Boris Yeltsin, Russia’s first popularly elected president, made a lasting impact on Russian Jewry, though his legacy included its share of controversy and tragic failures.
Russian Jewish leaders agree that the community should remember Yeltsin, who died Monday at age 76, primarily as the man who ended decades of state-sanctioned anti-Semitism in Russia.
“With Yeltsin’s passing, a page is closed for the Jewish community, that of revolutionary changes in the life of Soviet and Russian Jewry,” said Borukh Gorin, spokesman for the Federations of Jewish Communities, Russia’s largest Jewish group.
“Yeltsin was an important figure” for the Jewish community, said Mark Levin, executive director of NCSJ, a Washington-based group that works on behalf of Jews in the former Soviet Union. “His opening of the country allowed for the development of Jewish communities throughout Russia. His willingness to create a more open, democratic country certainly had an impact on the Jewish community.”
Both of Russia’s chief rabbis offered their condolences Monday to Yeltsin’s wife, Naina, and daughter, Tatyana.
Mikhail Chlenov, who established Russia’s first legal Jewish group in the early years of Yeltsin’s rule, said Jews should remember Yeltsin as a great figure.
“It was his great achievement that the new Russia came to life without that evil called state anti-Semitism,” said Chlenov, president of the Va’ad of Russia.
Others credit Yeltsin for allowing Jewish life to develop freely in Russia to an extent that was hard to imagine even under his predecessor, Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev.
With American Jewish activists marking the 40th anniversary this year of the movement to free Soviet Jewry, it is notable that meaningful Jewish emigration began under Gorbachev, but it was Yeltsin who really opened the floodgates.
“While Gorbachev made freedom of emigration a reality for Soviet Jews, it was Yeltsin who made possible an unprecedented freedom of Jewish life in the country,” Gorin said. “Jewish schools and new synagogues were opened — it was he who made the impossible possible.”
Yeltsin was much criticized for economic policies that left millions of Russians below the poverty line, but he was the “ultimate Russian president with a very Russian character,” Gorin said. “It’s no exaggeration to say we were blessed to have Yeltsin as president.”
Another leading figure of the Russian Jewish renaissance during Yeltsin’s presidency noted the fundamental changes in civil liberties and economic freedom that Yeltsin helped establish in Russia — changes that ultimately benefited Jews.
“I won’t make a direct connection between Yeltsin’s rule and Jewish life in Russia unless we take into account the maxim that the more freedom there is, the better it is for Jews,” said Alexander Osovtsov, who served as executive vice president of the Russian Jewish Congress from 1996 to 2000.
But Yeltsin’s legacy also was filled with controversy.
“His resignation did not mean an immediate return of the things he demolished, but I cannot consider it accidental that during his rule, many people with anti-Semitic views came to power,” Osovtsov said.
Osovtsov noted in particular Boris Mironov, an anti-Semitic publicist now on trial for hate speech who served as press minister early in Yeltsin’s tenure.
“This only underscores the controversies of this gigantic figure,” said Osovtsov, who is now a liberal opposition activist.
At the same time, some observers said that controversial policies in the second half of Yeltsin’s presidency — such as the escalating war in Chechnya and his decision to appoint a successor rather than have one elected — paved the rise to power for Vladimir Putin and the slide back toward authoritarianism that has been associated with his rule.
Yet Osovtsov said Yeltsin’s legacy cannot be underestimated, since some of the fundamental changes associated with his reign — including the end of state-sponsored anti-Semitism — have continued long after he left the office.
Chlenov agreed that Yeltsin was a controversial and even tragic figure, which has become even more evident since he stepped down in December 1999 in favor of Putin.
Yeltsin successfully fought the predominance of communist ideology, but was unsuccessful in overcoming the influence of bureaucracy and powerful apparatchiks. Many of the negative trends in Russian political and public life since his resignation are a direct result of the unfinished struggle Yeltsin led, Chlenov said.
“These are these bureaucratic circles who are taking their revenge now,” Chlenov said.