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.