He left a very mixed legacy, notably the disastrous war in Chechnya, but no one had ever tried to undo 70 years of insanity before. As the old joke in the waning years of the Soviet Union went, “It’s not hard to turn an aquarium into fish soup. But turning fish soup into an acquarium is rather harder.”
His farewell address as president — the first Russian head of state to leave power voluntarily (and perhaps the last; we shall see) — included an astonishing statement:
“I want to ask your forgiveness for not fulfilling some hopes of those who believed that . . . in one go . . . we would be able to jump from a gray, stagnating totalitarian past into a bright, rich, civilized future. I believed in this myself. It didn’t happen in one jump.”
Here’s David Boaz’s evaluation of Yeltsin’s legacy.