Boris Yeltsin was a democrat, but it is as a revolutionary that he will be most remembered. The iconic image of the first Russian president, atop a tank outside parliament as he led the charge against a coup in August 1991 said it all: this was a charismatic man of action, at his best when under siege. Unfortunately, when peace reigned, Yeltsin, who died on Monday aged 76, was a less successful leader.
Yeltsin was instrumental in hammering the last nails into the coffin of the Soviet Union and parting the curtain on the new, democratic Russia. But his efforts were largely ineffectual. Nor did he maintain an especially firm adherence to democracy in his political dealings, twice sacking prime ministers without parliamentary approval and waging bloody war against separatists in Chechnya.
Such is the nature of democracy that even though he laid the groundwork for Russia's economic rise through instituting painful reforms, only 1,000 people turned out for his funeral on Wednesday. So unpopular were the moves, which plunged tens of millions of Russians into poverty and created massive unemployment and inequality, that when he left office on the last day of the 20th century, some opinion polls gave him a popularity rating of just 2 per cent.
Yeltsin's anointed successor, Vladimir Putin, built on those foundations and as he pointed out in his eighth state of the nation address yesterday, Russia now has the world's 10th biggest economy. Critics, however, contend that Mr Putin is autocratic. He has rolled back many of his predecessor's reforms by imposing curbs on political opponents, tightening state control on the media and economy and infringing human rights. Yet Mr Putin enjoys opinion poll ratings of 80 per cent or more and two-thirds of Russians would like the constitution changed so he can run for a third term next year.
Democracy in the Russian context, it seems, is less about political choice than protecting people and their livelihoods. Even so, it is important that Russia's hard-won democratic reforms are not eroded. Russians may not remember Yeltsin's presidency with fondness; they do, however, have much to thank him for.