Streetwise Professor

April 25, 2007

Boris Yeltsin

Filed under: Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 7:18 am

One’s appreciation for Boris Yeltsin varies inversely with distance from Moscow. A flawed giant, he should be remembered primarily for one thing: He showed immense moral and physical courage in destroying the Soviet Union. Of course, the greatest beneficiaries of this were the US and Europe (especially eastern Europe), where he is remembered with some fondness. After the Americans, Canadians, and Europeans, the citizens of non-Russian republics have fared best from the dismantling of the USSR. Some have made a hash of it (cf. Belarus) others have done quite well (cf. the Baltic states, and increasingly Georgia). Russia, the heart of the old USSR, suffered severe physical, financial, and perhaps most of all psychological damage as a result of the fall of the USSR, and hence Yeltsin is reviled there–especially in the seat power, Moscow.

This point is important, and has been too little emphasized in the commentary following Yeltsin’s death. Gorbachev was certainly moving the USSR away from its past, but still desperately wanted to retain the Soviet Union. Even a liberalized USSR, holding its empire underfoot, would have been a continuing problem for the security of the West. Moreover, had the USSR continued to exist, the “near abroad” would have started at the Polish border, rather than the Ukrainian. It is likely that the pressures that the Georgians and Estonians and Ukrainians are currently feeling from Russia would have been directed at the Poles and Czechs and Hungarians had the USSR continued to exist.

Yeltsin insisted on the dismantling of the USSR. Insisted. He dictated this outcome to Gorbachev. Without him, it almost certainly wouldn’t have happened. And thank God for that. The USSR was the most malign force in the post-war world, and even a “kinder, gentler” Soviet Union was an enemy of liberty and a threat to peace. Whatever Yeltsin’s other mistakes and faults, which were arguably legion, he made the world a better place when he forced the dismantling of the USSR. Although the image of Yeltsin on the tank is iconic, and an illustration of the man’s immense courage, his steadfast insistence on destroying the USSR root and branch was his most important service to the world. Thus, when I remember Boris Yeltsin, I will not recall first the image of the man on the tank, but instead I will remember with gratitude the image of the lowering of the hammer and sickle banner of the USSR on that fateful New Years Eve.

Today Russia is a destabilizing force in the near abroad, the Middle East, and elsewhere. Think of how much worse things would be if the current revanchist regime ruled over the territories of the Soviet Union, instead of merely its Russian rump. And when you are done with that mental exercise, say another prayer of thanks for Boris Yeltsin.

Of course his legacy for Russia is much more mixed. Many of the criticisms voiced in the aftermath of Yeltsin’s death, like those of David Satter in The National Review or the Wall Street Journal are quite justified. And the most telling criticism is that Yeltsin created the current regime and the conditions which make many Russians support it. By discrediting capitalism and democracy through clumsy and ill-considered policies, neglect, and nepotism and corruption, Yeltsin provided an ongoing rationalization for Putinism.

That said, when evaluating Yeltsin, one must remember that his task made Hercules’ cleaning of the Augean stables look like light housekeeping by comparison. 70 years of Bolshevism, Stalinism, and its successors had looted the USSR physically, economically, and perhaps most importantly, morally. There was no way–no way at all–that the transition from communism to democracy and the market state was going to be pretty. Whatever Yeltsin’s mistakes, one can only be assured that anybody other than Jesus Christ himself would have made other mistakes as bad or worse. We’ve seen one sample path of history; other sample paths far worse were certainly in the relevant probability space.

Indeed, in my view, given Russia’s history, its intellectual tendencies, and its political inheritance, it improbable in the extreme that any outcome more democratic, more free, and less aggressive than Putin’s Russia would have occurred had anyone other than Yeltsin ruled Russia post-1991.

Yeltsin’s rule demonstrates that a man’s (or woman’s) greatest strength is often his (or her) greatest weakness. Yeltsin’s confidence, courage, and forcefulness were necessary for him to face down the USSR, but ill suited him to be the leader of a normal democratic country. This points out the general problem of revolutionary transition. Those who are best suited to lead revolutions are often least suited to lead normal countries, but it is very difficult to supplant the revolutionary hero who has a moral claim to leadership. Men like George Washington and Vaclev Havel are the exceptions, not the rule.

So, all in all, I mourn the passing of Boris Yeltsin. The world is a far better place than it would have been without him. His legacy is a mixed one, but whose is not? He bequeathed a revanchist Russia to the world, albeit quite unintentionally–but also destroyed the Soviet Union almost singlehanded, and that quite intentionally. Given the realities of his moment in history, the balance of this trade is solidly on the credit side of the ledger.

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