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Former Russian President Yeltsin Leaves Complex Legacy

April 23, 2007 at 6:40 PM EDT

JEFFREY BROWN: August 1991, Boris Yeltsin made his mark on world history. Standing atop a tank in Moscow and cheered on by some 50,000 supporters, Yeltsin denounced the coup orchestrated by hard-liners and the KGB to remove Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev.

At the time, Yeltsin was the elected president of Russia, one of 15 Soviet republics. He was also a rival of Gorbachev. The coup failed. And soon after, the Soviet Union was gone for good.

Gorbachev resigned on Christmas Day, 1991. The hammer and sickle came down from atop the Kremlin to be replaced by a new Russian flag, and Boris Yeltsin became president of the Russian Federation, a nation much smaller in size than the Soviet Union, but still a nuclear power.

In the 1990s, Yeltsin’s Russia underwent tremendous change, becoming more democratic and free, but worse off in such areas as health and life expectancy. The privatization of state-owned industries threw hundreds of thousands of workers out of their jobs and created a new class of wealthy oligarchs.

Yeltsin tried to maintain Russia’s role as a world power, working with Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton, and being rewarded with membership in the G-7 group of industrial nations.

Boris Nikolayevich Yeltsin was born on February 1, 1931, into a peasant family in the Ural mountains. He was a local Communist Party chief in the 1960s and ’70s.

In 1985, Gorbachev brought Yeltsin to Moscow to become the city’s Communist Party chief and to help implement economic reforms. Yeltsin soon became a popular leader, riding buses instead of limousines, visiting food stores to hear consumer complaints. He also criticized Gorbachev for not moving fast enough on political and economic reforms.

In November 1987, Gorbachev fired Yeltsin. But two years later, in the first elections for Soviet parliament, Yeltsin made a political comeback, winning a seat in the People’s Congress. He continued to be critical of Gorbachev.

In a 1989 NewsHour interview, while visiting the United States for the first time, Yeltsin did little to mask the rivalry.

JIM LEHRER: In this country, Gorbachev is seen by many in heroic terms, as a man of history, a man who is turning around a huge ship of state in a very dramatic way. Is that the way we should see him? How should Americans view Mikhail Gorbachev?

BORIS YELTSIN, Former President of Russia (through translator): You have some euphoria of the first two years of perestroika. You don’t know the real state of affairs in the country. If you knew it, you would not be so euphoric now.

JIM LEHRER: What should we be? If not euphoric, what?

BORIS YELTSIN (through translator): More realistic, more realistic.

JEFFREY BROWN: Russia’s progress as a democracy under Yeltsin was not always smooth. A parliamentary rebellion in 1993 prompted Yeltsin to call out the military to crush his rivals.

In the mid-’90s, Yeltsin again turned to the army to stamp out a separatist rebellion in the Russian territory of Chechnya. Thousands have died in the still-unresolved conflict.

During his presidency, Yeltsin was dogged by charges of corruption, as well as rumors of heavy drinking, fostered by episodes like this post-luncheon news conference with President Clinton. In 1995, he suffered two heart attacks.

At the same time, the Russian economy was going through its sixth consecutive year of negative growth. Millions of Russian workers went for months without getting paid.

Yeltsin’s re-election seemed in doubt, but he made a memorable campaign appearance to show his vitality. Yeltsin won re-election in July 1996, but from then on often disappeared from public view. In a surprise move, Yeltsin resigned on New Year’s Eve 1999, working out a deal with his hand-picked successor, Vladimir Putin, that he and his family would be immune from prosecution on charges of corruption.

The news of Yeltsin’s death today came as U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates was in Moscow for talks with President Putin.

ROBERT GATES, Secretary of Defense: I extend my sympathies to his family and condolences to the Russian people, and I think was an important figure in Russia’s evolution toward democracy.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yeltsin’s funeral is scheduled for Wednesday. It will be a day of national mourning in Russia. Boris Yeltsin was 76 years old.

A creative destruction

David Remnick
The New Yorker
He's an extremely vain and garrulous and unpredictable, sometimes cynical, even brutal leader, and at the same time his impact is one of creative destruction, the destruction of the last empire on Earth.

JEFFREY BROWN: And for more on Yeltsin's legacy, we go to David Remnick, editor of the New Yorker and author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning book "Lenin's Tomb: The Last Days of the Soviet Empire." He was the Washington Post's Moscow correspondent from 1988 to 1992.

And Marshall Goldman, professor emeritus of Russian economics at Wellesley College, a frequent visitor to Russia, he was in Moscow during the 1991 coup attempt.

David Remnick, we have just laid out the incredible ups and downs of Yeltsin's career. What does it all add up to for you?

DAVID REMNICK, The New Yorker: Well, "ups and downs" is a great phrase. This is an enormously important figure in the history of Russia and extraordinarily contradictory.

Here was a guy who had the physical, political and spiritual courage to get up on a tank and oppose a coup attempt by the KGB and the Communist Party. And had it not been for him, there would have been an enormous political vacuum, because, as you remember, Mikhail Gorbachev was held hostage in the south of the country in Ukraine.

At the same time, he was filled with mistakes once he came to power. He's the first elected president of Russia, and yet he prosecuted an extremely foolish and brutal war in Chechnya.

So it's up and down, up and down all the time with him, throughout his career. He's an extremely vain and garrulous and unpredictable, sometimes cynical, even brutal leader, and at the same time his impact is one of creative destruction, the destruction of the last empire on Earth.

JEFFREY BROWN: Marshall Goldman, what would you add to that, for an overall assessment first?

MARSHALL GOLDMAN, Wellesley College: Well, I think David's statement, "a creative destruction," really hits right at the mark. I think, to the West, we will be very appreciative of Yeltsin for standing for democracy, for really bringing an end to the Communist system.

To the Russians, however, they will look back at him as someone who squandered the country's riches, who presided over a drop in the GDP of about 40 percent, who presided over this incredible situation, where parts of the country were talking about secession and where Russia lost its superpower status.

So, for them, this was a bad era leader, a leader who was an alcoholic, a leader who had some physical problems, and who, in a sense, set the stage for a reaction to this, which is now taking place under President Putin.

'History was at stake'

Marshall Goldman
Wellesley College
I'm not so sure we're going to be all that thrilled with the fact that Putin was brought in by Yeltsin...what Putin is doing is undoing so many of the reforms that Yeltsin tried to do.

JEFFREY BROWN: And yet you're saying, for us, we see it differently?

MARSHALL GOLDMAN: Well, we see it differently. I'm not so sure we're going to be all that thrilled with the fact that Putin was brought in by Yeltsin and that what Putin is doing is undoing so many of the reforms that Yeltsin tried to do.

But, you know, for us, he was really quite a charming person, a very interesting person. I should say, by the way, that the Russians liked him in the sense that he -- one of them said, "He's one of us." He was really not all that sophisticated. But at the same time, being "one of us" is not necessarily the best commendation for being the president of Russia.

JEFFREY BROWN: David Remnick, you were taking us back to that moment in 1991. Go back there again for me. What was at stake when he got on the tank? What was riding on that?

DAVID REMNICK: Absolutely everything was at stake. History was at stake.

Remember what had happened: Gorbachev had pushed the country in a reform direction, although he couldn't go quite as far as Yeltsin, Yeltsin playing the role of the iconoclast.

Gorbachev goes to Ukraine for a vacation and to write a speech about realigning the union and, while he's down there, a confluence of the KGB, the Communist Party, and the security apparatus put him under arrest, a remarkable, dramatic story.

And, in Moscow, the KGB is faced down, the military is faced down by both the person and the symbol of Boris Yeltsin, and the demonstrations, and the mass support that he was able to gather around him at the Russian White House, the parliament building in downtown Moscow. Everything was at stake.

And it's quite conceivable, despite the lack of will that the Communist Party and the KGB showed in the end of those three days, that it's quite conceivable, without Yeltsin as a galvanizing figure, that at least temporarily those institutions could have stalled reform and marched it backwards.

As it was, the country had gone too far, and Yeltsin was there to act as the galvanizing force of an opposition, so everything was at stake.

What went wrong

David Remnick
The New Yorker
The legacy of 70 years of Communism and a thousand years of absolutism not only weighed heavy on Yeltsin, it continues to weigh heavy on the Russian situation.

JEFFREY BROWN: So how do we explain -- Marshall Goldman, I'll start with you -- how do we explain what went wrong?

MARSHALL GOLDMAN: Well, what went wrong is that Yeltsin tried to move too rapidly. This would have been difficult for anyone to undertake the change, after 70 years of very rigid communism, to suddenly say, "OK, we're going to move to shock therapy," or whatever other kind of panacea there was going to be.

People didn't know how to restrain themselves. And they just began to move in different directions, besides which the reforms resulted in a situation where the most valuable assets of the state were turned over to a group that did nothing really to earn them, no self-made men, no Bill Gates-type of creation this way.

And this caused enormous resentment, on top of which the price of oil fell to $10 a barrel. And so this was the main earning source for the Russian government, and this really brought about a collapse of the country so that, in 1998, the country was really bankrupt.

DAVID REMNICK: But I would say, Marshall, though, that your initial comment, putting it in context is absolutely crucial. I don't know anyone on Earth who had a superior plan to get the former Soviet Union, to get Russia jumpstarted into a healthier economy. The legacy of 70 years of Communism and a thousand years of absolutism not only weighed heavy on Yeltsin, it continues to weigh heavy on the Russian situation.

And you're absolutely right to point out the price of oil. The price of oil is now much, much higher. And on the strength of that and the strength of some quite good reforms under Putin, despite his other horrendous difficulties, with a high price of oil and the better cultivation of that oil supply, you now have the growth of a real middle class, not just in Moscow, but in many cities around Russia, which is an enormously important development.

MARSHALL GOLDMAN: I think you have to look at this in historical terms. This reform, this story comes out in fits and starts.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, you've just moved ahead up to now, which is where I wanted to bring this to, to the question of to what extent the Yeltsin legacy is seen in Russia today, in Putin's Russia. Marshall Goldman, what do you see?

MARSHALL GOLDMAN: Well, Putin is -- you know, the interesting thing is, if Yeltsin had stayed on, which of course his term ended, but if he stayed on and the price of oil went up to $60, $70 a barrel, as David pointed out, then Yeltsin probably would look like a hero.

But I think people will look back and say, under Yeltsin, over one-third of the population fell below the poverty line. So this was, in a sense, "Good riddance, let him go." And, of course, Putin is there. Even though the recovery of the economy began before Putin was made prime minister, much less president, Putin is going to get credit for that.

And Putin's standings -- after all, the public supports him 70 percent to 80 percent, according to the public opinion polls. So, by contrast, Putin looks good inside the country, and he's bringing about order. The Russians hate the notion of disorder, which occurred under Yeltsin.

So Putin, by contrast, will look good. And I think they're going to look back at Yeltsin and say, "It's too bad that he lasted as long as he did," which I think is an unfortunate way to look at it.

Yeltsin tried to bring change

Marshall Goldman
Wellesley College
The fact is that [Yeltsin] tried to bring about the change. He tried to support democracy, but he just wasn't up to what was needed at the time.

JEFFREY BROWN: What do you see, David Remnick?

DAVID REMNICK: Well, unless you have an interest in civil liberties, as I'm sure Marshall will agree, that since Putin arrived on the scene in 2000, for example, the press has been slowly crushed under the foot of the Russian government, and also the way the Russian economy, as successful as it is, is designed as a kind of Kremlin, Inc., as it were.

Everybody in the Kremlin hierarchy today has very, very strong KGB ties. And they also sit -- in a sense, they have a ministerial role and they also have a role either in gas or in oil. This kind of arrangement I'm not sure is destined for a long future.

JEFFREY BROWN: David, we only have about a minute, but I just want to ask one thing. When Yeltsin resigned, he asked for forgiveness "because many of our hopes," he said, "have not come true." What about him personally? What drove his hopes? Do we know?

DAVID REMNICK: Well, I think Yeltsin -- as contradictory a figure as he was -- did have an interest in post-Communist freedoms up to a point, democratization up to a point. And I think, although he behaved like Sal Boris, especially in the second half of the '90s, I think he did recognize that he had made some horrendous mistakes. And one of the things that we haven't gotten into is the war in Chechnya, something that haunts Russia.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right. Marshall Goldman, a brief answer.

MARSHALL GOLDMAN: Sure, I think he did recognize that. I think we do have to give him credit, as David said, that he did support democracy. The press criticized him mercilessly. He didn't crack down on it, like his successor, Putin, has done.

So I think what he appreciated -- the fact is that he tried to bring about the change. He tried to support democracy, but he just wasn't up to what was needed at the time.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right. Marshall Goldman, David Remnick, thank you both very much.

MARSHALL GOLDMAN: Sure, thank you.