Oh, Boris Nikolayevich, it seems as if your excessive vodka consumption and mad dancing skills have finally caught up with you. I wish I could write a thoughtful ode to your long and glorious career as Russia’s first democratically elected president, but unfortunately your shining moment atop that tank on a warm day in August has long been overshadowed by the bloody Chechen War, disastrous economic policies, and the rise of the oligarchs. To be fair, you were dealt a bad hand – it’s not often that a leader is faced with the monumental task of completely rebuilding the economic and political institutions of a country that has known only the iron-fisted rule of Tsars and Communist bureaucrats.
A big man with a ruddy face and white hair, he was full of peasant bluster — what the Russians call a real muzhik — and came to Moscow with a genuine warmth and concern for his countrymen.
During a visit to the United States in 1989 he became more convinced than ever that Russia had been ruinously damaged by its centralized, state-run economic system, where people stood in long lines to buy the most basic needs of life and more often than not found the shelves bare. He was overwhelmed by what he saw at a Houston supermarket, by the kaleidoscopic variety of meats and vegetables available to ordinary Americans.
Leon Aron, quoting a Yeltsin associate, wrote in his biography, “Yeltsin, A Revolutionary Life” (St. Martin’s Press, 2000): “For a long time, on the plane to Miami, he sat motionless, his head in his hands. ‘What have they done to our poor people?’ he said after a long silence.” He added, “On his return to Moscow, Yeltsin would confess the pain he had felt after the Houston excursion: the ‘pain for all of us, for our country so rich, so talented and so exhausted by incessant experiments.’ ”
He wrote that Mr. Yeltsin added, “I think we have committed a crime against our people by making their standard of living so incomparably lower than that of the Americans.” An aide, Lev Sukhanov was reported to have said that it was at that moment that “the last vestige of Bolshevism collapsed” inside his boss.
“I want to ask for your forgiveness. For the fact that many of the dreams we shared did not come true. And for the fact that what seemed simple to us turned out to be tormentingly difficult. I ask forgiveness for not justifying some hopes of those people who believed that at one stroke, in one spurt, we could leap from the gray, stagnant, totalitarian past into the light, rich, civilized future. I myself believed in this, that we could overcome everything in one spurt. I turned out to be too naïve.” – Yeltsin’s resignation speech