I have seen Boris Yelstin ill, healthy, sober, drunk, kind, cruel, enraged and bemused. An enormous personality, it is easy to remember him as something of a buffoon – certainly he behaved as such in his latter years as Russian president, joking peculiarly with Bill Clinton, scolding the international press corps, failing to leave his plane in Ireland because he was too drunk to meet the prime minister.
He had colossal failures. The war with Chechnya, the collapse of the Russian economy, endemic corruption in his administration and family. When he fixed on a goal – ousting Gorbachev, dismantling the Soviet Union and its state-owned economy – he was brutal, a destroyer, often with no clear idea of what to build upon the rubble.
But I will remember Yeltsin as a man whose instincts were always for the good. He presided over one of history's great endgames, the collapse of the multi-ethnic Soviet empire, and did so with an almost total lack of bloodshed (except, of course, in Chechnya).
There were countless opportunities to act otherwise. When the 15 Soviet republics went their separate ways, 25 million ethnic Russians suddenly found themselves living in foreign countries. Yeltsin could have used his army to annex territory with large Russian populations. Instead, he respected the sovereignty of the new nations.
Yeltsin could have exploited Russia's long history of ethnic hatreds and divisions to his advantage, and did not. In fact, more than once I saw him react to ethnic prejudice with visible, visceral disgust. He could have set up a news media subservient to his wishes – instead he watched as Russia's TV, radio and newspapers evolved into an exhilarating, riotous free-for-all (now, sadly, a distant memory).
Yeltsin's legacy is mixed, to be sure. But compare the end of the Soviet Union with the end of Yugoslavia (however imperfect the comparison). And consider what might have happened had Russia been led by a lesser man.