Nearly 16 years after Boris Yeltsin stood atop a T-72 tank in front of the Russian Parliament to defend it against the August 1991 coup by those trying to save the Soviet Union, we are in a better position to evaluate his legacy. What we can confidently say is that Boris, the destroyer, will be remembered far longer than Boris the creator. While he did help usher in democracy and the concept of free market in Russia, his more lasting legacy will be that he played a crucial role in ending the Soviet Union, its system of centralised political and economic control and the reach of its empire. Yeltsin’s heroic period was between October 1987, when he, as boss of the Moscow communist party, denounced the communist system and became a dissident, till that day in 1993 when he ordered his army to attack the very Parliament he had once defended.
He started out as the champion of free speech and free market but his drastic reforms, including ending price support and drastic cuts in government spending, led to corruption and economic collapse. The Russian GDP fell an astonishing 50 per cent. Worse was the social collapse that led to alcoholism and rising mortality rates. For many Russians, whose standards of living plummeted, this was the worst period in their history. While Yeltsin’s actions led to the independence of 16 nations, his handling of the Chechnya problem has created an albatross that remains wrapped around Russia’s neck.
Perhaps the most ambiguous of his legacies is his hand-picked successor, Vladimir Putin. Ever since he took over power in 2000, the former KGB operative has scored high marks for bringing a measure of stability in the midst of the chaos that was Russia and restoring the Kremlin’s control over the country. But economic reform has been thrown out of the window and civil liberties curtailed. Moscow has begun to assert itself in its ‘near abroad’ in the heavy-handed manner it was always known for. Clearly, Yeltsin will be seen as a figure of transition in the history of his country. Though we know where he came from, it does appear more difficult to predict where his successor, and the country he leads, is headed.