Boris, We Hardly Knew Ye

by Robert R. Thompson

31 May 2007

With the former Russian president's passing, Thompson recounts his visits to Yeltsin's Russia, and recalls what his Russian friends thought of Boris Yeltsin.

Boris Yeltsin spent much of his life toiling in the obscure outreaches of the Soviet Union’s communist bureaucracy. But in 1985, when Soviet reformist leader Mikhail Gorbachev plucked him from rural Sverdlovsk (now known by its original pre-Soviet name, Yekaterinburg) to make him head of the Moscow Communist party, Yeltsin’s life was permanently altered, as was the future direction of the Soviet Union and post-Soviet Russia.

Gorbachev hoped Yeltsin would shake things up in the capitol as he had in his own home town. He picked the right man; so right in fact, that in the late ‘80s, Yeltsin quickly outpaced his mentor, eventually becoming his rival. He pushed democratic reforms in the Moscow city government, and then in the Russian Soviet Republic—the biggest unit of the USSR.

In 1991, Yeltsin left the Communist party and did something Gorbachev was never willing to do: submit himself to a popular election. He won the presidency of the Russian Soviet Republic in 1991, and was next positioned to take over the post-Soviet Russian presidency. The failed August 1991 hard-line communist coup attempt was the death knell for Gorbachev’s reform movement (and for the USSR as well), with the Soviet Union surviving only through the fall of that year, and officially perishing in December 1991.

Yeltsin became the president of a new country, the non-communist Russian Federation. With Yeltsin’s ascent, the stage was set for nearly a decade of tumultuous political and economic reforms, which left Russians in varied states of ecstasy, anger, frustration, and bewilderment. After Yeltsin’s whirlwind tenure at the forefront of his country’s political machine, Russians gave strong support to his hand picked successor, Vladimir Putin, Russian Acting President and then President (elected 2000, re-elected 2004) and Putin’s more authoritarian take on democracy. 

Yeltsin died on 23 April 2007, with the verdict on his presidency decidedly mixed, both inside and outside of Russia. During his presidential career, I went to Russia five times and brought back varied experiences. I first visited Russia in December 1992, a year after the Soviet Union collapsed and Yeltsin rose to power. My last trip was a year and a half before he abruptly resigned in December 1999, and turned over his chaotic Russian democracy to Putin.

In December 1992, in St. Petersburg, newly renamed after its years as Leningrad, I stayed with a Russian family celebrating Christmas for the first time. I conducted research in Russia’s archives (located in Moscow) in 1995, and my translator / research assistant was the daughter of a former Soviet Red Army officer who harshly criticized Yeltsin’s waging of the first Chechen War.

In 1996, I watched the Yeltsin presidential campaign when it rocked Moscow’s Red Square. During the summer of 1998, I visited the infamous Kreisky Prison in St. Petersburg and saw a disturbing view of Russian justice during the Yeltsin era. During my trips, I walked the streets, rode the metro, and lived as a local (as much as a visiting foreigner could do). I also met a strongly divided demographic; some despised Yeltsin, some liked him, some thought the old Soviet Union would soon return, while others tried to make a go of it as journalists or academics in the new Russia.

Despite the language barrier, I was able to see Russia during Yeltsin’s years, so to speak, from the ground up. My Russian visits during the ‘90s were mostly confined to the two major cities of St. Petersburg and Moscow, and usually were not longer than two weeks. My impressions of Yeltsin’s Russia are a collection of very personal snapshots, and those visits provided insights into what Russia was like then, and how Yeltsin’s legacy can be assessed now.   

My first night in Russia, 29 December 1992, was especially memorable. I traveled with a group of eight students for a two-week trip to St. Petersburg, Moscow, and Tallinn, Estonia. For all of us, this was our inaugural Russian visit. The Russian winter was, as advertised, brutally cold. We all stayed with different families, and my thick parka felt like paper as I struggled from our van into the very gloomy looking apartment block where my host family resided. The halls were dingy and dirty, the elevator creaked and groaned, and it was lit by a dim bulb, which swayed precariously as I went up. Yet when my host family’s door swung open, all was warmth and light.

The apartment, which accommodated my hosts Victor, his wife Tatayana, and their three-year old daughter Paullina, was small, but it was bright, colorfully decorated, and warm! Though the Russian winter was bitter, the abundance of Russian natural gas, as my hosts told me, enabled them to live comfortably for but a few rubles a month. Yet the real warmth was from the glow of their welcome to me, and the joy they took in our meeting.

It was the first anniversary of the Soviet Union’s collapse, and once they found out that I was a professor of politics interested in Russia, Victor and Tatayana began a night-long conversation. They bubbled over at the chance to discuss politics with a foreigner (especially an academic) about the developments of the past year, and, of course, about President Yeltsin in particular. They were giddy with their new freedoms: the abilities to host a foreigner, to talk openly about politics, to travel, and to have maps.

Yes, maps. It seems like a small thing, but in communist Russia there were no maps (or phone books for that matter). Now Victor and Tatayana were using world maps as decorations, and they were able to contemplate an entirely new world. In addition to detailing their new-found positives, they also confided that the first year of Russian democracy had not been easy for them. Prices for bread and milk were up, and they seemed to each have at least two jobs. The rapid and harsh transition to a free market, the so called Shock Therapy, had been, as Victor succinctly put it, “All shock with not much therapy.” And yet, despite the challenges, they believed that the struggle was well worth it … being free was worth it … building a better Russia for their daughter was worth it. Tatayana noted, “As if we can breathe again.” 

It was most interesting to see that, although they joked about Yeltsin (and his already well known proclivity for drink, coupled with less than firm leadership) they credited him, and not his communist predecessor Mikhail Gorbachev, with their new life. Gorbachev, between 1986 and 1991, may have ushered in glasnost (openness) and perestroika (economic change), which triggered the Soviet Union’s collapse, but for my happy Russian host family, it was Boris Yeltsin, a true democrat, who had made Russian democracy possible, bumpy though its initial months had been.

In August of 1993, I was back in Russia, and, visiting my friends again, found that, like most Russians, Victor and Tatayana were less happy, and less satisfied than they had been with the evolution of the new Russia. They were frustrated with the worsening stalemate between Yeltsin and the Russian parliament. Yeltsin seemed to be drifting as the economy worsened, the ruble dropped in value, and parliament was controlled by, as Victor put it, a “red / old communist and brown / fascist alliance who wants to bring down Yeltsin and end democracy.”

Tanks shell the Russian Parliament building in October 1993 on Yeltsin's orders

Tanks shell the Russian Parliament building in October 1993 on Yeltsin’s orders

Indeed, two months later, in October 1993, this loose coalition staged a coup attempt, taking over the parliament building and holding it with its own militia. The most controversial moment of Yeltsin’s presidency followed with stunning suddenness. Back in the States, I watched the violence unfold in places where I had visited just two months prior. The army remained loyal to Yeltsin, and in what was perhaps the most controversial act of his tenure, he sent troops and tanks to forcefully end the uprising.

Reviewing sentiments expressed about Yeltsin at his death, many remain troubled by his willingness to use force in this instance, even though it was to defend democracy. The New York Times noted that “ordering tanks to fire on the Parliament” was one of the most negative aspects of his “bequest” to Russia. (Editorial. “Boris Yeltsin’s Bequest.” New York Times, 24 May 2007)

Even today, it is difficult to view the video of tanks blasting the legislature on Yeltsin’s orders without feeling troubled. Yet considering that the danger from an extremist coalition had looked very real, and that Russians (and most other countries) supported Yeltsin’s actions, one can argue that Yeltsin did what was necessary to defend the young Russian democracy. What I saw and heard from Russians at the time of my visit was a supreme frustration that neither Yeltsin nor the Parliament would yield, and the whole country was threatened.

During that fateful summer, though, Russians that I talked with did not believe that the confrontation would end in bloodshed. Defend democracy by force? Unheard of. We discussed the question, after viewing the video of the October 1993 fighting, in my Russian Politics class this past spring. My students were willing to exonerate Yeltsin and I am inclined to agree with them. “It may look different now,” said one, “but then, he had to do it.” That said, Russians are less forgiving, even at Yeltsin’s death. “Yeltsin attacked the Parliament,” writes Alexei Bayer, “in a situation where simultaneous presidential and parliamentary elections were the obvious democratic solution.” (“The Proper Resting Place”, by Alexei Bayer, The Moscow Times, 27 April 2007) 

If Russians did reluctantly support Yeltsin in October 1993, when he stood for re-election in 1996, the country was wary of yet more economic rollercoaster rides; a burgeoning corruption which stemmed from market reforms which seemed to increase the poverty level of many, while lining the pockets of a few fortunate businessmen. By the time I returned to Russia in June 1996, there seemed a very real possibility that Yeltsin would lose to his opponent from the revitalized Communist Party, Gennady Zyuganov. It seemed impossible that the party, so thoroughly discredited with the Soviet collapse barely five years before, was poised to retake power via the Russian presidential election. Zyuganov made inroads by emphasizing Yeltsin’s poor economic choices, and using film of the October 1993 fighting in his campaign ads.

In response, Yeltsin pushed his campaign into overdrive, especially after the first voting round when Zyuganov trailed by only 35- to 32 percent, thereby forcing a runoff election. The streets of Moscow and St. Petersburg became a veritable forest of Yeltsin signs and billboards. Television stations played endless pro-Yeltsin documentaries and commercials. Many of them sought to remind older Russians, who tended to lean to the communists, of how bad it was during communist times. They focused on the Gulags and other depredations of the communist era, as Zyuganov virtually disappeared from news reports on the election campaign. And for the young voters, there were concerts. Imagine Red Square, the famous spires of St. Basil’s Cathedral on one side, opposite the imposing Kremlin walls, with Lenin’s Tomb at the far end, with loud rock music blasting from speakers on a huge stage. There was dancing, food, free Yeltsin t-shirts, and a carnival-like atmosphere … quite similar to some American political rallies that I’ve attended.

It all worked. Yeltsin won the second round and re-election, defeating Zyuganov by 10 percentage points (53 to 43). The communist threat was defeated, but at a disturbing cost. In 1996, the Russian media showed that it could be bought and bullied by the politicians. It headed down the proverbial slippery slope, only to end up in Vladimir Putin’s present day Russia as mostly mute ward of the state. And, as in 1993, Russians were concerned that democracy was seriously threatened. In 1993 they feared a communist-rightist alliance; in 1996 they feared a communist victory in a free election would ultimately plunge them into a new era of repression.

Today, to revisit Yeltsin’s crisis responses, and remember the corruption of the ‘90s, the crime, and Yeltsin’s vacillation between bursts of activity and bouts of aimlessness (along with the brutal wars waged in the breakaway province of Chechnya) provides a gloomy picture of Yeltsin’s legacy. Indeed, Yeltsin’s stunning resignation and the elevation of Vladimir Putin to the presidency on 31 December 1999 was, in a way, Yeltsin’s admission that he had finally lost control, and that Russians needed new, firm leadership. They got that in Putin, and because of this, Putin is considered by many to be the largest negative item on Yeltsin’s balance sheet based on Putin’s enhancement all the anti-democratic and authoritarian trends which began to grow during Yeltsin’s tenure.

The wrangling over Yeltsin, his presidency, and his legacy began while he served, continues unabated since his death. During the ‘90s, Russians often echoed two feelings: “Gorbachev and Yeltsin destroyed our country” and “Yeltsin hated Russia and loved America too much.” Today, opinions are no less pointed. In The Moscow Times of 27 April 2007, Alexei Pankin argues that Yeltsin was, “of the same breed (as Lenin). He knew no limits in his thirst for revenge and power.” (“The Proper Resting Place.”) The next day, Alexei Bayer wrote that “Instead of smashing the power of the old bureaucratic party apparatus, reformers and new entrepreneurs began working hand-in-glove with the system to pillage its assets.” (“Both Creator and Creation of a System.” The Moscow Some in the west agree with that view. Political pundit Fareed Zakaria believes Yeltsin “made all the wrong moves and made Russia less free.” ( “Boris Yeltsin’s Wrong Moves.” Newsweek, 7 May 2007)

Conversely, Victor Sonkin and Andrei Illarionov extol Yeltsin’s legacy; Sonkin writes that under Yeltsin “there was never a hint of censorship . . . newspapers and magazines mushroomed everywhere.” (“On coming to power in 1991, Boris Yeltsin broke with Soviet tradition and ushered in a new attitude toward culture.” The Moscow, 27 April 2007). Illarionov notes that Yeltsin “clung to power and then surrendered it for Russia. He pulled the country out of communism, out of empire and out of its past—for the future. He pushed it forward, toward civilization, openness and freedom.” (“In the End, Yeltsin Went the Way of Freedom.” The Moscow, 28 April 2007). The Times (London) holds a view close to my own. “Critics . . . may dwell on missed chances and false hopes . . . But in the war of ideas that continues to shape the contemporary world, Boris Yeltsin was a towering force for good. (Quoted in the St. Petersburg Times 27 April 2007).

I recall my conversation from August 1993, with an English speaking bus driver on a trip outside of Moscow. His family, especially his grandparents, was having some economic problems, but he focused on Russians’ freedom to vote, to choose, and on the fact that Gorbachev and Yeltsin had “removed the fear” from which Russians suffered for so long. I remember that conversation, and others, especially with my Russian friends in St. Petersburg. Even at their gloomiest, they would return to the idea of being free. This is what Yeltsin stood for, and underpins my more positive, and lasting, view of him.

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