Remembering Boris Yeltsin

The former Russian president was no buffoonhe was a brave reformer who led his country through its era of greatest freedom

Editor's Note: BusinessWeek's national news editor, Patricia Krantz, covered Russia for most of the 1990s, and served as the magazine's bureau chief from 1996 to 1999. These are her thoughts on former Russian President Boris Yeltsin, who died Apr. 23 at age 76.

Ask most Americans what they remember about Boris Yeltsin, and many will say he was a drunken buffoon. But Russia's first post-Communist president was much more than that. Sure, he loved to drink and to party, indulging both whenever possible. But he also should be remembered as a leader with superb political instincts and raw courage.

After all, this was a man who climbed on a tank to confront the right-wing coup plotters who had taken Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev prisoner in August, 1991—even though he had been informed that they had issued orders to have Yeltsin killed. But he felt that the tide of history was on his side, and he was right.

When the KGB troops ignored orders to storm the Russian White House (which at the time was the headquarters of the government of the Russian republic and the seat of the resistance against the coup plotters in the Kremlin), it was a sign that the USSR was on the verge of being swept into the dustbin of history. The Soviet Union did indeed collapse roughly four months later, and Yeltsin wielded the broom.

Free Russia

When Gorbachev was released and returned to Moscow, he fully expected to resume his role as leader of the Soviet Union's 15 republics. But Yeltsin saw his moment and pounced. The two men made a joint appearance at the legislature to show Russians that the coup plotters had failed. Yeltsin badgered and berated Gorbachev, saying that the Communist system was a failure and couldn't be reformed.

I was there, and I was very uncomfortable with the way Yeltsin was humiliating Gorbachev. But Yeltsin and everyone else who had been in Moscow while the people stood up to Soviet power felt that something dramatic had indeed transpired. So did the leaders of Kazakhstan, Ukraine, and some of the other big Soviet Republics. They and Yeltsin decided to declare their independence, and the Soviet Union collapsed in late December.

Under Yeltsin, the Russian people experienced the greatest period of freedom in Russian history. Journalists were able to write or broadcast whatever they wanted without fear of retribution. Free elections were held for local and regional governments as well as the federal legislature.

Sharp Contrast

It wasn't Utopia, of course. For many years, the price of freedom was chaos and corruption. Yeltsin bought off the old Communist bosses with a privatization program that enriched them instead of the workers. He also sold off Russia's lucrative oil and metals companies to wealthy bankers and media executives in return for political support in the 1996 election.

But in retrospect, the Yeltsin era appears a pretty good one for Russian history. Current President Vladimir Putin has severely cracked down on the national press and political enemies. Regional governors are no longer elected, but appointed by Putin. He restarted a war in Chechnya to which Yeltsin had negotiated an end. He orders his police forces to beat and arrest antigovernment demonstrators—and you never forget he's a former KGB colonel.

Yeltsin, on the other hand, was what Russians call a muzhik, or "man's man." He had a big heart and loved life. Rest in peace.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.