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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

The Proper Resting Place

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Common wisdom suggests that you shouldn't speak ill of the dead: If you can't think of anything positive to say, it's best not to say anything at all. In keeping with this idea, I can say the following about Boris Nikolayevich Yeltsin: He was such a major figure that he deserves a place beside Lenin in the mausoleum on Red Square.

I am convinced that in countries where there is no strong democratic tradition, in chaotic times of a sort of collective insanity, leaders should not be judged by the ideologies they profess. More important are their motivations and personal qualities.

How did Vladimir Lenin, the leader of just one marginal socialist party among many at the time, manage in a few short years to become a great leader, overthrow the previous regime, plunge the country into civil war, emerge victorious from that struggle, and then reassemble the fragments of the Russian empire into a functioning whole? He managed to pull this off because both he and his colleagues were devoid of any trace of political or humane sentiments like patriotism, responsibility for the country's people, respect for the common will and concern about shedding blood. If they stood in the way of achieving his goals, Lenin would crash through barriers the most radical person would not think of crossing, and without any thought. And he succeeded.

Yeltsin was of the same breed. He knew no limits in his thirst for revenge and power. In 1991, it was clear to everyone that the Soviet Union, at least in its form at the time, was doomed. The preparation of the new Union Treaty prior to and following the August putsch was, in effect, an attempt at an ordered and planned transformation of the relationship between the republics. The spontaneous breakup of the Soviet Union was Yeltsin's act of revenge against Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. This was in response to Gorbachev having publicly humiliated Yeltsin before a plenary session of the Central Committee of the Communist Party in 1987. From that moment on, revenge became the animating force in Yeltsin's life. What better form of revenge than to yank a president's country out from under him?

A few months later, Yeltsin concluded that Gorbachev had broken his promise "not to engage in politics" -- a commitment Gorbachev was forced to make in return for certain governmental perks -- and personally decided to take back a foreign-made car allocated to Gorbachev and replace it with a Russian Volga.

If Yeltsin's first act of revenge in breaking up the country inspires a certain respect, if only for its grandeur and scope, the second is just as remarkable for its petty nature against a defeated and prostrate opponent. It was Yeltsin's innate capacity for vindictiveness that was his true greatness. Having someone like this at the head of a nuclear superpower is a danger not only for that country, but for the world as a whole.

Much of what has been printed or said about Yeltsin over the last few days has come in the form of a backhanded jab at President Vladimir Putin. It also has the effect of another humiliation for Gorbachev.

Yeltsin was supposedly a magnanimous person. His former colleagues Alexander Rutskoi and Ruslan Khasbulatov rose against him, and Yeltsin did not put them on trial for it. He didn't even try to block their release from prison. The dozens who were burned or shot to death when government troops fired on the White House and the Ostankino television center during Yeltsin's unconstitutional dissolution of the parliament in 1993 are not even taken into account.

We have heard repeatedly that Yeltsin put an end to totalitarianism and brought freedom in its place. What about Gorbachev? Did Yeltsin really change anything that hadn't already been changed by Gorbachev?

Gorbachev gave us free elections, while Yeltsin attacked the parliament in a situation where simultaneous presidential and parliamentary elections were the obvious democratic solution. There is also strong evidence that the subequent constitutional referendum in December 1993 was tilted in his favor.

Gorbachev gave us glasnost, with its almost unlimited freedom of speech and the country's first post-1917 independent newspaper, radio and television stations. But Yeltsin's oligarchic regime exercised strict control over television broadcasting, turning it into an instrument of psychological warfare. He brought so much economic pressure on the print media that newspaper owners were forced sell column space to the highest bidder. I think he only put up with as much media criticism as he did because it was no threat to him. His hold on power was based on his willingness to use unlimited force to achieve his goals.

Gorbachev freed up the markets, recognized private property and spurred the rapid growth of private enterprises. Yeltsin chose the least suitable option for market reform in a developed but inflexible economy. In the course of doing so, he reneged on the state's social responsibilities to an extent from which the country has yet to recover.

For the longest time I could not understand, given the crimes that were so clearly committed by the Yeltsin regime, why world opinion and even many people in Russia considered him to have been a standard-bearer for democracy, while Putin, whose transgressions are not nearly as outrageous, is seen as democracy's enemy. While listening over the last few days to people as they listed Yeltsin's supposedly great services to the country, I think I found the answer: The average law-abiding person living in an "orderly" country is simply incapable of imagining that Yeltsin might have been motivated by as base an idea as revenge. So people simply look for more reasonable explanations: The breakup of an enormous country in a mere matter of weeks was the inevitable result of the struggle against totalitarianism; fixing the 1996 presidential elections was necessary in the fight to prevent the return of communism; the distribution of state property among friends and acquaintances was the necessary cost of privatization. In this way, all of his actions take on a higher purpose.

Putin's sins appear trivial and insignificant by comparison, although it was not entirely legal to imprison Mikhail Khodorkovsky or to send police to beat opposition demonstrators with truncheons. It is the lesser nature of these accidents that has led people to be so upset.

For me, Yeltsin and Lenin were cut from the same cloth. One spewed communist slogans and the other anti-communist jargon, but they deserve to lie beside each other on Red Square.

Let the marble and granite of the mausoleum serve as their eternal blanket.

Alexei Pankin is the editor of Mediaprofi, a monthly magazine for regional media professionals.