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    Monday, April 23, 2007

    Boris Yeltsin dies

    Boris Yeltsin died this morning at the age of 76, it's being reported. Heart failure is said to be the cause.

    The debate over how he should be remembered will begin immediately. Was he the great democrat who stared down the hard-line Communist coup in 1991? Or was he the weak, often drunk, leader who sold off the state's assets for a song to the oligarchs and presided over the 1998 financial collapse? Or the cynical deal-maker who handed the Kremlin keys back to the KGB in 1999 to spare himself prosecution?

    Turns out he was all of these, to the disillusionment of millions. I know many in Russia who will mourn Yeltsin's death today not because they'll miss the man (he has largely disappeared from public life since Putin took office), but because they attach his name to the exhilirating hope they felt in 1991 when the Soviet Union finally broke apart at the seams. That's him aboard a tank in the photo to the left, on the day it became clear that the USSR was finished.

    The hope then was that Russia was on its way to becoming a normal, free, country that would soon integrate with its new friends in Europe and the West. And for all his failings, the system Yeltsin presided over was remarkable as the freest Russians have experienced in their history. The media said what it wanted, the Duma was a place of genuine debate.

    After seven years under Vladimir Putin, the man Yeltsin chose to succeed him, all that is gone.

    Yeltsin largely refrained from commenting on the actions of his successor, something that was widely perceived to be a condition of the pact he struck to avoid prosecution. But in the aftermath of the 2004 school massacre in Beslan, and Putin's subsequent moves to use the incident to strengthen his personal power, Yeltsin gave us a hint of what he felt in a statement he gave to the Moscow News.

    "We will not give up on the letter of the law, and most importantly, the spirit of the Constitution our country voted for at the public referendum in 1993," he wrote. "If only because the stifling of freedom and the curtailing of democratic rights is a victory for the terrorists. Only a democratic country can successfully resist terrorism and count on standing shoulder to shoulder with all of the world’s civilized countries."

    I wish he'd said that more loudly and more often in the last seven years. Rest in peace, Boris Nikolaevich.


    kelvin said...

    cute blog!
    don't forget to visit

    Jacques P. said...

    So Mark, one of my first reactions today was to wonder where Yeltsin will be buried - in the Kremlin Wall or at Novodevichy. This of course stems from my post-Soviet-bloc travels of yore and my weird fascination with the final resting places of politicians. Yeltsin after all is the first post-Soviet leader to die, so it's the first time a Russian government has faced these questions. As a head of state, does he not merit the Kremlin Wall? Would he have wanted to be buried alongside Communists he hated? Is the Kremlin Wall a Russian or Soviet burial place, anyway? Is Novodevichy more likely for a great man who fell short of the "heroic" requirements of the party? What is the protocol? Please mull these questions for me, either here or in your snazzy new Guardian-sized Globe and Mail.

    Jacques Poitras

    markmac said...

    Jacques - that's a great question. As you said, Yeltsin is really the first figure whose death brings this question forward. If his family has the final say, I'd bet on Novodevichy, since I can't see him resting too easily alongside Stalin and Brezhnev.

    Khrushchev, who he might feel slightly more comfortable lying with, is already at Novodevichy, so there is a precedent of sorts.

    (The Ottawa book launch is Thursday evening at the National Press Club if you're interested.)