Yeltsin and my youth

Posted: Apr 30, 2007 12:11 PM

Boris Yeltsin's death on affected me in a way that was surely unique: He was my high-school crush.

Yes, I am serious. If you opened my locker at Dominican Academy in New York City, you would have found a picture of Yeltsin torn from Time magazine, as if it were a Tiger Beat cover featuring Kirk Cameron.

One night during my freshman year, the phone rang at about 9:45 on a Friday night; it was a classmate's father calling for me. My father, who answered the phone, was concerned: Why was Amy's dad calling so late on a Friday - for Kathryn? Amy's dad was calling because he had heard about my crush on Boris Yeltsin and wanted to make sure I knew that Barbara Walters had an interview with Yeltsin airing on "20/20."

I watched the interview with admiration.

So what was it about Yeltsin?

For a teenager with a thirst for knowledge, Boris Yeltsin was a living, breathing civics lesson: A flawed man can make a difference.

Yeltsin's rise was a tumultuous and fascinating time in history. I was old enough to remember hearing Ronald Reagan talk about the Evil Empire. That empire was falling -- a wall had come down, The Kremlin, as we knew it, was being dismantled. Boris Yeltsin didn't do that, but he saw the opportunities that this represented and he went after them, first as a pain in Mikhail Gorbachev's side, then as the first president of the new Russia.

As a young devourer of books, especially history books, a reader of Solzhenitsyn, I had a sense of what evil man can do and how the prospect of some kind of democracy and freedom can make a life-or-death difference to a people. On behalf of the Russian people, I thanked God for Yeltsin and prayed for his success.

Yeltsin biographer Leon Aron of the American Enterprise Institute ruminates in his new book, "Russia's Revolution" (AEI). Like Lincoln or de Gaulle, Yeltsin took over a great nation at the time of a mortal crisis and held it together. In Yeltsin's case, there were three crises at once -- political, economic and imperial. Not only did the country's political and economic systems lie in ruins, the country itself had to be reinvented. Against impossible odds, he succeeded, forging, for the first time in 1,000 years, a sustainable Russian state that was neither a monarchy nor a dictatorship.

My colleague David Pryce-Jones, journalist and historian, wrote upon Yeltsin's death: "Elected president of Russia, he played the nationalist card, and it proved stronger than Communism. Civil war might well have erupted between die-hard defenders of Communism and Russian nationalists. Standing on a tank in August 1991, Yeltsin successfully appealed to nationalism. It was a brave moment, and will always mark his place in history."

Yeltsin, who led Russia for eight years, was far from perfect, and his obituaries and the current state of Russia -- President Vladimir Putin seemingly more an autocrat than not -- clearly reflect that. But he was a brave, impressive man all the same; one crucial to history, as mere men can be. As Aron puts it, "In the end, it was one man's ability to make a choice and to take the responsibility that tipped the scale. The market economy happened in Russia because Yeltsin wished it to happen."

As great as I believe Yeltsin was, I can't stress enough how important it is to have an interest in politics at a young age. Whether the interest lies in a world leader, like Yeltsin, or even a local state representative, a knowledgeable youth will result in a powerful adult.