Paul  Kengor

Former Russian President Boris Yeltsin died this week at age 76, on the heels of two decades of both extraordinary health problems and political achievements.

His presidency ran from June 1991 through December 31, 1999—almost the entirety of the 1990s, a decade that will be viewed as one of the most significant in Russia’s long history, especially if the nation ultimately becomes a stable free-market democracy. He was a tumultuous man at a tumultuous time—tough, candid, colorful, to hell and back.

He was a complete anti-communist, the healthiest trait he ever developed, beginning as a child raised under Stalin’s Red Terror. He considered the Soviet communist system a “horror house,” which, when it wasn’t busy murdering the masses by the millions, was at least a good source of joke material for Yeltsin. He enjoyed testing the limits of Mikhail Gorbachev’s glasnost, ridiculing not only his personal dacha and other political perks in the Soviet system but even Gorbachev himself.

From inside the Communist Party, Yeltsin toiled to take it apart, annoying Gorbachev by his pushiness. As that system was falling apart at the seams, Yeltsin created confusion within the administration of President George H.W. Bush over whether America should side with him or Gorbachev. Bush and his Secretary of State Jim Baker put their faith in Gorbachev. They were warned by former President Richard Nixon that this was a mistake. Yeltsin, noted Nixon, was the most pro-Western, pro-American leader in Russian history. Gorbachev, to his credit, had been the starter, but Yeltsin needed to be the closer, said Nixon.

In June 1991, the closer got his chance, winning 57% of the vote in the first democratic presidential election in Russian history. In the six months that followed, 11 of the remaining republics that made up the USSR declared independence from the motherland. On Christmas Day 1991, Gorbachev accepted the inevitable, resigning as head of the Soviet Union. The Cold War was over, the Evil Empire on the ash-heap of history—as were the perverse dreams of Lenin and Stalin.