Boris Yeltsin, RIP The Rise and Fall of the Drunken Czar

Boris Yeltsin's finest moment came in August 1991, when he stood on a tank in Moscow and opposed the hardline leaders of a coup against Gorbachev. But the former Russian president, who died Monday, ended his period in power in disgrace.

By Jörg R. Mettke in Moscow


Former Russian President Boris Yeltsin died Monday at the age of 76.
AP

Former Russian President Boris Yeltsin died Monday at the age of 76.

Boris Yeltsin, who died Monday at the age of 76, was in many ways a paradoxical figure. His professional specialization was construction, but his biggest passion was tearing things down. During his rise through the ranks of the party and government apparatus, he showed a penchant for playing the common man who fights against privilege, yet he savored the Kremlin's pomp and circumstance as if it had been his God-given right.

He was an avowed enemy of corruption and nepotism, and yet a giant network of clans and cliques, possessing piles of -- often ill-gotten -- cash, grew in the shadow of his throne. He hated the shadowy men of the KGB, and yet he groomed its most pliable agent, Vladimir Putin, to be his successor.

Boris Yeltsin, who personified the contradictions in Russia's political meandering between reform and restoration in the late 20th century, is no more. The first president of post-communist Russia died Monday in Moscow of sudden heart failure after a long period of disgrace and decline.

Destined for a different path

The "boy from the Urals" -- as his long-time confidante Viktor Ilyushin used to call him -- came from a downtrodden family. The young Yeltsin, who had almost drowned in the baptismal font while being christened by a drunk priest, seemed predestined for a certain path in life: He would leave school at a young age and go to work in the same factory as his father, where at best he might make a modest career for himself. The boy, who lost two fingers of his left hand when a grenade he was playing with exploded, and who later traveled around the country by train, apparently never dreamt he would one day mix with presidents, chancellors and queens.

Cartoonists later had a tendency to depict him as the perfect human embodiment of the Russian bear. But no one who managed to get to know Boris Yeltsin intimately ever laughed about him. It was precisely because of his inherent contradictions -- he was simultaneously half the puppet of the bureaucracy and half its bitter enemy -- that he was perhaps the most human leader of the Kremlin since the seat of government was moved there from St. Petersburg in 1918.

The political magma of the country was constantly simmering during his term in office. Yeltsin loved action and passion. Nothing was ever at rest, no one had his life in order, everything was in flux. Everyone was, or at least pretended to be, willing to learn. America, Germany and even Poland were places where one could get an outside perspective on one's own national character.

Back to the bad old days

Meanwhile, seven years after Yeltsin's departure from office, all of that has either stagnated or been lost altogether. Concepts of friend and foe are back in place and in authoritarian hands. Russians simply need a strongman, argue some observers in the country -- typically the same people who are keen to get their own hands on power. Those who listen too much to other countries' opinions are increasingly being suspected -- just like in the bad old days -- of being traitors.

The most recent case of historical revisionism being perpetrated by the Moscow ruling class is that Russia was robbed, plundered and enslaved by foreign countries, with the help of the Yeltsin clan. Their favorite quote is from Henry Kissinger, who once complained that, "Throughout Boris Yeltsin's period in office, Western leaders acted as if they were a party to Russian internal politics." Those politics are extremely rigid once again and cast from a single mold -- thanks to Putin, who Kissinger occasionally advises and for whom he has "great respect."

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