Boris Yeltsin's legacy: mixed reviews

Many associate the former Russian president more with Russia's decline than with the USSR's demise.

Boris Yeltsin, the feisty, glowering ex-Communist leader whose dramatic feud with former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev led to the collapse of the USSR and vaulted him into the presidency of a newly independent Russia, died on Monday, according to the Kremlin.

Minutes after the announcement, former Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev summed up the complicated legacy Mr. Yeltsin leaves for Russia, which has largely moved beyond the tumult and decline that marked his nine years in the Kremlin.

On Yeltsin's shoulders "are both great deeds for the country and serious errors," said Mr. Gorbachev, according to the news agency Interfax.

For many Russians, the proud and courageous Yeltsin who faced down hard-liners and ushered the USSR from history's stage never delivered on his pledges of a better post-Soviet life. The USSR's collapse was followed by hyperinflation, mass impoverishment, and the privatization of Russia's natural resources into the hands of a tiny elite of Kremlin insiders.

"The best thing Yeltsin did was to give us Vladimir Putin," says Kremlin-connected analyst Sergei Markov, referring to Yeltsin's dramatic New Year's Eve resignation in 1999, which eased Mr. Putin into the job of acting president. "Otherwise the results of Yeltsin's years in power can be compared to the effects of a civil war," including economic collapse, demographic crisis, and implosion of Russia's prestige on the world stage, Mr. Markov says.

Others may be kinder to the huge, bear-like Siberian, born in the village of Butka in 1931, who went on to run his native region as Communist Party secretary during the 1970s. Many observers say he was an innovative leader, impatient with red tape and eager for improvement.

Brought to Moscow in 1985 by the new reformist leader Mr. Gorbachev, Yeltsin began to shake things up in the Communist Party's top council, the Politbureau. After an angry showdown with Gorbachev over the slow pace of reform in 1987, Yeltsin was sacked and made head of a state construction committee. But he came roaring back from his banishment, and was overwhelmingly elected in 1989 to the new Congress of Peoples' Deputies – a semi-democratic parliament instituted by Gorbachev – and later as a member of Russia's Supreme Soviet legislature. In June 1991, he was elected as the first president of Russia, which was still a republic of the USSR.

In August of that year, when Communist hard-liners placed Gorbachev under house arrest and attempted to seize power, Yeltsin organized popular resistance, inspiring crowds from the top of a tank near Russia's parliament building. It was his finest moment.

Though Gorbachev was released when the coup collapsed, he never recovered his power, and by December Yeltsin signed away the USSR in a secret meeting with Ukrainian and Belarussian leaders.

In 1993, violent confrontation with the elected Supreme Soviet left hundreds dead, and led Yeltsin to rewrite Russia's Constitution to create a much stronger presidency.

War against the separatist republic of Chechnya led to up to 100,000 dead, mostly civilians, and Russian defeat in 1996.

Elections in 1996 saw a visibly unwell Yeltsin reelected, amid allegations of voter manipulation and media corruption. The final years of Yeltsin's rule were marked by frequent absences due to ill-health, widespread allegations of inner-Kremlin corruption, and a catastrophic financial meltdown in 1998.

Since easing Putin into office seven years ago, Yeltsin – who is survived by his wife, Naina, and daughters Tatiana and Yelena – has kept a very low profile.

"Yeltsin gave our citizens freedom," said Boris Nemtsov, a former deputy prime minister, Monday. "He himself loved it, and he loved our homeland. Remember what he told Putin when he left: He said, 'Protect Russia.' "

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Reaction to Yeltsin's passing

"Life dictated that our fates crossed. Together in important posts, we had to solve problems linked with the changes that were occurring in the country, democratic changes. We were able to do a lot, but we had serious differences — very big differences that the forces against perestroika and changes took advantage of."
— Former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev.

"He did a great deal to strengthen the democratic underpinnings of the Russia state — a very great deal."
— Eduard Shevardnadze, former Soviet foreign minister and former Georgian president.

"If not for the strong will of Boris Nikolayevich [Yeltsin], we cannot rule out that after Gorbachev, Russia could have plunged — for many, many years or even decades — into civil war."
— Vyacheslav Kostikov, former Yeltsin press secretary.

"He wanted to build in Russia a market-oriented, democratic society. One can talk about whether he loved power or didn't love power.... He — I am convinced of this — wanted Russia to be a market-oriented democracy with a democratic system of government."
— Yegor Gaidar, a former prime minister who oversaw the toughest economic reforms of the early 1990s.

"He brought an un-free country to freedom; from a country in which lies were simply routine, commonplace — from the general secretary of the Communist Party to an ordinary meeting — to a country that is trying to live by the truth."
— Anatoly Chubais, a former top adviser who oversaw controversial privatization programs.

"He was an important figure in Russian history. No Americans, at least, will forget seeing him standing on the tank outside the White House (Russian parliament building at the time) resisting the coup attempt." — US Defense Secretary Robert Gates, while on a visit to Moscow.

"Under new historic conditions, Boris Yeltsin made a great contribution toward harmonizing church-state relations, which opened for the Orthodox people a new perspective toward ... establishing the might of our country on the basis of spiritual and moral values and the centuries-old traditions of our people."
— Patriarch Alexy II, head of the Russian Orthodox Church.

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