President Vladimir Putin declared April 25 the National Day of Mourning for the first Russian president, Boris Yeltsin, who died today in Moscow. In his announcement, Putin was most positive on Yeltsin, praising him as a man who gave birth to "a new democratic Russia" and particularly praising the late president for his "massive support" from the people. If public opinion polls before Yeltsin's death are any guidance, this is one instance where most Russians profoundly disagree with Putin, his great popularity notwithstanding. Yeltsin is widely viewed as a failed leader who pursued policies rejected by the vast majority of Russian citizens-and he pursued them by undemocratic means, including using a tank attack against the duly elected Parliament. He is also remembered as somebody who helped create the class of oligarchs-fantastically rich tycoons who emerged from nowhere primarily through the redistribution of state property, including energy resources, to the benefit of the well-connected few. And all at a time when wages and pensions were rarely paid on time and the living standards of most Russians were dramatically decreasing.
I met Yeltsin late in the 1980s when he was still an aspiring politician and was impressed with his steel will, magnetism and a willingness-in contrast to Mikhail Gorbachev-to make tough decisions and to do whatever it took to accomplish his objectives. These were the qualifications of a perfect revolutionary. But Yeltsin was no democrat. If anything, he was less devoted to democratic values than Gorbachev. My impression was that he had no real political philosophy whatsoever, just a great sense of entitlement to take over Russia. He would use this power as a building block to create a new multinational entity on the Soviet territory where most of the republics, after rejecting Soviet rule, somehow were expected to endorse Russia's and, of course, Yeltsin's personal predominance. That clearly was an illusion. . . .