"We don't appreciate what we have until it's gone. Freedom is like that. It's like air. When you have it, you don't notice it." - Boris Yeltsin (Feb. 1, 1931 to April 23, 2007)
Boris Yeltsin served as the first president of Russia, his time in that office running from July of 1991 to December of 1999. This was a period of economic chaos and social upheaval in the fledgling democracy. Yeltsin survived two coup attempts, massive inflation and widespread epidemics of crime and corruption, as well as personal health problems.
During Yeltsin's presidency, it appeared that Russia's new experiment with democracy was an even bigger failure than its 74-year experiment with communism.
He was a hero to the Russian people when Russia declared independence from the Soviet Union in 1991*, but his approval rating plummeted when the harsh realities ran counter to the people's hopes.
Yeltsin only received 36 percent of the votes in the first round during a reelection bid in 1996 but Yeltsin won the runoff election in which he faced the Communist Party candidate. Most Russians preferred Yeltsin over a return to communism, despite the economic upheaval of the transition from communism.
Perhaps no one could have prevented the chaos that resulted from trying to establish a free market economy in a country with no tradition of private business operations, no property ownership and no banking system. But Yeltsin took personal responsibility for Russia's problems during an apologetic resignation in December of 1999.
Whatever his shortcomings, Yeltsin was a man of courage. Rather than running from those who wished to depose him and quite likely kill him, Yeltsin stood up to the forces aligned against him, thus preserving the frail and struggling democracy.
Even in stepping down in 1999, Yeltsin's actions showed courage and a commitment to democracy. In apologizing and calling for the people to support his successor, Vladimir Putin, Yeltsin was giving new life to the struggle for democracy.
Russia still struggles to build the economic and social foundations of a free society. Although there's no guarantee how the struggle will turn out, the voices calling for a return to communism are getting weaker.
Yeltsin bought Russia the time needed for communism to become almost as anachronistic in Russia as the idea of rule by czars.
* Many people have used the terms Soviet Union and Russia interchangeably but they are not synonymous. The Soviet Union or Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) was formed from the former Russian Empire after the last czar was overthrown and killed in 1917.
Russia comprised about three fourths of the land area and slightly over half the population of the USSR. For comparison, consider making all the states in the United States west of the Mississippi into one state and moving the nation's capital there. That state would be something like Russia in the USSR, except that the various republics of the USSR were linguistically and culturally diverse.
In 1991, the republics of the USSR began declaring independence, concluding with the Russian Republic. Since Russia formed the core of the USSR, the Soviet Union ceased to exist after Russian independence.