American Diplomacy
Commentary and Analysis

February 2000

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   By Keith Moon

On the last day of the twentieth century, the century that saw the rise and fall of world communism as represented by the Soviet Union, Russian President Boris Yeltsin abruptly resigned his office. And so departed from a focal point on the world scene an interesting, heroic, and influential figure awash with contradictory personal traits. How will be he seen in years to come? The author, a scholar of Russian affairs, essays an early appraisal. If you have comments, please let us know.     ~ Ed

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 Previously by
Keith Moon in
American Diplomacy:

On Yeltsin and the curse of the Romanovs, in Let Sleeping Dogs Lie:
"Yeltsin himself came to fame in the old Soviet system when, in 1974 as the regional Communist leader in Sverdlovsk (now renamed Ekaterinburg), he ordered the razing of the Ipatiev House where the last Romanov tsar and his family were executed."
[Spring 1999]



More Commentary in this issue:

Amb. Edward Marks, on redefining the sovereign character of the nation state, in From Post Cold War to Post Westphalia:
"The hitherto inviolable sovereignty of the nation state is now conditional, subject to the approval of the international community of its peers 'in Security Council assembled'."


Curtis F. Jones, in A Retrospective on the Infernal Triangle: Lebanon, Syria, and Israel:
"Lebanon is a cauldron of rival tribes and sects. Left to its own devices, it might have joined the unhappy category of failed nations. Instead, it has been effectively partitioned between its two neighbors."

Elsewhere in
American Diplomacy:

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No one deserves a larger share of the credit for this transformation than Yeltsin himself. For all his difficulties, he has been brave, visionary and forthright and he has earned the right to be called the Father of Russian Democracy .”

President Bill Clinton, Time, January 3, 2000

It is no surprise that Bill Clinton and Boris Yeltsin built up an admiration for each other in their seven shared years in office: they are remarkably similar men. Both progressed to positions of regional stature by playing along with the cronyism of the system and then made the leap to national fame as self-styled outsiders. Both men have set themselves apart as “party free,” Clinton in his famous triangulation maneuver of offering America a third way, Yeltsin as a perennial lone warrior, surviving on his own political recognizance with no meaningful party behind him. Both men have faced intense public scrutiny of their private lives, Clinton for his reckless womanizing, Yeltsin for his legendary (even among hard-drinking Russians) alcohol consumption. Despite his personal failings,Clinton used his unflagging political energy and encyclopedic understanding of domestic policy to govern over an historic peacetime expansion. Yeltsin, meanwhile, squandered countless opportunities to establish a stable and legal government, allowing instead his political needs of the moment always to outweigh his vision of Russia’s future.

Boris Yeltsin is a true master of the brash political moment. From the late 1980’s, when he would routinely trump Mikhail Gorbachev’s public relations cards with his populist moves, to the late 1990’s when he rotated prime ministers like doormen to keep his own star luminescent, Yeltsin commanded Russia’s media attention even when he would disappear from public view for weeks at a time. As the 1990’s came to a close—a decade in which Russia tried desperately to maintain its position as a major global power despite a crumbling infrastructure—Yeltsin again stunned the nation and the world by abruptly resigning his position and delivering Russia face-to-face with its twenty-first century future. But, even with a hand-picked successor meant to guide Russia into the next millennium, Yeltsin's perpetual “politics of the moment” have left his country ill-equipped for that future.

When Boris Yeltsin first appeared on the national scene in l985, his charisma and gift for political theater were tough to match in a colorless, stagnant bureaucracy. Yeltsin was so Russian it was as though someone made him up: bear-like in stature, hard-drinking, supremely confident. He made a name for himself quickly by challenging the expectations and distinctly secretive nature of the Soviet Union’s Communist Party. By 1989, he distanced himself from his mentor and political godfather, Mikhail Gorbachev, when he saw the president drifting away from radical reforms in the USSR. In a series of theatrical and dramatic moves in the late 1980’s and early 1900’s, Boris Yeltsin singlehandedly defined protest politics in Russia. Ultimately using his expulsion from the ruling elite’s Politburo as a badge of honor rather than humiliation, Yeltsin tore up his Communist Party card in 1990 and marched out of the Congress of People's Deputies.

In an era when public criticism of the party was still risky, and even potentially illegal, Yeltsin’s move was confrontational and bold. The gamble worked, however; by June 1991, Yeltsin was elected president of the Russian Federated Republic, though that republic remained very much under the broader control of Soviet President Gorbachev. It was in August 1991, though, when hard-line Communist conservatives staged a tragicomic putsch to re-assert party control in the Soviet Union, that Boris Yeltsin definitively proved himself the most dynamic leader of Russia's democratic forces. Yeltsin, at great personal risk stood openly on an army tank in defiance of the coup and declared that Russia would never return to a neo-Stalinist system; from that moment on Gorbachev and the Communist Party were in power in name only.

Even with these majestic strokes of rebellion, Yeltsin could not avoid the buffoonery that has plagued his career. International trips brought to light his self-indulgent flaws rather than his leadership qualities. At a speech at Johns Hopkins University, his speech was slurred and his behavior erratic, leading most Western journalists to assert that Yeltsin had been drinking. On a trip in 1994 after a G-7 economic summit meeting in Canada, Yeltsin landed in Ireland to meet briefly with the Irish prime minister at the airport. (Ireland was one of the earliest and most practical supporters of Russian reform, setting up joint economic ventures and sending many Irish citizens to work in the perestroika-era Soviet Union.) Hours later, with Irish officials still waiting on the tarmac for a ceremonial appearance by the two leaders, Russian officials announced that Yeltsin was “too tired” to meet with the Irish prime minister, again fueling widespread speculation that he was drunk. Russian officials later blamed heart ailments for both episodes, although even the Kremlin has never denied that part of Yeltsin’s populist charm includes a Russian muzhik’s healthy appetite for vodka.

(It was much harder for Yeltsin’s political cronies to explain away a bizarre 1989 incident in which a dripping wet Boris Yeltsin entered a Moscow police station claiming he had been thrown into a city canal by would-be assassins. The canal, as it turned out, had only inches of water in it; had Yeltsin been pushed from a bridge into the canal as he claimed, he would almost certainly have been seriously injured or killed. No serious investigation followed.)

Yeltsin oversaw the final dissolution of the USSR in December 1991, after subjecting his one-time boss Mikhail Gorbachev to a withering public critique of his presidency and then demanding his resignation. Yeltsin’s popularity at the time was beyond imagination: he had vanquished communism to its its own ash bin of history and he had done so without bloodshed. Yeltsin’s troubles would begin almost immediately, however, as he had to transform himself from the most visible and vocal leader of a righteous rebellion to the president of a huge nation in the midst of its own redefinition. Russia was attempting to change everything at once. It was shifting from a command economy based almost exclusively on the military-industrial complex to one that could compete effectively with European, Asian, and American markets; it was changing its political system from a single-party monolith to a parliamentary system with no written rules; and it was preparing to take away many of the safety-net features of a socialist country that many of its citizens had come to take for granted. The task was monumental and Yeltsin, with no particular training in economics, law, or ministerial services was singularly unprepared to handle the challenge.

While certainly not all Yeltsin’s fault, the Russian economy was catastrophic during his presidency. The ruble, which traded at an artificially controlled thirty-one to the dollar the summer he was elected president of the Russian Federated Republic, cascaded down to the equivalent of 27,000 to the dollar eight years later. Inflation, while it eased considerably from the four-digit rates of the immediate post-Soviet era, continued to bite into the meager monthly wages of the average Russian worker deep into the 1990’s. Mines and factories in Siberia produced next to nothing for years, with cities like Novosibirsk (two million residents) facing unemployment rates of thirty to fifty percent and higher. It is estimated that 120-150 billion dollars “fled” Russia to private bank accounts in the West, a corruption scandal that infected every institution in Russia— including Yeltsin and his family, according to a Western news reports. (Yeltsin was granted full prosecutorial immunity by his successor on New Year’s Eve.) A 1998 default on international debt repayments led to a stunning eighty-three percent “correction” in the fledgling Russian stock market.

Health care in Russia also suffered enormously during the 1990’s. While Yeltsin’s own precarious health situation was carefully monitored by an international team of experts, most Russians received dismal and unsanitary treatment. Outbreaks of tuberculosis, cholera, and—at an alarming rate of increase—AIDS taxed the health care system beyond its capabilities as Russia watched its life expectancy rate for males fall to fifty-seven years. The most basic services broke down, and stories of families being forced to keep the corpses of dead relatives in their apartments for two or three days before the authorities would come around to pick them up were routine. Whatever its hideous crimes, the communist government of the Soviet Union has supplied a basic level of services and protection to the people that suddenly Russians were unable to get.

   Top                          Continue reading Moon:   Yeltsin and Chechnya


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