Credit for the fall of communism usually is given to two sets of actors. On the one side, Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher and John Paul II, whose relentless pressure caused a hollowed-out system to collapse. On the other side, conventional mythology credits Mikhail Gorbachev.
This is quite wrong. True, Gorbachev inadvertently caused the collapse of communism. But his intention was always to save it. To the very end, Gorbachev believed in it. His mission was to reform communism in order to make it work. To do that, the Soviet system had to become more human i.e., more in tune with real human nature and thus more humane. Gorbachev's problem was that humane communism is an oxymoron.
The man who brought down the Soviet Union from the inside was Boris Yeltsin. In the mid-1980s, he turned decisively against communism and, fully intending its destruction, performed one of history's great acts of liberation.
Yeltsin, who died this week, did this without turning to the guillotine. "For the first time in Russian history," notes Russian opposition leader Garry Kasparov, "the new ruler did not eliminate the losers to consolidate control." What distinguished Yeltsin "was something that he did not do when he took power" "wipe out the other side."
Yeltsin had indeed been converted to democracy, free markets and a decent civil society, but he had no idea how to bring these about amid the wreckage of the Soviet Union. With no history of democracy, and only distant memories of a free economy, Russia was at sea.
As was Yeltsin. For all his good intentions, he could not find his way. Moreover, his final act, bequeathing a former KGB colonel to the country as his successor, has proved disastrous for the democratic enterprise. As Kasparov pointed out during a recent Washington visit, today's Russian state is unique. The world's other dictatorships are monarchical, clerical or military. Russia's is government of and by the secret police.
Yeltsin's mixed legacy could be seen at his funeral. On the one hand, he lay in state in a rebuilt Cathedral of Christ the Savior, reminding the world that he abolished not only communism but state-imposed atheism another remarkable achievement. On the other hand, everything about the funeral including the pulling of all entertainment programming on television was decreed by Yeltsin's chosen successor, Vladimir Putin. These days, Putin decrees everything. The parliament, from whose free elections Yeltsin sprang to become president of Russia and its liberator, is now a rubber stamp. The press is overwhelmingly a mouthpiece of the state. Power of all kinds even corruption has been recentralized in the Kremlin.
Twenty years ago, Yeltsin made a strategic choice for democracy. Putin and his KGB regime have made a different strategic choice: the Chinese model. They watched two great powers take their exits from communism Maoist China and Soviet Russia and decided the Chinese got it right.
They saw Deng Xiaoping liberalize the economy while maintaining centralized power and achieve astonishing economic success. Then they saw Gorbachev do precisely the opposite loosening the political system while keeping an absurdly inefficient communist economy and cause the collapse of the regime and the state.
Yeltsin's uncertain, undisciplined and corruption-ridden attempt to deregulate both the economy and the political system caused such chaos that during his tenure gross domestic product fell by half. So Putin decided to become Deng. And while Deng destroyed democratic hopes in one fell swoop at Tiananmen Square, Putin did so methodically and gradually. By the time his goons beat up opposition demonstrators in Moscow and St. Petersburg earlier this month, so little was left of Russian democracy that the world merely yawned.
Yeltsin is not the first great revolutionary to have failed at building something new. Nonetheless, it is worth remembering what he did achieve. He brought down not just a party, a regime and an empire, but an idea. Communism today survives only in the lunatic kingdom of North Korea, in Fidel Castro's personal satrapy and in the minds of such political imbeciles as Venezuela's Hugo Ch?vez, who can sustain his socialist airs only as long as he sits on $65 oil.
Outside of college English departments, no sane person takes Marxism seriously. Certainly not Putin and his KGB cronies. In the end, Yeltsin succeeded only in midwifing Russia's transition from totalitarianism to authoritarianism with the briefest of stops for democracy a far more modest advance than he (and we) had hoped, but still significant. And for which the Russian people and the rest of the world spared the depredations of a malevolent empire should forever be grateful.