Winston Churchill once said that the Russians are like bloodhounds: They are either at your feet or at your neck.
Last Friday, the threat-mongering Boris Yeltsin resigned as president in a surprise speech to his people that also included some startling, at-your-feet humility:
I want to ask for your forgiveness. For the fact that many of the dreams we shared did not come true. And for the fact that what seemed simple to us turned out to be tormentingly difficult. I ask forgiveness for not justifying some hopes of those people who believed that at one stroke, in one spurt, we could leap from the gray, stagnant, totalitarian past into the light, rich, civilized future.
I myself believed in this, that we could overcome everything in one spurt. I turned out to be too naive in something. In some places, problems seemed to be too complicated. We forced our way forward through mistakes, through failures. Many people in this hard time experienced shock.
We highlight this mea culpa because we hope it will help Russians make a fresh start under a new leader. Many hold Mr. Yeltsin accountable for their country's nine-year decline, both in its economy and world status.
Yeltsin's apparently sincere contrition - a graceful act that few Western leaders have made - opens the possibility for Russians to reflect on their own responsibilities and to move on. Russia is too big and too powerful to keep fumbling from crisis to crisis.
Yeltsin, despite his past flaws, will be remembered as a historic transition figure to a democratic Russia.
He faced down Soviet Communists but not corrupt oligarchs. He planted seeds for economic reform but failed to tend them well. He made room for liberty but trampled on it for self-preservation. He kept peace with an expanding West but waged two wars in Chechnya.
His bold move to resign six months early will likely help make a critical and peaceful change of leadership to his chosen successor, Vladimir Putin. That's a useful legacy in a young democracy. But it may come at a cost: Putin granted Yeltsin immunity from prosecution and arrest, and it took a useless war to boost Mr. Putin's popularity.
If he wins the March election for president, the young and vigorous Putin will try to avoid Yeltsin's mistake of quick and unguided reform. The former spy chief believes Russians aren't ready for less state control.
Rather, he wants to turn the clock back and reinstall government as the "the initiator and driving force of all change" because Russians are not ready to "become self-reliant individuals." He says Russia lacks the historical tradition of liberal values found in the West.
What's more, he plans to boost military spending by half, restore Russia's "honor" in Chechnya, and oppose expanding American influence.
We wonder if such teeth-baring masks a Yeltsin-style ability to admit mistakes. Modesty is not weakness when a country's future is at stake.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society