Five years have passed since the death of the first Russian president, Boris Yeltsin, and twelve years have passed since he quit politics. Yet it’s still too soon to judge Yeltsin and his political era objectively.
This is because the Yeltsin era never ended: not emotionally (fierce debates about the 1990s still rage), not psychologically (the trauma of the Soviet Union’s collapse has not healed), not even politically (the man who owes his first term as president to Yeltsin will soon return to the post). Yeltsin is a symbol of Russia’s difficult and tragic transformation into a new kind of state. This transformation continues to this day, and we still don’t know how long it will take.
Yeltsin held power during a unique, dramatic and radical transformation of one of the pillars of the geopolitical order, which, significantly, did not cause Russia to lose its global status. Yeltsin’s legacy is not simply a new Russian state that emerged from the remnants of the Soviet Union, but a new great power that managed to survive what could have been a fatal shock.
In modern European history there are only two other leaders that met the same challenge – Charles De Gaulle and Konrad Adenauer. Both were considered contradictory men. Their actions caused stormy and often negative reactions both at home and abroad. Both assumed responsibility for their homeland when it was at its lowest point. Both had to make tough decisions and sometimes go against the majority. Both managed to restore their nations’ sense of identity and preserve the key roles their states played in international politics.
De Gaulle used to say that the French suffered more during World War II than other European nations – many were occupied, but France had betrayed itself by aligning with Germany. France emerged from the war a victorious power thanks solely to this implacable and stubborn general, even though by and large France had no right to this.
In the late 1950s, France was being pulled apart by its attitude to its colonial heritage, and the country suffered through a further collapse of its position in the world. De Gaulle managed to create a new state system, to put an end to the Algerian war, and even to make his compatriots believe in the greatness of France through his extravagant foreign policy.
Meanwhile, Adenauer was the leader of what was left of Germany as a result of the Nazi catastrophe. By the end of his 14 years in power, West Germany had become an economically successful, politically significant and self-sufficient state, which seemed unimaginable when it was formed in 1949. Both De Gaulle and Adenauer were subjected to fierce criticism. For many opponents they were nothing more than a collection of political vices.
De Gaulle was accused both of being a nationalist and of betrayal France’s national interests. In addition, he was criticized for rigidity and a hypertrophied commitment to political and economic dirigisme, for authoritarianism verging on despotism and for a tendency to suspect everyone around him of scheming. Clementine Churchill, the wife of De Gaulle’s loyal ally, once cautioned him, “General, you must not hate your friends more than you hate your enemies.” That said, De Gaulle was a skillful diplomat who knew when it was worth forging ahead and when he ought to compromise.
Adenauer was criticized for his die-hard conservatism, his excessive loyalty during the Nazi years, his lack of principles and his unwillingness to denounce Germany’s crimes. Moreover, he was reproached for his betrayal of the national idea, because initially he sought to consolidate the country’s split although many in the West and in the East still believed in the possibility of unification in the fist half of the 1950s. Several decades later, it became clear that it was precisely the choice to forge a successful West German state that eventually allowed for the unification of Germany.
Both leaders were forced out of politics in a wave of desire for something new and of weariness of their political style. History passed its verdict. De Gaulle and Adenauer bequeathed to their descendants great powers that rose from the ashes – new and modern states that did not forget their history.
Russians associate Yeltsin with the collapse of the Soviet Union. A minority considers this an achievement but the majority considers it a crime. No doubt, he personally played a big role in this, compelled by his lust for power. And the first president of Russia will always be dogged by the view that he destroyed the Soviet Union for the sake of removing his rival Mikhail Gorbachev from power.
But acceptance of the fact that the country’s former greatness could not have been preserved will come when Russia sees itself not as a remnant of a collapsed empire but as a fully self-sufficient country. It will be also possible to assess how difficult it was to maintain Russia as a world power in the 1990s under the circumstances and how much the country’s leadership achieved.
Russian diplomacy under Yeltsin is an example of successful maneuvering in a very limited space and the virtuoso use of the country’s modest arsenal. Moscow depended at the time on foreign money but still managed to defend its own interests and achieve results on many issues. Those who worked in foreign policy shudder when they recall the 1990s, but the foundations of modern Russia’s international positions were laid then.
There is no need to idealize Yeltsin, as his most passionate supporters do. He was a “political animal” with all the attendant consequences. He made many bad, near fatal, mistakes and eventually became a hindrance to Russia’s development. However, he had the strength to step down voluntarily, which is uncommon in Russia.
If, having completed its transition, Russia solidifies as a pillar of the future world order, this will be thanks in part to Yeltsin, who in his time did not succumb to the revanchist temptation, perhaps without even realizing it. Those who believe that Russia should demand the return of its “primordial territories” from neighboring states, should be asked if they can imagine how an attempt to restore “historical justice” in 1992 would have ended. And what would have remained of our country?
Russia will get over its psychological problems when its emergence on the world stage in December 1991 is viewed as a new birth rather than the result of a historical defeat. And then Yeltsin will take his rightful place alongside De Gaulle and Adenauer – larger-than-life figures as contradictory as he was.