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Boris Yeltsin:

Former Russian President Boris Yeltsin died today. Yeltsin was president from 1991 to 1999 and became the first democratically elected ruler of Russia. His mistakes are many and well-known. They include the bloody first Chechen War (1994-96), which set the stage for the even worse second Chechen conflict that rages to this day; Yeltsin himself may have come to regret his role in initiating the conflict. Other errors include his failure to fully root out the old communist nomenklatura (which is now making a comeback under his successor), the massive corruption that flourished under his rule, and the establishment of a constitution that concentrates excessive, almost authoritarian, power in the hands of the president. And of course there was his terrible mistake in appointing former KGB colonel Vladimir Putin ashis successor.

I do not mean to belittle the significance of these failures. But on this day it is important to emphasize Yeltsin's successes, achievements that in my view are mostly underappreciated. First and foremost, Yeltsin played a key role in the collapse of communism in the Soviet Union, particularly during the attempted August 1991 coup by communist hardliners when Yeltsin risked his life to lead the resistance to the coup. The coup's failure was the death knell of communist rule in the Soviet Union. We all owe a Yeltsin a great debt for this service alone, even if he had done nothing else positive.

Yeltsin (left) stands on a tank during the 1991 coup.

But in fact he had several other important achievements to his credit. Of all of Russia's many rulers since the country was unified some 500 years ago (excluding the shortlived Provisional Government of 1917), Yeltsin was the only one who permitted almost complete freedom of speech and religion. The 1990s was the only time in Russian history when adherents of almost every ideology were free to express their views and criticize the government. Adherents of virtually every religion were for the first time free to practice their faith. Yeltsin also deserves credit for dismantling most of the Soviet Union's huge military-industrial complex, which once accounted for anywhere from a third to a half of GDP. Finally, the Yeltsin era saw a vast expansion of both political and economic freedom, even if tainted by corruption. Here too, there was greater progress than under any other Russian ruler, with the possible exception of the 19th century reformist Czar Alexander II, who abolished serfdom and thereby freed the majority of the population from a state of near-slavery.

There has been considerable regression under Yeltsin's successor Vladimir Putin, who has cracked down on free speech and reconcentrated power in the hands of the central government. Yeltsin, of course, deserves considerable blame for this, both for appointing Putin as his successor and for helping to foster a political climate in which a more authoritarian leader could succeed. Yet even under Putin, Russia has not come close to reverting to the dark days of communism. And there is reason to hope that the government will be forced to liberalize once more as the westernized middle class becomes larger and more powerful.

Boris Yeltsin was a man of many faults who made some grave errors. But history may well conclude that the great good he did outweighs the not inconsiderable evil.

Vovan:

He was the first Russian president. With this title he has forever entered the history of the country and the whole world.A man has passed away thanks to whom a whole new epoch has started. A new, democratic Russia was born, a free state open to the world. A state in which power truly belongs to the people. We knew Boris Nikolayevich as a courageous but genial and warm-hearted person. He was a straightforward and bold national leader who was frank and honest to his utmost in defending his positions.

signed: Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin
4.23.2007 7:24pm
Houston Lawyer:
I remember the images of him standing out in front of the crowd with someone holding up a bullet-proof vest to protect him from snipers. It was a great moment in history. Freedom is not often siezed by the sober minded. He had the balls to stand up at the right time. The world owes him a debt of gratitude.
4.23.2007 7:26pm
Randy R. (mail):
I agree. Too bad the Russians don't. According to a recent poll, he is remembered the least out of all the Russians leaders of the 20th century, and this includes the last tsar!
4.23.2007 7:42pm
Randy R. (mail):
I meant to say, he is the least liked of all the recent leaders.
4.23.2007 7:43pm
Markusha:
History will judge Yeltsin to be a positive figure in Russia's history. Yes, he made some mistakes, but he deserves a huge credit for beating the coup in 1991, preserving Russia from civil war, and starting liberal market reforms. Let him rest in peace.
4.23.2007 8:01pm
Joshua:
I'll say this for Mr. Yeltsin, he looked better with a tank than Michael Dukakis ever did.
4.23.2007 8:49pm
ys:

I'll say this for Mr. Yeltsin, he looked better with a tank than Michael Dukakis ever did.

And the occasion was a bit more meaningful, which was duly noted by the voters.
4.23.2007 9:03pm
georgian:
thanks for the thoughtful and insightful commentary. i would agree with the "best of a bad bunch" bottom line. an interesting idea to consider, however, is whether yeltsin helped set the stage for the current situation not just by picking putain (sic) and allowing corruption to fester, but by further souring the russian people on the experience of freedom--i get the feeling many russians have the attitude that liberalism brought them the economic struggles of the 90s, and they have no appetite to give it another shot.
4.23.2007 9:13pm
The Cabbage:
His re-election campaign was also very interesting. Reports in the media leading up to the election said that he was dead in the water. Then he danced along to some ruski-rock and surged to victory. All I ever heard about was the dancing on stage, and I wonder what really lead to his political turnaround.
4.23.2007 11:23pm
Respondent (mail):
As it appears to me, the only significant differences between the liberty Russians now have in the Putin era and the liberty they had in the last Gorbachev years are the freedom of religion and the freedom of emigration. Other than those two freedoms, the Russian federation looks no bbetter now than any run of the mill corrupt de-facto one-party state.
4.24.2007 12:38am
M (mail):
Cabbage asked, "All I ever heard about was the dancing on stage, and I wonder what really lead to his political turnaround."

What happend is, in large, that huge amounts of state funds and assets were transfered to private hands in exchange for "loans" to the Yeltsin campaign by various oligarchs/criminals. This money was used to control the media which put on one-sided campaign coverage of the sort never seen here. Zugonov is a fool and a human troll who has never had an interesting or useful idea about governing in his life. But what I've just said is much more fair and accurate than what was said on Russian media, bought and paid for by funds stolen from the Russian state on Yeltsin's behalf. What ever virtue he may have had (and he did have heroic moments) was gone by the time he staged a coup in '93 and re-wrote the constitution concentrating power in his own hands. It's been down-hill politically in Russia since then.
4.24.2007 2:02am
Ilya Somin:
As it appears to me, the only significant differences between the liberty Russians now have in the Putin era and the liberty they had in the last Gorbachev years are the freedom of religion and the freedom of emigration.

These are two extremely important differences. But they are not the only ones. There are also far more extensive private property rights (which were almost nonexistent under Gorbachev), and still more freedom of speech than existed under even Gorbachev's reformist Soviet government. The latter still permitted only communist publications to exist, and forbade opposition political parties. By contrast, opposition publications and parties do exist on a large scale in Putin's Russia, though they are subject to increasing official harrassment.

Finally, and perhaps most importnat, Putin's regime has no equivalent to the communist government's system of Gulag slave labor camps (many of which were not dismantled under Gorbachev, but only after his fall).

Putin is no saint, as I have pointed out on this blog. But is rule is a big improvement over pre-1991 times in Russia.
4.24.2007 2:21am
Vovan:

Finally, and perhaps most importnat, Putin's regime has no equivalent to the communist government's system of Gulag slave labor camps (many of which were not dismantled under Gorbachev, but only after his fall).


Somin, you are relying on Conquest's statistics about GULAG's. They have been proven wrong - and your information is GROSSLY outdated, and wrong.
4.24.2007 1:05pm
Aleks:
Re: As it appears to me, the only significant differences between the liberty Russians now have in the Putin era and the liberty they had in the last Gorbachev years are the freedom of religion and the freedom of emigration.

Religion is not all that free in Russia today. Strict government regulations limit any public functioning of non-traditional Russian religions, which includes all Christian denominations except Orthodox Christianity. Judaism, Islam and Buddhism are also recognized, but other faiths are not.
4.24.2007 2:30pm
ys:
Vovan:

Somin, you are relying on Conquest's statistics about GULAG's. They have been proven wrong - and your information is GROSSLY outdated, and wrong.

What statistics do you mean? There weren't any quoted in the post you are replying to. Or are you saying there was no GULAG system?
4.24.2007 3:02pm
Vovan:

What statistics do you mean? There weren't any quoted in the post you are replying to. Or are you saying there was no GULAG system?


I'm saying that the "GULAG" system of "slave labor camps" that Somin is referring (presumably meaning political prisoners and repressions) was curtailed after 1953 and was largely gone by the time Brezhnev came to power.

Forced labor and prison-industrial complex, however, largely remains in places that old Labor Camps were located, but the people put there are for the most part common run of the mill criminals.
4.24.2007 5:29pm
Respondent (mail):
"By contrast, opposition publications and parties do exist on a large scale in Putin's Russia, though they are subject to increasing official harrassment." (emphais added)
If "increasing official harassment" means jailing political opponents on trumped up charges, or at times, even assassination, then the only opposition speech that is free is the speech not likely to have any real effect on the regime. It certainly seems to me that this description is consistent with the current political scene in Putinist Russia.
4.24.2007 7:28pm
Ilya Somin:
Somin, you are relying on Conquest's statistics about GULAG's. They have been proven wrong - and your information is GROSSLY outdated, and wrong....

I'm saying that the "GULAG" system of "slave labor camps" that Somin is referring (presumably meaning political prisoners and repressions) was curtailed after 1953 and was largely gone by the time Brezhnev came to power.


Actually, it is you who are wrong. Check out the stats on the Gulag in Anne Applebaum's comprehensive 2003 book (which notes the presence of large numbers of Gulag prisoners well into the Gorbachev era). Check out also Rudolph Rummel's book Soviet Genocide and Mass Murder 1917-1991 (1992), and the chapters on the Soviet Union in the Black Book of Communism (1999). The overwhelming evidence suggests that Conquest may well have erred on the side of underestimating rather than overestimating the size of the Gulag.

It is particularly absurd to claim that the Gulag ceased to exist after Stalin, given that prominent dissidents such as Sharansky and Anatoly Marchenko spent time in forced labor camps well into the 1970s and 80s.
4.24.2007 8:05pm
Vovan:

Actually, it is you who are wrong. Check out the stats on the Gulag in Anne Applebaum's comprehensive 2003 book (which notes the presence of large numbers of Gulag prisoners well into the Gorbachev era). Check out also Rudolph Rummel's book Soviet Genocide and Mass Murder 1917-1991 (1992), and the chapters on the Soviet Union in the Black Book of Communism (1999). The overwhelming evidence suggests that Conquest may well have erred on the side of underestimating rather than overestimating the size of the Gulag.


I did look at the cited sources a number of times - Rummell's claim of 40 million dead is ABSURD (it includes 20 million Russian WWII victims - Somin, zee Germans started the war, not the Russians), and he based his claims on Conquest's.

Conquest, meanwhile, never bothered to look at the census statistics - if his figures matched up Russia could not have possibly have a net gain in population shortly after WWII. Also, something which you hopefully know, Conquest's figures are based on HEARSAY - he never saw any numbers backing his claims, and extrapolated his numbers based on eyewitness accounts.

Now, if you would actually click on the links that I cited, you would see that the author in question - gets his numbers from "Государственный архив Российской Федерации" - and looks at "political prisoners" in the Gulags. His numbers have statistical backing - others do not, it's as simple as that.


It is particularly absurd to claim that the Gulag ceased to exist after Stalin, given that prominent dissidents such as Sharansky and Anatoly Marchenko spent time in forced labor camps well into the 1970s and 80s.


GULAG is a form of prison system - the fact that there were political prisoners in the 1980's (Saharov for example) - does not lead to conclusion that GUGLAG was used as a toll of political repression up to the 1980's.
4.24.2007 11:15pm