Boris Yeltsin seized history by the throat in 1991. The rest is trivia.
He climbed on top of a tank, commanded the attention of the Russian people and the world, and stared down the Communist coup plotters, whom he denounced as "a bunch of adventurists" who'd restore the "concentration camps" of the Stalin era. In doing so, he kicked in the rotten Soviet door and sealed the victories over Communism won two years earlier by Reagan, Thatcher, John Paul et al.
I was in my last semester of college and preparing to go off to grad school when the attempted coup (by people the ignorant MSM inevitably calls "conservatives") unfolded live via satellite and cell-phone on CNN, one of the first world-historical news events to do so. (Even the Berlin Wall coverage was led by the over-the-air networks.) I flipped on the TV around 2am upon coming home and stayed up until almost noon, never turning the channel away from the coverage of the Moscow announcement that Gorbachev had been deposed by Communist apparatchiki, on the eve of signing a new union treaty that would devolve the USSR. Within the next two days, Yeltsin as president of Russia, a previously fictionally-powerful position, called on the people and the army to resist the coup. Renegade army units and thousands of ordinary Russians decided that this time would be different -- they wouldn't just roll over to tyrants. They arrived at the ironically-named White House to protect Yeltsin and the Russian government from the counterattack that never came.
When I taught political philosophy in the subsequent couple of years, I made sure my students understood one thing about what Yeltsin did during those few days.
That it was, in the usual sense, illegitimate. Illegal.
As president of Russia, one of the constituent parts of the USSR, he had no power to call on the Red Army to disobey the Kremlin, any more than the governor of Massachusetts could tell the US Army not to go to Saudi Arabia and fight the (also then-recent) First Gulf War. That his denunciations of the Kremlin coup were functionally equivalent to South Carolina deciding that the federal election that produced Abraham Lincoln was illegitimate. I always used that (admittedly imperfect) analogy, knowing that my students' sympathies regarding Communism and slavery would be on the opposite sides of the two historical events.
What I wanted them to see was how the Yeltsin case spoke to the central matter in politics -- legitimacy. The right to rule. What the Yeltsin case showed concretely and in contemporary terms was that in a crisis situation (a coup being one, but a founding or a war also fits the bill), legitimacy and right aren't legal matters at all. Yeltsin's resistance to the coup won him legitimacy because the people responded to him; it was NOT the case that the people responded to his resistance because it was legitimate (because it was not, by the understanding of legitimacy that rightly reigns in ordinary times). So it is simply false to think that all political questions can be reduced to law. Though I never taught Locke explicitly as I did Hobbes, the former-named and historically-latter Englishman called the contrary situation the "appeal to heaven":
The people have no other remedy in this, as in all other cases where they have no judge on earth, but to appeal to heaven: for the rulers, in such attempts, exercising a power the people never put into their hands, (who can never be supposed to consent that any body should rule over them for their harm) do that which they have not a right to do. And where the body of the people, or any single man, is deprived of their right, or is under the exercise of a power without right, and have no appeal on earth, then they have a liberty to appeal to heaven, whenever they judge the cause of sufficient moment. And therefore, though the people cannot be judge, so as to have, by the constitution of that society, any superior power, to determine and give effective sentence in the case; yet they have, by a law antecedent and paramount to all positive laws of men, reserved that ultimate determination to themselves which belongs to all mankind, where there lies no appeal on earth, viz. to judge, whether they have just cause to make their appeal to heaven. And this judgment they cannot part with, it being out of a man's power so to submit himself to another, as to give him a liberty to destroy him; God and nature never allowing a man so to abandon himself, as to neglect his own preservation: and since he cannot take away his own life, neither can he give another power to take it.And Locke finishes the chapter with the rebuttal to the obvious question. The "appeal to heaven," beyond law though it is, is a sufficiently drastic event that it will not be done casually. Or as Locke's pupil Jefferson put it in some piece of paper:
Prudence, indeed, will dictate that governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes. And accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed.Or in Locke's words (I love how Locke uses, and not for the only time in the Second Treatise, the phrase "wise prince"):
Nor let any one think, this lays a perpetual foundation for disorder; for this operates not, till the inconveniency is so great, that the majority feel it, and are weary of it, and find a necessity to have it amended. But this the executive power, or wise princes, never need come in the danger of: and it is the thing, of all others, they have most need to avoid, as of all others the most perilous.Yeltsin's great week came because he knew that the Russian people had a remedy in the "appeal to heaven," that Communism had ruined the country, that the coup meant the "sufficient moment" had arrived, and that he was the man to make that appeal to heaven.
Where, God willing, he is now. RIP, Boris.