What could have been

BORIS YELTSIN would have ranked among the best of czars or commissars. It was Russia’s great tragedy that, instead, he was a would-be democrat.

Today, we mourn the Russia that Yeltsin could have built. We pause to honor those who suffered, and still suffer, for the mistakes of a leader who meant so well and ruled so ineptly. The pessimism of his era in office was perhaps best summed up by one of his many failed prime ministers, Viktor S. Chernomyrdin: “We hoped for the best, but things turned out as usual.”

Yeltsin’s defining achievement, for which he deserves a proud place in history, was to understand in 1991 that the Soviet Union was not worth saving. As a Russian patriot and a pragmatist, Yeltsin believed his country could do better. He struggled free not only of communist ideology but of the illusion -- one that paralyzed his nemesis, Mikhail S. Gorbachev -- that the corroded system could be reformed. Yeltsin had the courage not only to climb on a tank and glare down the leaders of a coup but to liberate the Russian empire from Moscow. He allowed the 14 Soviet republics to become independent, and even if Russians now despise him for it, the world should honor him.

Yet Yeltsin’s subsequent failures were almost too numerous to elaborate. He embraced the rhetoric and ideals of democracy but cultivated none of its habits. He was erratic, autocratic, arrogant, unforgiving and drunken. He plowed salt into the political earth that his successors would have to cultivate when he administered economic “shock therapy” without the anesthetic of a safety net or the rule of law, allowing communist bureaucrats to morph into oligarchic kleptocrats before Russian citizens knew what hit them. He invaded Chechnya against the advice of every advisor who knew the region and waged a war of shocking brutality against civilians.


That Yeltsin failed was forgivable. Transforming the economy from communism to capitalism, building democratic traditions in a country that didn’t have any and establishing relations with Russia’s newly independent former subjects was a herculean task. But it was because he failed so spectacularly, while passing off his incompetence as the inevitable byproduct of capitalism and democracy, that the Russian people embraced the thuggish authoritarianism of Yeltsin’s handpicked successor, President Vladimir V. Putin. Will history judge this last blunder most harshly of all?