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A monument to Boris Yeltsin was unveiled today in his hometown on the 80th anniversary of his birth.
In this week of memorials to American space tragedies, this event in Russia brings to mind the far more important and significant events, affecting millions of people worldwide, that unfolded in the Soviet Union during the late 1980s and mid-1990s. The communist superpower was collapsing, and there was the real possibility that that collapse could lead to worldwide war and violence.
Yeltsin, far more than any other man, helped shepherd the former Soviet Union out of that chaos, and he did it as a civilized man, with relatively little bloodshed. As he shouted defiantly as he stood on a tank in front of the Russian parliament building on the day of the August coup, “Terror and dictatorship . . . must not be allowed to bring eternal night!”
Unlike many former communist leaders, Yeltsin had the openness of mind to recognize that the state-run centralized command society that he had grown up in and had helped run for years simply did not work. “We have oppressed the human spirit,” he noted sadly during a press conference shortly after the coup. More importantly, he also had the courage to take action on this realization, and force the painful changes that were necessary to save his country.
Yeltsin was no saint, and the Russian transition from dictatorship to freedom was far from perfect. No one even knows if that transition is going to hold, today, twenty years later. Nonetheless, the world should remember Yeltsin for his success, and honor that memory.