The Yeltsin I Knew by Vladimir Kvint
Politically, Yeltsin passed away before his formal resignation in December 1999, as stated in my Forbes cover story, "The Last Days of Boris Yeltsin" (September '98). Historically, however, he will never be forgotten, as he was the first truly democratically elected leader in 1,000 years of Russian history and the first leader who made the dignity of individuals and freedom of the press a state policy. An election as democratic as his 1991 election will unfortunately not take place in the near future.
But there was not only one Yeltsin--I saw three different Yeltsins during my meetings with him.
I saw a regional Communist Party boss from the Ural Mountains evaluating his subordinates based on how well they held vodka.
I saw an extremely brave Politburo candidate member who rebelled against the Communist Party machine, aware of the harsh punishment that would await him. Even then, he knew that the days of the Communist Party were numbered. When he was totally isolated as the first dissident communist leader in 1988, our mutual friend brought a hunting rifle for his birthday. Holding the rifle, Yeltsin joked, "You think I need this to triumph over my enemies? You'll see, I'll win, without a single shot!"
He was referring to the Communist Party, which three years later he destroyed, by legally prohibiting it, without force.
This dismantled communism on one quarter of the surface of our planet. Had he not done so, Russia would be under the same one-party system that today rules China. Yeltsin strengthened my vision of the demise of the Soviet Union, and later I wrote that "Russia should quit the Soviet Union"--at that time a revolutionary view.
Finally, I saw Yeltsin as the leader of Russia during its crucial turning points, who kept focus toward freedom and democracy, and punished anyone with overly nationalistic and anti-Semitic sentiments. He initiated privatization, which was a great achievement. But being economically naïve, he relied on an inferior economic team that turned privatization into widespread corruption. This pushed the overwhelming majority of Russians under the poverty line in a couple of months and established corruption as common practice today.
Yet, Yeltsin developed the first real partnership between East and West--substantially reduced Russia's nuclear stock and signed several non-proliferation agreements with the U.S. The certain level of economic prosperity, which Russia now enjoys, is a result of the freedoms Yeltsin created at work. In my opinion, this colossal figure deserves an official state funeral of a higher status than the one now being contemplated.
Vladimir Kvint, Professor at American University's Kogod School of Business in Washington, D.C., former head of organizational management at Norilsk Mining & Metallurgical Co. and native of Siberia.