Boris Yeltsin, post-Soviet Russia’s first president, died today at 76 from a heart-related illness. He has, of course, little to nothing to do with New York, or with New York, except that he’s a world-historical figure and the city, and the magazine, are both affected by world history. So a few quick words, then.
After abruptly exiting his post on the eve of the new millennium, Boris Nikolaevich Yeltsin kept such a shockingly low profile for a former world leader that the news of his death feels almost redundant. In the Russian tradition of cataclysmic power succession, his first election had the air of a revolution, and his retirement (with an approval rating of 2 percent) had a scent of ritualistic self-offing. But when he was in his prime, Yeltsin was something Russians haven’t seen since, well, Lenin: a wry populist with an obsessive personality, a penchant for big ideas, and flair for street drama.
In popular culture, Yeltsin is likely to remain a crimson-faced boor who ushered in both an economic collapse and an ominous consolidation of executive power. He was also a brave soul who had presided over an unimaginably difficult era, hobbled by the USSR’s terrible legacy, psycho sidekicks like Alexander Rutskoy (whose 1993 revolt caused Yeltsin to order a shelling of his own Parliament), self-serving and inconsistent Western advice, and a menagerie of profoundly Russian inner demons that can only be guessed at. But his biggest legacy might be this: In his 1996 reelection, terrified that the Communists would legally sweep back into the Kremlin, Russia’s liberals, in concert with the newly minted oligarchs, pulled out all the stops to keep Yeltsin in power — including a full arsenal of dirty tricks. It marked the first time the new Russia placed stability over the integrity of the democratic process. And the fruits of that uneasy bargain live on in today’s Kremlin. —Michael Idov