For years, Boris Yeltsin has been linked to two vivid images in the popular imagination. In one of them, which popped up in virtually every obituary last week, he stood on a tank outside the so-called "White House," the site of Russia's parliament in Soviet times. This was Yeltsin as the people's champion, resisting the hardliners' coup against Mikhail Gorbachev in August 1991 and bringing down the Soviet dictatorship.
The second image, from October 1993, was also of the "White House", and it also involved a tank. But this time, the tank was hurling round after round of explosives against the parliament building, which was soon blackened by fire. After many hours of shelling, a few terrified-looking deputies emerged with their hands up and were carted away. Yeltsin was not even in this picture, but for many people he was defined by it all the same. In a little more than two years, it seemed, the national hero had become a bloody autocrat.
The 1993 image was, of course, unfair to Yeltsin. In that confrontation, it was he who was calling for elections to resolve a political impasse, and it was he who was insisting that Russia finally had to jettison Soviet-era rules and institutions and become a modern democracy. His show of force, shocking though it may have been, was followed by the adoption of a new constitution and an unbroken string of parliamentary and presidential elections. By contrast, it was the extremist deputies and their hangers-on holed up in the White House who were dreaming of an armed revolutionary uprising. If they had prevailed in their stand-off with Yeltsin, or if they had been able to inspire others to mount violent challenges to the new regime, it is anybody's guess where Russia would be today. (It certainly seems unlikely that as victors they would have pardoned their enemies as quickly as they themselves were pardoned in defeat.)
In October 1993, Boris Yeltsin was almost completely in the right. Yet his victory had tragic
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