsin more than 15 times.
As much as anything, said Yegor Gaidar, who served as an acting prime minister in the early 1990s, Yeltsin gave Russians hope. And from the vantage point of Russian reformers and Western governments, Yeltsin stands in contrast to his successor, Vladimir Putin, who threatens to roll back many of the democratic underpinnings that Yeltsin installed.
"It's very easy to judge him by what he has not accomplished, where he went wrong and the mistakes he made. That sort of neglects where he started," said Leon Aron, a scholar with the American Enterprise Institute who authored a Yeltsin biography. "I think you needed this enormous, driven, physically courageous, stubborn man to do what needed to be done."
For a few brief years, before alcoholism and corruption caused his political downfall, the Russian people embraced Boris Nikolayevich Yeltsin.
Back then, many of his countrymen called Yeltsin a real Russian "muzhik." Difficult to translate into English, it means something like "a man's man": a direct, simple, forceful man from the vast Russian countryside.
For a few years, to the Russians, Yeltsin was everything Mikhail Gorbachev was not.
While Westerners swooned over Gorbachev in the late 1980s, Yeltsin used his gruff, instinctive feel for the "narod"—the Russian common folk—to rebuild a political career that Gorbachev had tried to destroy.
Gorbachev tried to reform communism; Yeltsin rejected it, becoming in July 1990 the most prominent Soviet leader to quit the party.
At dinner parties or over coffee, Russians mocked the way Gorbachev spoke Russian. They imitated his drawl from the Russian south, the way he slurred words and swallowed endings.
Until later, when his bouts of public inebriation drew ridicule, Russians never made fun of how Yeltsin talked.
Yeltsin didn't do banter. In a guttural baritone, he spoke in proclamations.
At a news conference in 1991, as the Russian Parliament weighed legislation allowing private land ownership, an American journalist asked Yeltsin, then the newly elected Russian president, why the bill didn't provide for bolder, quicker reforms.
Gorbachev would have given a long, windy answer steeped in intricate legalisms.
Yeltsin bellowed a single response.
"You apparently don't have the slightest understanding of the Russian soul!" he responded.
Through much of his eight years as president, Yeltsin's Russia often resembled the chaotic Wild West as the world's largest country tried to move past seven decades of communism and a state economy.
Corrupt businessmen seized control of state-owned property in fire-sale deals. Gangsters flourished. Yeltsin and his youngest daughter, Tatyana, the president's closest adviser, were accused of enriching themselves through their ties with powerful business circles. Yeltsin openly showed signs of burnout, poor health, heavy drinking and erratic governing. He once appeared disoriented at a state ceremony and increasingly preferred to remain out of sight.
Yeltsin dispatched federal troops to the rebellious southern republic of Chechnya in 1994, but they sustained embarrassing defeats and the government settled for an uneasy truce. The conflict started again in 1999.
Any lingering rapport that Yeltsin had with his people seemingly disintegrated with a financial crisis in 1998 that plunged the country into a depression. Russia later began rebounding economically with massive oil profits, but Yeltsin had essentially become a has-been, even though still in office.
Yet he was capable of one last surprise. On New Year's Eve of 1999, Yeltsin announced his resignation and anointed then-Prime Minister Putin as his successor. Putin's first official act granted Yeltsin and his family immunity from prosecution on corruption allegations.
With his farewell words, Yeltsin implicitly summed up his strengths and shortcomings as Russia's first democratically elected president. "I ask your forgiveness for not living up to some of the hopes of the people who believed that we would be able to jump, in one fell swoop, from a dreary, stagnant totalitarian past into a bright, affluent and civilized future," he told the Russian people.
"I never had a more important task. I have done all I could."
(James Rosen was Moscow correspondent for United Press International from 1989-91. Dave Montgomery was Moscow correspondent for Knight Ridder Newspapers from 1998-2002.)
(c) 2007, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
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