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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

A Mixed Legacy

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The New York Times

It is in the nature of men who lead revolutions that they rarely prove to be effective leaders of governments. So it was with Boris Yeltsin. ...

Yeltsin was a huge figure in an extraordinary time. Brought into the ruling Politburo by Mikhail Gorbachev at the dawn of perestroika -- the restructuring that couldn't save the system -- Yeltsin electrified Muscovites with his openness and accessibility. His defiance of the Communist Party was a deadly blow to its rule, and when party loyalists staged their putsch in August 1991, Yeltsin's speech from atop a tank collapsed the rebellion.

As president, Yeltsin tolerated brazen corruption, ended a 1993 rebellion by ordering tanks to fire on the parliament and launched the brutal military campaign in Chechnya. The deals he made to ensure his 1996 re-election undermined the democracy he championed. The country he turned over to President Vladimir Putin was a mess. Looking back, we can identify the most egregious failings of this man. But without Yeltsin, the death throes of that terrible dictatorship could have been far worse.

The Washington Post

Boris Yeltsin was a man of great contradictions who nevertheless will be remembered, first and foremost, for a single image: his defiant stand upon a T-72 tank in front of the Russian parliament in August 1991 against a coup by defenders of the dying Soviet Union. That is the right place to begin any assessment of the first democratic leader in Russia's history -- especially as he may be the last for some time to come. ...

A cynic might ask whether today's Russia is much different from what it would have been had Yeltsin not mounted his tank and the 1991 coup had succeeded. ... There is, too, the memory of the unfettered society Yeltsin presided over -- a time of chaos and misery for many, but also of free speech, free association and free elections. For now, most Russians seem to approve of Putin's authoritarian remedy for the chaos. In time, they may embrace the aspirations for freedom that Yeltsin embodied at his best.

Los Angeles Times

Boris Yeltsin would have ranked among the best of tsars or commissars. It was Russia's great tragedy that, instead, he was a would-be democrat. ...

The pessimism of his era in office was perhaps best summed up by one of his many failed prime ministers, Viktor Chernomyrdin: "We hoped for the best, but things turned out as usual. ... "

That Yeltsin failed was forgivable. Transforming the economy from communism to capitalism, building democratic traditions in a country that didn't have any and establishing relations with Russia's newly independent former subjects was a Herculean task. But it was because he failed so spectacularly, while passing off his incompetence as the inevitable by-product of capitalism and democracy, that the Russian people embraced the thuggish authoritarianism of Yeltsin's handpicked successor, Putin. Will history judge this last blunder most harshly of all?

The Wall Street Journal

Boris Yeltsin's heart, which gave out Monday at age 76, was in the right place at critical moments in Russian history. But his weaknesses, not least for drink and bad company in the end failed him as well as his country. ...

Yeltsin's tragedy was to stay too long, urged on by his family, advisers and foreigners who thought he was the only man standing in the way of a chimeric Communist threat. "I want this guy to win so bad it hurts," U.S. President Bill Clinton said about the 1996 elections, when Yeltsin lay in a hospital after suffering a heart attack that was kept secret. He did win, but that year was the turning point for Russian democracy. By 1999, the Yeltsin family was no longer willing to trust voters to select a replacement and found the obscure KGB Colonel Putin. ...

The rest is Russia's recent history. Putin has muzzled the press and free speech, destroyed opposition parties and centralized economic and political power inside the Kremlin. In retirement, Yeltsin kept quiet as his good legacy was dismantled -- leaving mostly the bad. Russia was never as free as in the Yeltsin 1990s, before or since.

The Times (London)

Yeltsin's immense political courage was too often eclipsed by his own human frailty. By the end of his eight years in power he was presiding over a mess. Ravaged by poor health, he was an embarrassment to Russians, a liability abroad and of little help to a succession of bewildered prime ministers. But his great achievement, the burying of a 19th-century ideology that poisoned the 20th century and abhorred the individual, proved irreversible. Critics assessing his legacy after his death Monday from heart failure may dwell on missed chances and false hopes. But in the war of ideas that continues to shape the contemporary world, Boris Yeltsin was a towering force for good.

Many Russians, both inside and outside the Kremlin, will note with wry disdain the West's applause for Yeltsin's role in history. They recall more painfully the deaths of young recruits in Grozny and the mass destitution wrought by the financial crash of 1998. Yet only a slim minority of aging die-hards would choose now to go back to communism. Without Boris Yeltsin, there might have been no choice.