Charles Krauthammer

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 former 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 not only abolished 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 sprung 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.

Charles Krauthammer

Charles Krauthammer is a 1987 Pulitzer Prize winner, 1984 National Magazine Award winner, and a columnist for The Washington Post since 1985.

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