This editorial by Prof. Bowen was published in the News Leader (Staunton VA: April 30, 2007): A9.
by Gordon L. Bowen, Ph.D.
(Professor, Dept. of Political Science, Mary Baldwin College, Staunton VA 24401)
Since it sometimes is difficult to read every word of a scanned article (as above), here is a clear copy of the original version of this editorial for readers' reference:
The world lost an honest man and a friend of freedom this last week when Boris Nikolayevich Yeltsin, President of Russia from 1991-99, passed from this earth. Buried amid pomp and ceremony, feted by leaders from around the globe at his funeral on April 24, the real Boris would have been uneasy with all this fuss and acclaim. Beneath it all, the Father of Russian Democracy was a commoner, a regular guy who always was uneasy with the refined sophisticates who lately have come to run Russia as if it were their private yacht. More a model for all of us than one just for Russians, Yeltsin was the little boy in the tale of the "Emperor's New Clothes:" he spoke truth to power.
That temperament is rare, poorly cultivated in dictatorships such as was the Soviet Union, and rarely encouraged here as well. To speak truth to power differs fundamentally from the sort of bandwagon of "me, too" criticisms so much on display in the Democratic Presidential debate in South Carolina on April 26. It takes little courage to mount a safe podium to denounce a president in chorus with an agreeing audience and an agreeable set of mates. Boris played to tougher rooms.
Unlike the law school smarties offered to our voters' in dark, tailored suits, Yeltsin graduated from a poly-technical college in 1955 and went to work. Real work: in the ten years after taking his bachelor's level engineering degree, Boris was employed as a carpenter, a bricklayer, a concrete maker, a dump-truck driver, a crane operator, a woodworker, a glazier, a plasterer, a painter and a construction foreman. He also joined his nation's ruling Communist party and worked his way upward. When ultimately Boris was called to Moscow by the unexpected Mikhail Gorbachev in 1985, the boss had no idea what an honest man would do to that power-sodden city.
The late Soviet Union, of course, was an aging mockery of the always illusive communist ideals. Party leaders sallied about town in large limousines, bought luxury goods unavailable to the public at restricted-access stores, and held common people in contempt. Boris came to town appointed as its highest local Party official, yet he chose to ride with the public on the subway and buses. This man still retained within him the boy who would not shut up to fit in, much like the earlier Boris, who as an elementary schoolboy had been expelled for speaking out at a school assembly.
To see dry rot hidden by layers of glossy paint one needs to have hammered some wood, not posed at ribbon cuttings for the latest projects with a faux hard hat momentarily plopped onto one's fat head. Yeltsin saw the mirage involved in Mikhail Gorbachev's attempts to resuscitate communism, dramatically quit the Communist Party in Summer 1990, and reached for a new basis for power: the people. When push came to shove, when the hard-line Communists rounded up their buddies to try to end reform with a coup in August 1991, Yeltsin's lifelong traits took him the next step, literally. In Boris Yeltsin's ascent onto a tank in front of the Russian White House (i.e., its Parliament), the world witnessed real, rare courage. Yeltsin, and the people of Moscow who rallied to his side, put their lives on the line to say no to dictatorship, and yes to freedom.
As President of Russia, 1991-99, the hero of 1991 made his fair share of mistakes, none larger than unleashing fierce state violence against Chechnya, a rebellious Muslim region in the Russian Caucasus mountains. His legacy as an administrator must be judged as uneven, and his failure to found a pro-democracy political party has made more easy the dismantling of Russians' freedoms by his poorly chosen successor, Vladimir Putin. These shortcomings may dim his luster, but should not cloud our ability to praise his more important accomplishments.
Boris Yeltsin had the essential common sense to realize that the private property features of capitalism are an essential element in the foundation of human freedom. Thus, early on he ended state ownership, wage and price controls. By example, he showed he understood the universal message of Thomas Jefferson as well: in the Russia he sought to build, power would rest on the consent of the governed, expressed in periodic open elections.
As with many great historic figures, Yeltsin's tragedy lies evident before us, in the ruin of his works: Putin's authoritarian Russia of today. But Yeltsin's shadow is long, and the inspiration that can come from the darkness it now seems to have cast will endure. Russia still needs brave men and women who speak truth to power. And so do we.
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