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, GDP 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 Chavez, 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.
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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