Gorbachev and Yeltsin: Reformer and Terminator

Both Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin came from within Soviet political system. The two men became political opponents and left very different legacies in Russia today.

Gorbachev will be remembered as someone who changed the course of world history. He brought down a regime and an empire. In doing so, he changed the entire world order.

Gorbachev was the first Russian leader to choose not to use force in the battle for power. He resigned his leadership position without attempting to appoint a successor. He kept his dignity.

No reformers in history have been able to destroy an old system and to build a new one as well. Reformers’ popularity vanishes as they destroy the familiar ways of life. Thus, Gorbachev become a destroyer.

On the other hand, Yeltsin seemed like a revolutionary ready to go much further. Yeltsin was elected by popular vote as the first democratic leader of an independent Russia. He became the symbol of the anticommunist when he introduced the capitalist market.

At the same time, Yeltsin moved toward a more traditional Russian government. He revived a system based on personal power. Russia returned to its “spheres of influence.”

Yeltsin missed the opportunity to convert this consensus into a new constitution and build a new political system. Yeltsin was more concerned with establishing a monopoly on power and returning to the old rules of the political game.

Yeltsin returned Russia to a system that vested power in a single person. The president was set above society and beyond its control. In 1999, Yeltsin handed over power to his successor, Vladimir Putin. This transition was a means of consolidating and continuing the personal power system.

Yeltsin bears more responsibility than Putin for the democratic experiment’s failure. Today’s system of personal power, along with a corrupt state and demoralized society, is Yeltsin’s legacy.

Gorbachev’s years in power were dramatic in part because he did not foresee the consequences of his own actions. He did not predict that his initiatives would cost him power, or that his own country would still be unable to credit him for his accomplishments. The most important aspect of his legacy, however, is that Gorbachev opened the country to freedom and hope.

Yeltsin’s rule was dramatic for different reasons. While he also failed to foresee the consequences of his actions, his era in power discredited freedom in Russia and put an end to hope among Russia’s citizens.

Source: Gorbachev and Yeltsin: Reformer and Terminator
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