Boris Yeltsin has died in Moscow at age 76. I'm not going to give an assessment of his whole career. For that, you might want to read this nuanced appreciation by Anne Applebaum in the Washington Post and this more critical account by David Satter in the Wall Street Journal.
I have been to Russia only three times, on Jamestown Foundation trips to cover the elections of June 1996 and April 2000 and in October 1989, at the suggestion of U.S. News Editor Roger Rosenblatt, to study the emerging democratic politics. Russians had just elected members of a Supreme Soviet that spring, and the new legislature was meeting in the Kremlin. I stayed at the horrifying Rossiya Hotel, a modern monstrosity just off Red Square, and took my Kremlin press pass in the morning to show the guard, and then started taking a few pictures. Other reporters were aghast: This was a place they had never been allowed to enter until a few months before. But the rules had changed.
Jeff Trimble, U.S. News's excellent Moscow correspondent, who liked to use his fluent Russian by getting into arguments with Soviet apparatchiks, was now chatting with the head of the KGB on the steps outside the building where the Supreme Soviet met. I saw Andrei Sakharov walk into the cafeteria in the basement to get a sandwich. Jeff was incredibly gracious and hospitable to me, even though he had lots to cover and lots of copy to grind out, and so was his wife, Gretchen, who was also fluent in Russian thanks to a program at her Quaker high school intended to encourage personal interaction between Americans and Russians.
I would attend Supreme Soviet meetings and watch in the gallery as various people spoke. Sometimes I would have a translator, sometimes I would get some sense of what was going on from a Russophone neighbor, sometimes I would just watch and do the best I could. I heard Sakharov booed by apparatchiks; the reformers had all the energy but the Soviets still had the numbers. I heard a man who I thought might someday be president of Russia, Anatoly Sobchak, a reformer from what was then still called Leningrad.
Sobchak, a lawyer, spoke eloquently of the need for property rights. Alas, Sobchak's future was not so bright. He became the mayor of Leningrad in 1990 and in August 1991 like Boris Yeltsin opposed the attempted coup against Mikhail Gorbachev.
Later in the year, in accord with the results of a referendum, he re-renamed the city St. Petersburg. He wrote much of the 1993 Russian Constitution and was defeated for re-election in 1996. Charges of corruption followed. He died of a heart attack in February 2000, at age 62. What I didn't know in 1989 was that one of Sobchak's aides in St. Petersburg would be a former KGB officer named Vladimir Putin. Would Sobchak have been part of the Putin administration? Would he have been a democratic influence on what has turned out to be an authoritarian-minded president? We'll never know. It's a tantalizing might-have-been.
Back to the gallery of the Supreme Soviet in October 1989. One day there was a considerable buzz: Mikhail Gorbachev was coming to speak. The front rows were occupied by important people: Prime Minister Nikolai Ryzhkov, Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze, the now out-of-office Boris Yeltsin. Yeltsin had been appointed head of the Moscow Communist Party in 1985, then removed in 1987; in 1989, he won a citywide seat in the Supreme Soviet with 90 percent of the vote. Gorbachev got up to speak in his mellow voice. In the course of his speech he mentioned Yeltsin. He said something about having fallen in the road. Yeltsin had recently been found in such a position after an accident; perhaps (OK, probably) he had been drinking.
Yeltsin's face turned red as Gorbachev was speaking. The members laughed loudly, and so did manymost, it seemed to mein the press gallery. Yeltsin was being publicly humiliated in the most deliberate way. His political career was obviously a shambles.
Within two years and two months, as we now know, the positions were reversed. Gorbachev was seized by the coup plotters in August 1991; Yeltsin as president of the Russian Republic (he had been appointed in 1990 and chosen in an election he insisted on in June 1991) held out against them, climbing on a tank outside Moscow's White House. At the end of 1991, the Soviet Union was abolished and Gorbachev was out of office. Yeltsin remained the president of Russia until his resignation on the last day of 1999.
I feel privileged to have been able to be in Russia as it was moving toward democracy in October 1989 and again for the elections in 1996 and 2000. In 1996, the voters I interviewed (with a translator, of course) were mostly optimistic, although I encountered one retired KGB agent, dressed in steely gray with a steely gray face, who said that Stalin's only mistake was that he didn't kill enough people. The mood in 2000 was very different. Most of the voters I interviewed were going to vote for Putin, but not with much hope that things would get better. It was as if they were saying, I hope the next czar will be a good czar. Boris Yeltsin in many ways proved to be an inadequate leader. But he was also a brave man who did much for his country.
As I watched him on television in August 1991, standing on the tank and defying the coup plotters, it seemed to me that one man was standing between freedom and dictatorship in a country of more than 200 million people. And I remembered how I had watched him being humiliated only 22 months before.
May he rest in peace.