The passing of time brings them together once more: Boris Yeltsin would have turned 80 on February 1, and Mikhail Gorbachev will mark his 80th birthday slightly more than a month later, on March 2. This invites comparison between the two leaders and allows for a better understanding of the role and historic significance of each.
Both Gorbachev and Yeltsin came from within Soviet political system. There was no other way to pursue a political career and rise to the top in the Soviet Union. But the similarity ends there. The two men later became political opponents and left very different legacies in Russia today.
Gorbachev will be remembered as someone who changed the course of the world history and helped to shape not just the twentieth but also the twenty-first centuries. He achieved the impossible, bringing down not just a regime and an empire, but destroying a world system with claims to global domination at a time when the system still seemed unshakeable. In doing so, he changed the entire world order. As a result, Gorbachev achieved what Francis Fukuyama went on to call “the end of history,” ensuring the domination of liberal democratic civilization.
Gorbachev was the first Russian leader who chose not to use force to battle for power, while still having the instruments of force under his control; he stepped down from his leadership position without resistance and without attempting to appoint a successor. Because of this, he left with dignity and his head held high, not clinging to the Kremlin—unique in Russian history.
This may seem like an idealistic view of Gorbachev—after all, although he began a grand transformation, he did not see it through and he even resisted some of the changes that he himself had set in motion. But the history knows no reformers who would be able to destroy an old system and build a new one as well.
Reformers see their popularity fizzle fast when they begin dismantling the familiar ways of life. Thus, Gorbachev could not be the creator. Any reform in the Soviet Union that led the Communist Party to lose its monopoly on power ultimately signaled the system’s demise. Gorbachev—not intentionally, perhaps—was destined to become a destroyer, not just of a system but of a whole civilization that claimed to offer an alternative to the West.
Compared to Gorbachev, Yeltsin seemed like a revolutionary ready to go much further than his slow-moving opponent. Indeed, it was Yeltsin who, elected by popular vote as the democratic leader of an independent Russia, sounded the Soviet Union’s death knell. Yeltsin became the anti-communist banner; it was he who introduced the capitalist market.
At the same time, however, his radical political actions concealed a movement toward a more traditional Russian government. By casting off the old state and ideological shell, Yeltsin made it easier to revive a system based on personal power in a new form. Under Yeltsin, Russia’s traditional matrix was revived: power reverted to one pair of hands; power and assets merged; and Russia returned to its “spheres of influence.” It was no coincidence that Russia declared itself the inheritor of the Soviet Union’s role.
Yeltsin let a historic opportunity in late 1991 slip by. At a moment when he had immense public confidence and benefited from a spontaneously formed consensus on the need for freedom—even the communists voted in favor of market reforms—he did not try to convert this consensus into a new constitution and build a new political system. Yeltsin and his team were more concerned with establishing their own monopoly on power and returning to the old rules of the political game.
The violent showdown with the parliament in 1993 and the adoption of Yeltsin’s constitution returned Russia to a system that invested power in a single person, setting the president above society and beyond its control. The manipulation of the 1996 presidential election to enable an ill and inadequate Yeltsin to remain in power marked the start of the imitation politics that has replaced the real political life today. The handover of power to Yeltsin’s successor, Vladimir Putin, in 1999 became a means of consolidating and continuing the personal power system. Yeltsin can justifiably be called the architect of the system in place today.
The rebuilding of personal power in a new form—under the guise of liberal slogans—have discredited liberal democracy and its standards in Russia for a long time to come. Yeltsin therefore bears much more responsibility than Putin for the democratic experiment’s failure. Today’s system of personal power, along with a corrupt state and demoralized society, is Yeltsin’s legacy.
This was not the only result of Yeltsin’s years as president. His time in power—characterized by a synthesis of imitation of liberal politics and Russian traditionalism—allowed the West to adopt its current policy toward Russia, which includes pursuing its interests by currying favor with the Russian elite. The West thus gradually became a factor in legitimizing and supporting the Russian system, which exists through the Russian rentier class’ personal integration into Western society even as they reject Western principles within Russia itself.
Gorbachev’s years in power were dramatic in part because he did not foresee the consequences of his own actions. He did not predict that his initiatives would cost him power, or that his own country would still be unable to credit him for his accomplishments. The most important aspect of his legacy, however, is that Gorbachev opened the country to freedom and hope.
Yeltsin’s rule was dramatic for different reasons. While he also failed to foresee the consequences of his actions, his era in power discredited freedom in Russia and put an end to hope among Russia’s citizens.
History will give each of these leaders their due. We will live and see.