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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

This Freedom Cannot Be Taken Away

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Boris Yeltsin -- one of Russia's greatest leaders -- has died.

His greatness was not as a liberal reformer, like Alexander II, or in opening the country up to Europe, as did Peter the Great. Yeltsin, whose road from the village to the peak of power wound through the Communist Party, had a passionate love for authority and leadership while also possessing an innate respect for freedom.

And that respect for freedom could be seen in other Party figures as well -- Alexander Yakovlev and Eduard Shevardnadze, for example -- but was absolutely lacking in the Federal Security Service colonels who sleazed their way through the usual embassy fare of caviar, vodka and denunciations.

It was because of Yeltsin's passion for freedom that he fell out of favor with the Party in the late 1980s, climbed up on a tank during the putsch of 1991 and didn't cancel elections or shut down television stations.

Comparisons make everything clear. Yeltsin was accused of corruption, but the worst that history can get him for was the dubious appointment of his daughter and son-in-law to head Aeroflot. Billionaires Mikhail Fridman, Mikhail Khodorkovsky and Vladimir Potanin amassed their enormous fortunes without Yeltsin's patronage.

This is in direct contrast to today, when all of President Vladimir Putin's former colleagues from his security services and Ozero-Moscow dacha co-op days have taken major roles in the country's gas, oil, uranium and armaments industries.

The media ruthlessly criticized Yeltsin for the war in Chechnya and for drunkenly conducting oom-pah music in Germany. But no journalists were gunned down for this and not a single television station owner was jailed.

How different from today's Russia, where nobody dares criticize Putin publicly. Putin doesn't say much himself -- it is simply not his habit to speak to the people at moments of critical national importance or to address public concerns.

Yeltsin has been blamed for the collapse of the Soviet Union. Nevertheless, under his rule Russia was preeminent among CIS countries and considered an apt negotiating partner with the West. Though we were embarrassed by his occasional drunkenness, horrifyingly infantile behavior was not one of his weaknesses.

What a contrast to Putin's politics, with his deportations to Georgia and talk of an "asymmetrical response" against the West. Russia no longer has allies. If Yeltsin facilitated Russia's accession to the Group of Eight, Putin has brought Russia to the verge of becoming an outlaw state.

Yeltsin had an equal love for authority and freedom. He knew the difference between what newspapers print today and what history will record for the ages, and he had no desire to be remembered as the Russian Federation's first dictator. He did not give the country's major industries to his friends or jail his enemies, take control of television stations or pervert the meaning of elections. For this, Yeltsin was ridiculed on television and Prosecutor General Yury Skuratov found time to dig through intelligence files looking for dirt on Yeltsin's daughter.

Putin learned from Yeltsin's mistakes: Television programs do not poke fun at Putin. The question, however, is what history will say.

Although Yeltsin oversaw construction for the Party, it's hard to claim he was a builder. He did not complete the task of developing the economy, the default occurred on his watch, and he did not reform the security agencies. But he was a free spirit, and he shared that freedom with the rest of us. Under Yeltsin, Russia experienced a free society for the first time in the 20th century. That society remains free even today, despite television station closures, the redistribution of major industries and the presence of former secret service personnel in the corridors of power.

That freedom is something even Putin cannot renationalize and hand to his old KGB and Ozero co-op buddies.

Yulia Latynina hosts a political talk show on Ekho Moskvy radio.