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Looking Back at Yeltsin's Career

RENEE MONTAGNE, Host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, Host:

His time in power was marked by contradiction and by health problems. And then, on December 31, 1999 he stunned his nation and the world by announcing his resignation.

BORIS YELTSIN: (Through translator) I am leaving. I'm stepping down before my time. I understand that I have to do this. Russia must enter the new millennium with new politicians, new faces and intelligent, strong and energetic people. Those of us who have been in power for many years must go.

INSKEEP: We're going now to Leon Aron. He's a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, and he wrote a book about Boris Yeltsin. Welcome to the program, sir.

LEON ARON: I'm glad to here.

INSKEEP: Why do you think Boris Yeltsin would have left power early?

ARON: Because he, while he very avidly sought power and enjoyed power, in the end, I think, he - and that's what made him a truly great leader - he knew when to leave in order to secure whatever positive was in his legacy. As you may recall, at the time when he was leaving, he was very sick. His popularity was down to almost single digits. And I believe he did not want his legacy to be marred by the sort of agony of several more months in power.

INSKEEP: Well, let's talk about what that legacy was. His most famous moment - we've described it this morning - came in 1991, when he stood on a tank, defied a communist coup, and within a few months helped to dissolve the Soviet Union. And then he was a democratic leader, but did he manage to say on that course throughout the 1990s?

ARON: He was a contradictory figure, like the country that he inherited and then turned about 180 degrees. He had definite authoritarian urges, which made themselves known every now and then. He obviously had no idea of what democracy was, having been brought up politically in a totally different system. And so his instincts were occasionally wrong, but in three, I think, main directions, his legacy is lasting, and that is a decentralization of national politics, decentralization of economic power - it was no longer - the state was no longer owning the entire economy; and finally, Russia has never been as free as it was under Yeltsin. No censorship in the media. He took the most brutal personal attacks without ever imposing sanctions.

INSKEEP: Well, let me ask about that. You say Russia has never been as free as it was under Yeltsin, which suggests that Russia is less free today after Yeltsin. Has his legacy been rolled back to some degree?

ARON: It's precisely it, and the only explanation I have is that every great revolution was accompanied by restoration. It was followed by restoration, whether it was the French Revolution, the British Revolution. You - people get tired of change, people want to look for something familiar.

INSKEEP: Well, is it strange that Boris Yeltsin would effectively install the man who would be the reaction? He installed Vladimir Putin.

ARON: Because at the time neither Yeltsin nor anybody else, nor, I believe, even Vladimir Putin himself thought that he would, in many regards, roll back Yeltsin's legacy. And if you remember, in the first three years of Putin's presidency, between 2000 and 2003, essentially he followed Yeltsin's course in developing foreign policy that was generally friendly to the West.

INSKEEP: Very briefly, is anything left then of Yeltsin's legacy, given what Putin has done since that early period?

ARON: Yes. I would mention two things. People still believe that you have to be extremely careful in giving the state economic power; and B) no matter how the elections are run, the only legitimate way to rule Russia today is through an election.

INSKEEP: Mr. Aron, thanks very much.

ARON: Not at all.

INSKEEP: Leon Aron is author of "Yeltsin: A Revolutionary Life" and a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. And again, Boris Yeltsin has died at the age of 76. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.