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 consequences for Russian democracy, and even for him. It went very far toward squandering the legitimacy that he had won when he first stood on a tank in 1991.

To many of us at the time, Yeltsin seemed likely to weather the setback. In an article I wrote about him for the January/February 1994 issue of Foreign Affairs, I argued that Russia's new institutions faced three serious tests: the politics of force, the politics of money, and the politics of patriotism. Each of them represented a potential threat to democracy. Yeltsin had to make sure that the "power ministries" of the old Soviet state did not oppose the new order, that decisive economic power was not brought back under state control, and that democracy was not permanently identified with national decline or humiliation.

By the end of 1993, there was no blinking the fact that the break-up of the Soviet system had been very hard for ordinary Russian citizens. Yet it also seemed that the three dangers to the consolidation of democracy that I identified were, under Yeltsin's leadership, being brought under control. He faced no cabals of colonels or networks of paramilitary societies. The command economy had been broken for good. And the goal of refashioning an empire seemed to have had very little inspirational force.

All this was true enough: the structural threats to Russian democracy were weak. What my analysis missed was how weak Yeltsin himself had become by 1993 -- and how dependent he subsequently became on forms of power other than true popular support. Perhaps the military or the KGB no longer posed a threat to him, but he had little inclination to reform them and little ability to keep them out of Chechnya -- or out of Pristina airport. He had broken the power of the Soviet managerial elite, but he was not able to discipline their oligarchic successors -- or to run for reelection without turning to them for help. He did not have to worry that the ultranationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky would ride to power on a wave of neo-imperialist sentiment -- but he often relied on (some said, bought) Zhirinovsky's votes in the Duma.

After 1993, Western analysts and policymakers kept hoping that things would settle down, that Russia would stop lurching from one political or economic crisis to another. We thought Yeltsin was somehow holding the place together. We did not see how irretrievably weakened he had been by mistakes he made in the very first phase of post-Soviet rebuilding. Yeltsin was the man of the people who did not call for early elections in 1991 when the people would probably have given him overwhelming support. He was the natural politician who did not form a political party as the foundation of his power. He was the instinctive democrat who ended up unable to rule completely democratically.

The tank and the White House in 1991, or the tank and the White House in 1993 -- history's verdict on Boris Yeltsin may well depend on how it reconciles these two images. One Yeltsin will be weighed against the other in a seemingly tragic story. Yet, as time passes and we see which direction Russia takes, his personal failings and strategic errors may loom less painfully large than they do today. If Russia in 2017 looks much as it does in 2007, people will stop complaining about Yeltsin's foibles and conclude that the country is simply fated to be authoritarian for a long time to come. Alternatively, if Russia ten years from now has developed the pluralistic politics of a modern European state, it will be easier to see both 1991 and 1993 as important steps forward. Putin will want the credit. But Yeltsin will get his share, and more.

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  • Stephen Sestanovich is the George F. Kennan Senior Fellow for Russian and Eurasian Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. He was Ambassador-at-large and Special Adviser to the Secretary of State for policy toward the states of the former Soviet Union from 1997 to 2001.
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