When I called Arnold Beichman, the venerable journalist, historian, and expert on Russia for reflections on the death of Boris Yeltsin, the somewhat rhetorical question he kept asking as we talked, was almost plaintive: Will Russia ever have a ruler who is not a scoundrel or a tyrant?
Arnold views Yeltsin as something of a hero, the man who disassembled the Soviet Union and became Russia's first -- and perhaps only? -- democratically-elected president. He was a flawed character, hard-drinking and not always possessed of the best judgment. But he unilaterally gave independence to Ukraine, which Russia had ruled for three and a half sometimes restive centuries, institutionalized freedom of speech and the press, and moved boldly toward establishing something of a free market by eliminating price controls in one fell swoop (which did hurt millions of Russians when the prices of necessities skyrocketed after decades of being kept artificially low). He was a small-d democrat and an instinctive liberator.
The privatization of state assets in Russia was, to say the least, imperfectly handled, with insiders picking up properties for pennies on the ruble and hundreds of crony-capitalist "oligarchs" making fortunes overnight. But Yeltsin, who never claimed expertise in economics, was guided in the process by many who claimed such expertise, including several highly overrated economists from the West. He was better at the big picture than follow-through, and while becoming popular on the promise to fight corruption, never quite had gumption or perhaps the real power to root it out. His health was sometimes suspect and he drank hard, which sometimes put him effectively out of commission for weeks. His reelection in 1996 was suspect, and every Russian election since has been rigged to a great extent.
And yet when the occasion called for courage, he could be magnificent. When hard-line old-school communists tried a coup against Gorbachev's reforms, there was Yeltsin mounting a tank outside the Russian White House, rallying the people and foiling the attempt, an act that could very easily have gotten him killed. Gorbachev wanted to reform the system to save communism. Yeltsin, who publicly quit the party in 1990, wanted to eliminate it. Gorbachev was the favorite of the intellectuals, but Yeltsin actually thought more deeply and more radically. If you 're interested in a pretty good appreciation of Yeltsin, warts and all, Leon Aron, who left Russia in 1978 and is at the American Enterprise Institute, and wrote a Yeltsin biography, has a pretty good one here.
Yet in the years before his resignation in 1999 he seemed to fall in with the corruption. He was a good political infighter, but that's what he seemed to enjoy more than policy. And he anointed Vladimir Putin as his successor.
Putin has consolidated power where Yeltsin tried to decentralize. At least 20 journalists, many of whom were doing investigations into government corruption or malfeasance, have been murdered, and investigations have gone nowhere. Putin has broken any oligarchs who challenged his rule, notably Boris Berezovsky. Whether Putin is really still a communist believer, as his background in the KGB suggests, or "just" an autocratic authoritarian, he is actively undoing a good deal of what Yeltsin tried, perhaps imperfectly, to do.
On April 14 he let it be known that dissent would be quashed by surrounding some 2,000 demonstrators, including former world chess champion Garry Kasparov (who also opposed the communists) with some 9,000 security forces, who administered some beatings and broke up the crowd. It was probably not accidental that a Reuters crew was allowed to capture the events and disseminate them to the West and elsewhere, letting all kinow that the government is fully prepared to suppress even a whisper of dissent quite brutally.
There seems to be a cycle in Russia whenever decent governance and a semblance of civil oprder threaten to break through. Historical crises -- the collapse of the Soviet Union was one, as was the crushing of Russiand forces in World War I. That earlier crisis brought in a brief period of democratic governance floowed by Lenin, followed by Stalin, a moral monster willing to do whatever it took to estaboish stability and consolidate power. The recent crisis saw Gorbachev displaced by a period of optimism under Stalin, followed by Putin, followed by ... what? Likely another dark period in Russian history.
To some extent Russia's vulnerability to brutal rulers has to do with its geographic vulnerability. Catherine the Great said "I have no way to defend my borders except to extend them." But ruthless expansion begets near-madness. Catherine was at first regarded as enlightened, then became increasingly despotic. Ivan the Terrible started out as a reformer for his time and place.
So is Russia entering another dark cycle? It's difficult not to suspect so.