RIP Boris

Former Russian President Boris Yeltsin died yesterday. I can vividly remember the photos of him in 1991, standing atop a tank rallying the people to resist an attempted coup by the ousted communists. His success in throwing out communism would soon be shadowed by his failure in building a free democracy. Nonetheless, he changed history for the better. RIP.

A story today on OpinionJournal looks back at Yeltsin's legacy and makes an interesting demographic point.

Communist ideology was based on a set of anti-values designed to facilitate state-sanctioned murder and justify totalitarian rule. At the same time, however, these values defined a worldview that gave each individual a sense that he was working for the good of mankind and that his life had meaning. The revelations of glasnost showed that the communist worldview was based on lies, but offered nothing to take its place. After the fall of the Soviet Union people hoped for democracy; instead they found themselves ruled by bribe-takers and gangsters. The result was widespread despair.

Between 1992 and 1994, the rise in the death rate in Russia was so dramatic that Western demographers did not believe the figures. The toll from murder, suicide, heart attacks and accidents gave Russia the death rate of a country at war; Western and Russian demographers now agree that between 1992 and 2000, the number of "surplus deaths" in Russia--deaths that cannot be explained on the basis of previous trends--was between five and six million persons.

Under these circumstances, Yeltsin became an unpopular and even hated figure in Russia. But even in light of the disastrous toll of reform, one could argue that, in his policy decisions, Yeltsin had good intentions. MORE

This is stunning. Six million people died of despair? The Russians I have known were dour, almost depressing people. They were like this long before Yeltsin came to power. Is there something about Russian culture itself that leaves people so hopeless?

Whatever the cause, Yeltsin's good intentions were not enough to rebuild Russia after so many years of communist dictatorship. Now compare this to U.S. efforts to create a democracy from scratch in Iraq. Is it possible? Maybe. But if so, it will take a long time and cost many lives, if the Russian experience means anything.

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