Features

Russian roller coaster

Russia | The first elected president in Russian history, Boris Yeltsin took his country from corrupt hard-line rule to euphoric freedom and back again

Issue: "Rich man, poor man," May 5, 2007

July 1991, Moscow: Billy Graham put on a five-day evangelism training conference for 5,000 pastors and church leaders from Russia and other Soviet republics. The time was opportune: Peaceful revolutions of 1989 had overthrown communism in Eastern Europe-the overthrow in Romania was marked by violence-and in 1991 the Soviet Union itself was on the brink.

On the last day of the conference Graham, then 72, had a private meeting with Boris Yeltsin that lasted more than an hour.

Yeltsin was not particularly religious himself but championed religious freedom. Among other things, the pair discussed the need for spiritual values in society. Such values brought down the Soviet government that year, but it turned out that Yeltsin needed more.

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The then newly minted Russian republic's first elected president, Yeltsin was strong on courage, conviction, and belief in democracy. He was lean on humility, wisdom, diplomacy, self-discipline (he drank heavily), and honesty. In a crunch, when he most needed to band with others, he tended to be a loner.

The most vivid example of his courage came several weeks following his encounter with Graham. Communist hard-liners mounted an ill-planned coup against Mikhail Gorbachev, party secretary and reform-minded president of the Soviet Union, and placed him under house arrest. One tank unit defected and raced with Yeltsin to protect the parliament building. Amid crowds of supporters and TV cameras, he climbed atop a troop carrier, raised the historic pre-Soviet Russian flag with white, blue, and red horizontal stripes, and rallied Russia's citizens to oppose the "junta." It was one of those images of heroism indelibly etched into history.

The coup fizzled within three days without bloodshed. Gorbachev returned to the Kremlin, but his star had dimmed; Yeltsin was now the knight in shining armor. By the end of December 1991, all the Soviet republics had declared their independence, and the three captive Baltic states were given back their freedom. The Soviet Union was gone. Gorbachev resigned on Christmas Day.

Gorbachev in 1986 had tapped the blustery Yeltsin, a construction worker and party official in the Urals, to come to Moscow to help promote the Soviet leader's perestroika and glasnost freedom reforms. Yeltsin shook up the party leadership.

He pushed for a faster pace of reform, and he denounced the privileges and extravagances of the party elites-to the delight of the masses.

In two years, the honeymoon was over: Yeltsin was too popular, too divisive, too out of control. He and Gorbachev had a bitter falling out. Demoted, he cultivated surging populist sentiment and by 1990 was chairing the new Russian parliament.

Following the demise of the Soviet Union in late 1991, euphoria in Russia lapsed into fear and despair. Economic crises and inflation impoverished-and enraged-millions. Yeltsin's haphazard privatization of the vast Soviet industrial sector led to corruption, organized crime, and an oligarchy of millionaires.

Lawmakers rebelled; he ordered tanks to shell parliament into submission. His disastrous 1994 invasion of Chechnya, which claimed tens of thousands of lives, was another bad "mistake," he later acknowledged.

Despite all the chaos, he defeated a Communist candidate for reelection in 1996, presided over minor booms and major busts, suffered health problems, and retreated into seclusion. He resigned on New Year's Eve in 1999 and handed the presidency to his prime minister, Vladimir Putin.

Yeltsin died April 23 of heart failure at 76. His Orthodox Christian funeral at Moscow's Christ the Savior cathedral was the first for a Russian leader since 1894.

Edward E. Plowman
Edward E. Plowman

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