One of the late 20th century’s most prominent leaders has gone out not with a bang, but with a whimper.
Boris Yeltsin, who came to national and international prominence when he clamber onto a tank outside the Moscow White House during an attempted coup by communist hardliners, has given up the ghost. He had lived the last few years of his life largely in seclusion, although he was still thought of by various well-known people; Bill Clinton flew to Russia to celebrate Yeltsin’s 75th birthday.
But the word is that his passing has gone largely unmarked by ordinary Russians, many of whom blame their former president for the country’s woes.
Yeltsin’s reign was marked by contradictions. He oversaw the peaceful break-up of the Soviet union, then promptly crushed Chechyn separatists in a bloody war which obliterated Russia’s international standing. He ushered in an era of democracy and a free press, then gave the president as much power as possible. Overall, he was a man of occasionally penetrating vision but suffering from overwhelming personal troubles.
Although Yeltsin introduced free-market reforms, his nation’s income per capita plummeted 75%. Many people saw their savings dissipate while unemployment soared. What Vladimir Putin has described as a “new epoch” quickly turned from one of great promise to one of great misery.
One could argue that his tenure was marked by economic myopia.
He put the communist system to death while having nothing concrete to replace it with. His administration’s sale of state industry, to a small group who would go on to be billionaires (60 of whom now live just outside Moscow), provided the new democracy with a certain amount of hard cash, but deprived the state of valuable, marketable resources. The state-controlled Gazprom is now addressing that issue.
Yeltsin the man was as inconsistent as Yeltsin the president. While possessed of great charisma, his eccentric nature led him to commit gaffe after gaffe, such as playing spoons on the head of the ex-president of Kyrgyztan. He suffered terrible depressive periods, although he was nothing if not resilient. During his re-election campaign in 1996, he was filmed shaking his rather ample booty onstage with various lovely ladies; he had suffered a heart attack just days earlier.
However, his chronic drinking (something he always denied) caused huge embarrassment. The most celebrated incident was in 1994, when Yeltsin, on the way back to Russia from a trip to the US, was due to meet Irish Taoiseach Albert Reynolds at Shannon Airport.
After 30 minutes waiting on the tarmac, Albert and his boys twigged that the Russian president wasn’t coming out any time soon. In fact, he never left the plane, and one of his officials came out for a quick chat instead. Yeltsin’s official explanation was fatigue and the fact one of his aides had forgotten to wake him… however, the prevailing wisdom is that he was simply too drunk.
When Yeltsin finally ended his turbulent presidency — having presided over four governments in four years — he placed the nation in the hands of a man who would go on to erode post-Soviet reforms. He largely disappeared from public life, only emerging now and again at some function or another (once even travelling to Ireland to go deep-sea fishing off the coast of Co Clare).
His passing will be marked by a state funeral and a day of mourning, but in all likelihood he will be remembered more by people outside Russia than inside it.