When Yeltsin's presidency saved Russia

After the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, and the liberation by their peoples of the communist puppet states of Eastern and Central Europe, Boris Yeltsin made a political comeback with his election on July 10th, 1991, to become President of the Russian Federation. He became the first elected leader in Russia's 1,000-year history. He had previously distanced himself from Gorbachev, thinking his reforms too slow and timid. He had become a hugely popular figure in 1987, when he'd been the first person ever to resign in protest from the Communist party's Politburo.

Yeltsin was the focus for a popular revolt in August 1991, when hardline Communists in the Kremlin who had opposed Gorbachev's reforms staged a coup to restore the USSR. Gorbachev was arrested on his Crimea holiday, and the hardliners set about crushing resistance in Moscow. Yeltsin stepped out of the White House, Russia's Parliament building, and climbed up onto a tank surrounded by crowds who had gathered to protect the Parliament from the crackdown. Yeltsin declared the coup illegal, and called on troops not to accept its authority. Unable to rely on the loyalty of the military, the coup folded, and Gorbachev was released to return to Moscow.

Yeltsin dismantled the Communist Party and negotiated independence for the Soviet republics, which now became independent states. Once free to implement reforms in Russia, Yeltsin ended most price controls, privatized many state operations, legalized private property, and oversaw the establishment of a stock exchange and private banks. He allowed greater press freedom, and public criticism, and opened Russia to Western popular culture.

His rule was not regarded as successful, however, in that the country descended into chaos as the Communist system lost its authority before there were viable institutions to take its place. There was corruption, lawlessness, a failing economy, reduced industrial output and falling life expectancy. Yeltsin himself was a heavy drinker, sometimes appearing in public seemingly inebriated. He was in poor health, having a quintuple heart bypass soon after his 1996 re-election as President. Russia defaulted on its treasury bills when the rouble collapsed in 1998, and on the final day of the 20th Century, he resigned and handed over to Vladimir Putin.

His experiences illustrate that when a bad regime has to be replaced, as that of Saddam Hussein did in Iraq, those doing that transition need to keep a firm grip on power until the changeover has embedded itself. The Western powers did this successfully in postwar Germany, but failed to do so in post-invasion Iraq. Many idealistic Westerners fondly supposed that after Arab Spring had overthrown their dictatorships, the Arab countries would become benign liberal democracies. It did not happen. Both democracy and the liberalism it is there to protect need institutions such as respect for the rule of law and private property, and some history of living with them.

As for Yeltsin, that moment when he stepped up onto a tank was his defining moment, and earned forgiveness for everything he did afterwards. Those who say that history is only made by impersonal and great forces, might take stock of the occasions on which a single individual has taken a stand that has changed events.