Boris Yeltsin, who died April 23, was a towering figure in Russian history, but was he, as so many US obituaries and editorials have maintained, the "Father of Russian Democracy"? As though afflicted with historical amnesia, most American commentators seem to have forgotten that it was Mikhail Gorbachev who, upon becoming Soviet leader in 1985, launched the democratic reforms he called glasnost and perestroika–ending censorship; permitting, even encouraging, opposition rallies; holding the country's first free, multi-candidate elections, whose chief political beneficiary was Yeltsin himself; and beginning the marketization and privatization of the Soviet state economy. In short, by 1989 Gorbachev had ended the seventy-year Communist, or "totalitarian," dictatorship in Soviet Russia.
Gorbachev's reforms provided Yeltsin with an opportunity unique in Russian history. In June 1991–when he was elected president of Soviet Russia in what remains perhaps the most free and fair presidential election the country has ever had–and again in August 1991, when he stood, iconically, on a tank to face down an attempted coup against Gorbachev by Communist hard-liners, Yeltsin could have become the co-founder of Russian democracy.
But if Yeltsin was any kind of reformer, it was in the undemocratic tradition of Peter the Great, that imposer of Westernizing changes from above to whom Yeltsin often compared himself. As a result, he quickly squandered–even betrayed–that historic opportunity. After August 1991 Yeltsin's rule-by-decree polarized, embittered and impoverished his country, laying the groundwork for what is now unfolding in Russia–though it is being blamed solely on the current president, Vladimir Putin.
What follows is a quick tour of nearly ten years of Yeltsin's politics and policies. All of them were carried out in the name of "democracy," but they served only to discredit that form of government in Russia. And it should be remembered that they were enthusiastically supported by Washington and our mainstream media as "democratic and market reforms."
§ In December 1991 Yeltsin and a small band of associates suddenly, without any legal or practical preparation or consultation with the parliaments or peoples involved, abolished the Soviet Union. Even if it needed to be dissolved, Yeltsin did it, as even his supporters later acknowledged, in a way that was neither legitimate nor democratic. As Stephen F. Cohen wrote last year in The Nation, the breakup was "a profound departure from Gorbachev's commitment to social consensus and constitutionalism" and represented a return to the country's czarist and Bolshevik tradition of imposed change from above.
§ In early 1992 Yeltsin launched disastrous "shock therapy" economic measures. Promoted