David Satter: Yeltsin's rule was marked by lost opportunities and fearsome political corruption

Roundup: Talking About History

[Mr. Satter is affiliated with the Hoover Institution and the Johns Hopkins University. His latest book is "Darkness at Dawn: the Rise of the Russian Criminal State" (Yale, 2003).]

The era of Boris Yeltsin, who died yesterday, was a time of lost opportunity. Yeltsin led the revolution that overthrew the Soviet Union. But his attempt to build democracy in Russia was a failure, in no small measure because, mesmerized by the success of the West, he was determined to create democracy by force.

In some respects, Yeltsin was one of history's great benefactors. Expelled from the Party leadership after he made a speech in 1987 denouncing the slow pace of Soviet reform, he became a martyr in the eyes of the public. And with the help of the first free elections, he emerged as the leader of the opposition to the regime. The movement he led brought a peaceful end to 73 years of communist rule.

The fall of communism, however, was only one of the goals that faced Russia in the 1990s. The second and equally important goal was the creation of a reliable democracy. If in the case of the fall of communism, Yeltsin put himself in charge of a movement that already existed and had swept the whole country, it was in the building of what came next that the decisions he made were his alone. And those decisions ultimately spelled disaster.

It is this failure that explains why Yeltsin will be little mourned in Russia; his popularity at the end of his second term was 2%. When Russians are asked to explain the popularity of Vladimir Putin today, they inevitably refer to the chaos and criminality of the Yeltsin years. This is also the reason for their loss of faith in "democracy," a loss of faith that places a huge burden on Russia's dwindling band of human rights activists.

The country that Yeltsin inherited after the fall of the Soviet Union was spiritually disoriented. After 4,000 years of civilization, the communists decided to reject not only God but any intuitive sense of right and wrong. "Right" was what served the working class. Under these circumstances, the most pressing need for Russia was to re-establish the authority of universal moral values, which could only be achieved by establishing the rule of law.

Yeltsin, however, and the small group of economists who advised him, decided that the most urgent priority for Russia was putting state-owned property immediately into private hands, even if those hands were criminal. In this, they were fully supported by the U.S. The result was that the path was laid for the pillaging of the country and the rise in Russia of the present KGB dictatorship....

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