It was October 1987, three weeks before the 70th anniversary of the Russian revolution. The Soviet elite had gathered in Moscow to mark the occasion. Following the customarily lengthy speech by the Communist Party general secretary, Mikhail Gorbachev, the chairman asked if anyone wanted to respond.
Unexpectedly, Boris Yeltsin, then the Moscow party boss, came to the rostrum. He spoke for a mere 10 minutes—and in that 10 minutes, he changed Russian history.
Reading that speech now, it’s hard to see what the fuss was all about. Yeltsin complained that the party was lacking in “revolutionary spirit” and that the Soviet people were suffering from “disillusionment.” The language was that of a party functionary, which is, of course, what Yeltsin was.
But then, unexpectedly, he resigned. And with that extraordinarily canny decision, he won instant notoriety: Never before had a Communist leader set himself up as a popular alternative to the Communist Party. Within days, half a dozen different versions of Yeltsin’s speech were being sold on the streets of Moscow, their authors variously speculating that Yeltsin had condemned communism, had supported democracy, had attacked the privileges of the Communist leadership. Every person who felt dissatisfied—and there were many— believed that Yeltsin shared his views. Two decades later, in a far more cynical Russia, this mood is hard to remember. But in the late 1980s, Yeltsin was wildly popular. When the first presidential elections were held in Russia in 1991, it was inevitable that he would win.
That euphoria launched an extraordinary period of Russian history—and a presidential career best described as manic-depressive. Over the next eight years, Yeltsin had enormous bursts of creative energy, alternating with long periods of illness, alcoholism, and retreat. He could rouse himself to rally the country, and he would then vanish, leaving the government in the hands of his corrupt cronies. He was capable of speaking eloquently about freedom, yet he had an autocratic streak and brooked no criticism. He talked about economic reform, but he transferred his country’s industry to a small group of oligarchs. He ended the Cold War, but he started a new and terrible war in Chechnya.
During that time, Western perceptions of Yeltsin fluctuated no less schizophrenically. In the beginning, he was considered a dangerous upstart: President George H.W. Bush openly refused to meet him. Then he stood on a tank in the center of Moscow, told cheering crowds to resist an attempted putsch, and the West turned 180 degrees, called him a hero, and embraced him, sometimes literally. German Chancellor Helmut Kohl exchanged bear hugs with Yeltsin. Bill Clinton campaigned for Yeltsin’s re-election. The International Monetary Fund created new types of loans for Russia, just to be able to give Yeltsin money with no strings attached.
Yet even while he and Clinton were enjoying those long, heavily televised walks through the woods, it was clear that Yeltsin was planting some of the seeds of the retrenchment we see in Russia today. During his administration, that IMF money vanished into secret bank accounts. Having first abolished the KGB, Yeltsin then quietly revived it to keep tabs on his enemies. Despite the rhetoric of the Yeltsin era, Russia still does not have anything that most of us would recognize as a free-market economy. Though we hailed him as a democrat, Yeltsin did not leave behind him anything resembling a functional democracy. And he knew, at some level, that he had failed: When he resigned from the presidency, on New Year’s Eve of the millennium—the second momentous resignation speech of his career—he wiped a tear from his eye and apologized to the Russian people for “your dreams that never came true.”
Now it has become fashionable to turn another 180 degrees and to condemn Yeltsin, for corruption and autocracy, just as thoroughly as we once supported him. This is certainly tempting, especially for those who disliked the lionization of Yeltsin as much as I did. But now that he is dead, perhaps it makes more sense not to classify him as a liberal or an autocrat, a friend or a foe. For in the longer historical perspective, it is clear that Yeltsin, unlike his predecessor Gorbachev, was a genuine man of transition. He knew things had to change, but he had neither the ideas nor the tools to change them. He had some of the instincts of a populist democrat but all of the habits of a lifetime Communist Party apparatchik. He admired Western abundance, but he never understood how Western societies actually work.
In truth, he belonged neither to the Soviet Union, which Gorbachev had hoped to revive, nor to the West, which Putin now rejects. Had we ever been realistic about him, we would have both understood his limitations from the beginning and appreciated his strengths. And had we not embraced him uncritically, we would have been less disappointed when things turned out differently from what we, too, had hoped.