Someone still loves you, Boris

Russian 21st-century leaders don't bother to sweat. They either cancel elections or falsify them

There's an American indie-rock band from some faraway state, called Someone Still Loves You Boris Yeltsin. No matter how good or bad the band is, its name is to the point, because there are really very few people in the world, let alone in Russia, who hold tender feelings towards the late tsar Boris. Still, there are some. By contrast I doubt whether anyone, except family members, will "still love" the grey, rat-like creature that is Vladimir Putin a year or so beyond his retirement. Unlike Russia's new ruling elite, whose predominant feature is sheer mediocrity, Yeltsin - love him or loathe him - was an impressive human being. He was awkward, charismatic, often funny and stupid, sometimes brilliant, unpredictable, evil, sentimental, Byzantine, humorous, vain . . . I have a sneaking suspicion that underneath it all he was a good man, albeit a good man who also carried out many pretty awful deeds.

Like most Russians, I first heard of Boris Yeltsin in 1987, when he was playing a rebellious pro-democracy Communist Party boss from the Urals region. At that time, he was the favourite of Mikhail Gorbachev, who used Yeltsin's eloquence, masculine charm and drive (all qualities that Gorby himself lacked) as a tool against the conservative/communist nomenklatura. Soon the silver-haired beast got out of control, leading to the Shakespearean confrontation between the two power-brokers.

August 1991 holds particular memories for me. I was working, inter alia, for Russia's RTR television. At that time it was a fiercely pro-democracy station. I rushed to the White House, Yeltsin's impromptu HQ against the coup leaders, on the first day, smuggling out film tapes to western TV crews. This was Yeltsin at his peak, unconventional and, in another striking contrast to Putin, brave in the direst of circumstances. Even then, at the time of his greatest glory, he never quite grew into the status of national hero or spiritual leader. For whatever reason, he was never taken too seriously by voters.

Along with many others, I received a medal for my work in resisting the 1991 coup. A few years later, I threw it away when Yeltsin, during a drinking binge (as we know now), launched the first Chechen war. I became an outspoken critic and rejected an offer from the president's office to join the well-paid ranks of his supporters during the 1996 electoral campaign. In my column for the Mos cow Times, I called this period "the new stagnation", characterised by a "neglect of freedom". Oh boy, how little I knew, compared to now, about the reining in of freedom.

Old Boris's last three years as president were shameful, drunk and zombie-like. Yet one important point should be remembered. I have absolutely no doubt that, for Putin and his comrades in the Kremlin, democracy is a dead concept. They now use the "d" word only when they need to keep the west at bay. Yeltsin, on the other hand, might not have understood in detail what it took to be a democrat, but he really did believe in the idea, however vaguely. He wanted to be credited in history as the man who baptised Russian democracy.

For that reason, he undeniably had respect for at least some of the basic tenets of western society, notably freedom of speech and the mass media, and free elections. When he danced the twist on stage during a campaign roadshow in 1996, he nearly died as a result. Twenty-first-century Russian leaders don't bother to sweat. They either cancel elections or falsify them.

This sadly provides the most telling evidence that Boris Yeltsin's democratic mission ended in failure. In his memorable millennium-night announcement, he enthroned Putin. The hand over was entirely undemocratic, based on all kinds of shadowy manipulation and secret protocol, thus saving the Yeltsin family's personal fortune (managed by a well-known Chelsea football-team owner) but depriving his country of a decent and dignified future.

This article first appeared in the 30 April 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Pakistan: The Taliban takeover