Boris Yeltsin’s death has affected me more than I might have imagined.
Once I thought that moment captured on CNN of Yeltsin standing on top of a tank proclaiming defiance of the sordid coup attempt by the worst of the old Soviet regime, was one of the great moments of my life.
To see in real time one man stand up for liberty in a land ravaged by a mass murdering tyranny–and win–was unbelievably thrilling and beautiful. And, yet as it turned out if it wasn’t unbelievable, it was just unsustainable.
It’s now hard to remember, hard to conceive of what the world seemed like between Yeltsin’s stand and the Towers fall. One decade in which a regime that had , in one way or another caused the death of 50 million people, imprisoned poets and dissidents in mental institutions the better to subject them to chemical torture, was finally gone. The nations it enslaved in eastern Europe were free. A product of 60s idealism was American president. (Whatever you think about Bill Clinton–and I’ve had a lot of negative things to say about him in the end–his core belief, his allegiance to the highest strain of Sixties activism, the Civil Rights Movement is undeniable.
It wasn’t all roses. One only has to utter the name Rwanda to dispel false illusions. But everyone said we would learn from Rwanda, that we wouldn’t let something like that happen again. Right. And it may have led to false illusions. that one man can make a difference when the default positin of human nature as a whole has not, perhaps cannot, be reset from cruelty to tolerance.
Still we didn’t realize how brief a time was allotted to us for optimism did we? I know I didn’t. What was I doing all that time. Oh right, I was writing a book that critiqued post war explanations of Hitler. I suppose it could have suggested tome, that immersion in Hitler’s world, that there was something irredeemably flawed about human nature.
But there was two chapters about doomed heroes in my book. The journalists of the anti-Hitler newspaper The Munich Post who were the first to investigate Hitler and warn the world about they evil they found. They did important, impressive aggressive work–as did the crusading independent journalists Karl Heiden and Fritz Gerlich, but they didn’t stop Hitler from coming to power and shutting them down, killing Gerlich, driving Heiden into exile.
Boris Yeltsin performed a singular act of courage, but he didn’t stop Russia from sliding back into a thug ruled state, one that murders journalists and dissidents. Not as bad as Soviet regime, autocratic rather than (as yet) fully totalitarian. But nothing like what we envisioned when Boris Yeltsin stood up to tyranny and gave us that decade, the one we’ll never likely to get back.