Boris Yeltsin, the former mayor of Moscow who presided over the largely peaceful devolution of the Soviet Empire, died today at age 76. To Leon Aron (see link in title of this post), he was the indispensable man who held together the Russian nation while concurrently presiding over the dissolution of the Soviet and pre-Soviet Imperium. In addition, he challenged the worst of the Russian mindset by seeking increased economic freedom, judicial autonomy and political competition.
Of course none of what Yeltsin accomplished effected an overhaul of the Russian political mindset -- it is still a xenophobic, imperialistic and authoritarian nation. But he blunted the worst traits of the authoritarianism that infused the nation's history from tsarist times through the Soviet empire. As Aron notes, although he may be overstating Yeltsin's long-term influence, the fact is that the changes Yeltsin sought to effect have had some influence:
Perhaps most important of all, Yeltsin freed Russia from what the great English poet Robert Graves (in an entirely different context) called “the never changing circuit of its fate”—the history that after four centuries appeared to have become destiny: imperialism, militarism, and rigid centralization interrupted by episodes of horrifyingly brutal anarchy. He gave Russia a “peredyshka,” a time to catch its breath. The traditional attributes of the Russian state—authoritarianism, imperialism, militarism, xenophobia—are far from extinguished. Yet more and higher hedges have been erected against their recurrence under Yeltsin’s peredyshka than at any other time in Russian history.