In the eight years Boris Yeltsin was president, the country enjoyed a degree of free speech unprecedented in scope and duration. Yet to talk of Yeltsin’s legacy invariably provokes strong emotions about the extent of his commitment to freedom and democracy. His huge and controversial impact in changing almost every aspect of Russians’ lives as they moved through seismic economic, political, cultural and imperialist changes has laid him vulnerable to all sorts of criticism. Some are well deserved: he was a colossal but flawed figure, while the task before him was Herculean. His goal, as he saw it, was clear: to bury communism and take Russia along the road to democracy. If he was not a pinup democratic leader all of the time, he was the most democratic the country has ever had. His motivating principle, and one he often expressed with anguish, was to create what he said Russians deserved after so many years of suffering: a prosperous and democratic society out of the debris of the Soviet system. It did not go smoothly. ‘People expected paradise on earth’, he writes in his memoirs, ‘but they got inflation, unemployment, economic shock and a political crisis’.1 Yet, despite the constant turbulence of these years, Yeltsin was presiding over and facilitating the most dynamic and liberated period of Russian history. If there is disagreement about Yeltsin’s legacy, even his opponents agree

that the free rein Yeltsin allowed the media and political opposition during these years was his greatest achievement. By promoting free speech Yeltsin did what seemed impossible: he freed society from fear. Archives were opening up, books were being published, public records were becoming available. The daily Nezavisimaya gazeta said of him in an obituary (though notably not during his lifetime when events were too frenetic and hopes vied with

ignorance about what could be done) that it was precisely because he had ‘removed fear from people’s hearts’ that people took out their frustrations on him. ‘Citizens interpreted their own difficulties in adapting to a new way of life as the blunders of the country’s leader. And as people no longer had fear, the head of state was ostracised by just about everyone’.2 By raising the sluice gate on speech, it is probably true to say that Yeltsin became the most trashed leader in Russian history. The free flow of speech was not only of the respectable kind, but a cacophony of noises, pushing the boundaries of convention, sometimes inflammatory and odious, expressing a need not always to learn so much as to vent feelings, to speak and give voice. The arsenal of criticism against Yeltsin was large because the range of possibilities that opened up was even larger. Yeltsin’s contribution to freedom and democracy has to be measured not

against the exaggerated hopes of citizens brought up on communist utopian politics, but against the real dangers the country faced from total economic collapse and civil war. What was amazing within the context of Russian history was that he managed to avoid its worst excesses. Yeltsin’s role model was Peter the Great, but to implement reform Peter took his people ‘kicking and screaming’ into the new world, as did almost every other leader of revolutionary change in the country. Yeltsin tried to find practical solutions. In negotiating the collapse of the Soviet Union he managed to maintain peaceful relations with his ‘near abroad’ neighbours, a success for which he has won little credit. Within Russia he devolved power from the centre, trying to create a flexible federal system while keeping regions such as Tatarstan and the Ural republics from seceding. He made endless compromises to avert tribal conflicts in the tinderbox of the North Caucasus. Only quick and skilful intervention prevented a worsening of the situation in the first post-Soviet ethnic conflict between North Ossetia and Ingushetia in 1992, where more than 450 people were killed within the space of five days. ‘In other words, far from being a time of “chaos and failure”, Yeltsin’s Russia managed to avert a number of conflicts’, says historian Sergei Markedonov, pointing to Yeltsin’s policy of making complicated arrangements to accommodate disparate interests in a whole list of conflicts that was erupting.3