A Bolshevik on Wall Street

HE applauded the Statue of Liberty. He gawked from the Empire State Building, admired Trump Tower, and ogled the posh shops on Fifth Avenue. He marveled on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange and at the produce in a well-stocked Korean grocery. But this wasn't just another tourist in New York, nor even your typical visitor from the East Bloc, where shelves are often empty and they have trouble trading potatoes, never mind mortgage-backed options. This was Boris Yeltsin, the prominent Soviet maverick, who last weekend began a visit to the United States.

Mr. Yeltsin is no Khrushchevian rube, yet he cheerfully acknowledged that he was unprepared for the vitality, efficiency, and abundance he encountered in Manhattan. ``All of my impressions of capitalism, of the United States, of Americans that have been pounded into me over the years ... have changed 180 degrees,'' he declared Sunday.

That's music to American ears, but any gloating should be quickly checked. Yeltsin also saw the run-down tenements where poor New Yorkers live, and he chatted with a group of homeless people. He didn't get anywhere near a crack house in the South Bronx.

Also, political motives must be taken into account. Given that he's the leader of the Soviet Union's first independent Parliamentary caucus and a leading critic of the pace of reform under Mikhail Gorbachev, it's in Yeltsin's interest to emphasize capitalism's successes, just as it still profits Soviet apparatchiks to note Western shortcomings.

Nonetheless, Yeltsin's unabashed praise for most of what he's seen in the US and his rueful contrasts with conditions in the Soviet Union demonstrate anew how little pretense survives in Russia regarding communist achievements. Soviets' political and economic model no longer is some vision of Marxist utopia, but rather the thriving democracies of the free-enterprise West.

Returning from a visit to Soviet Russia in 1919, the American muckraker Lincoln Steffens said, ``I have been over into the future, and it works.'' Seventy years on, the remark's a hoot. As Boris Yeltsin knows, Steffens already had the future all about him.

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