He loved his people
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This editorial appeared in the Philadelphia Inquirer:
Nikita Khrushchev visited the United States in 1959 and the Cold War continued. Boris Yeltsin visited the United States 30 years later and the seeds for the Soviet Union's eventual fall were sown.
The Kremlin announced Monday that Yeltsin had died. He was 76.
Yeltsin will be eulogized as the first elected president of Russia (1991). But what he should be remembered for was his love for the Russian people. It was his desire to see Russians enjoy comforts he had seen in America that spurred him to seek democracy for his people.
Unfortunately, Yeltsin proved incapable of bringing forth the civil society needed to nourish that democracy. His tenure didn't birth his fondest wish for the Russian people: "I want to see their lives improve before my own eyes." But in dismantling the Soviet system, at least he gave them that hope.
He did all he could
This editorial appeared in the Dallas Morning News:
Did Boris Yeltsin die too late to save his historical reputation?
The first image most of the world had of Yeltsin was his climb atop a tank outside the Moscow parliament building in August 1991 and staring down the military coup against Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev.
Yeltsin's dramatic gesture shattered the nerves of the hard-line communist putschists, eventually ending the coup. By the end of the year, Gorbachev was out and the Soviet Union ceased to exist. Gorbachev had unsettled communism's foundation, but it took Yeltsin to pull the idol down.
Had it ended there, Yeltsin would have been one of the Cold War's untarnished heroes. After nine years of Yeltsin rule from the Kremlin, it was painfully clear that the man who led his nation to freedom had no idea what to do with it.
He launched the disastrous Chechen war. He threw open the doors of the state-run economy to privatization, thus enriching a few oligarchs at the expense of the masses and plunged Russia into semi-anarchy. A physically spent Yeltsin resigned the presidency on the eve of the millennium.
He handed power to Vladimir Putin, who responded to Yeltsin's failures by retreating from reform. Nevertheless, Russia will never go back to the nightmare days. Liberty, in whatever imperfect form it now exists in Russia, was Yeltsin's legacy.
The old bear's life looks tragic now, given how far he fell from the glory of 1991's freedom summer. But history will be kind. "I did all I could," he told the Russian people in his final presidential address. In the end, that will have been more than anyone could have reasonably expected.
Remember his reforms
This editorial appeared in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel:
Russia today is not the Soviet Union of old, Vladimir Putin notwithstanding. For that, you can both thank and curse Boris Yeltsin.
Atop a tank, he rallied a nation to resist a coup by hard-liners against reformer Mikhail Gorbachev in 1991. And as his nation's first freely elected president, Yeltsin presided over the dismantling of the Soviet empire, launching free-market reforms that both energized and sapped the country.
Hugely popular with Russians at first, Yeltin's appeal fell victim to his government's mismanagement, a war in Chechnya, incompetence, corruption and rumors of his own alcoholism. Private-sector oligarchs prospered, and average Russians suffered.
Don't much like current Russian leader Putin? Thank Yeltsin for that, too. Abruptly resigning in his ninth year of leadership, Yeltsin named Putin prime minister, effectively giving him the power of incumbency in the next election.
Yeltsin begat much. For that, he deserves a place in history as one of Russia's greats. And therefore one of the world's greats.
Yeltsin's highs, lows
This editorial appeared in the Orlando Sentinel:
Boris Yeltsin was better at breaking things than building them.
He oversaw the peaceful dissolution of the Soviet Union, with its communist political system and command economy. That achievement is his greatest legacy.
But Yeltsin struggled to replace the system he smashed. Millions of Russians sank into poverty under his economic reforms, while a few grew rich looting formerly state-owned industries.
Yeltsin introduced multiparty elections, private property and free speech. But he tightened his own grip on power by repeatedly purging top government officials and manipulating the media.
Tanks call to mind Yeltsin's highs and lows. He climbed aboard one in 1991 to rally his countrymen to reject a communist coup. But he sent tanks in 1994 into the breakaway Russian republic of Chechnya to crush a rebellion in a campaign that killed tens of thousands.
Yeltsin's political reforms have been steadily rolled back by his hand-picked successor, Vladimir Putin. Yeltsin, for all his flaws as a leader, looks better the longer Putin sticks around.