While there is much debate about the Boris Yeltsin’s checkered legacy, there is no debate about the towering influence he exerted on his country. He was a larger-than-life figure who changed Russia like no other leader had since 1917 when Vladimir Lenin led the Bolsheviks to power.
Who can forget the iconic image of Yeltsin’s mounting a tank outside the so-called 'White House' in Moscow in 1991, defying the hard-line Communist coup-plotters trying to overthrow Mikhail Gorbachev? Or Yeltsin’s ordering tanks to open fire on that very same building just two years later as he brutally put down a parliamentary challenge to his own power? And lest we forget, there is the disbanding of the Soviet Union, a process he instigated.
There were also other memorable events, not so flattering. Like the time Yeltsin snatched the baton from a band conductor in Germany, proceeding to comically wave it around. Or the time when he failed to get off his plane in Ireland to meet that nation’s waiting prime minister. There were several bouts of public stumbling as well. Each time, drunkenness was rumored to be the problem.
While I wasn’t in Russia early on in Yeltsin’s career, I lived and worked there for 10 of the last 12 years of his life and covered much of his presidency. I saw first-hand that Russia’s transition from Communism to free-market democracy under Yeltsin was a rough one.
A rocky ride
Yeltsin’s program of economic shock therapy was so painful that critics charged there was plenty of shock but precious little therapy – hyper-inflation wiped out ordinary people’s life savings. Enormous state assets were “privatized” at rock-bottom prices and tens of thousands lost their jobs. The country was plagued by bloody turf battles as organized crime seemed to wrap its tentacles around the entire nation. And military conflict erupted in Russia’s Chechnya region.
Yeltsin got much of the blame for these problems and others, leaving his poll numbers close to single-digits by the end of his first term. In early 1996, he nevertheless announced plans for a second term; he would face the leader of the newly resurgent Communists. They owed their Post-Soviet comeback to the misery people endured under Yeltsin.
With the stark choice of a return to Communism or four more years of Yeltsin, the Russian media opted for Yeltsin, throwing their support behind him. He then launched an energetic, Western-style campaign, traversing the gargantuan expanses of his realm.
I traveled on many of these trips as part of the official press pool, going from the White Sea in the north to the Black Sea in the south, and from a former Gulag mining town above the Arctic Circle to a Soviet-era research city in Siberia, with other stops in between. It was thousands of miles of travel in just a couple of weeks.
Though this sort of campaigning was alien to Russia, Yeltsin was at his best when he was among the people and it was quite a success. Being a large man, he was an imposing physical presence and commanded the attention of audiences everywhere. He spoke plainly and directly, connecting with people in a way that few others could.
Once at a declining timber mill in the city of Arkhangelsk, Yeltsin met with workers on the factory floor. There were well over 100 of them and they told him all they needed was modern equipment to turn the place around. He lectured them in the sternest terms about doing their part and not expecting others to come to their rescue and do it for them; they listened in intimidated silence.
I found myself wondering how he’d ever get them to vote for him the way he was berating them. After peppering them with critical, rhetorical questions, he announced that he would get them their new equipment — all of it — and put it on the Kremlin’s tab. But he added that he’d be checking up on them later to make sure that they kept their end of the bargain and used it to turn the mill around.
He seemed to win them over to the man through this odd mix of bullying and beneficence, reminiscent of the way the czars ran imperial Russia.
Yeltsin connected with people time and time again during that campaign – at factories, in auditoriums, in schools, on street corners and even at a rock concert.
That event was late in the campaign, on a sweltering day in the southern city of Rostov-on-the-Don. The press pool had been taken to a stadium and out came Yeltsin onto the stage. After a bit of chitchat with the band he told them to play some music. They obliged and suddenly there was the burly president, a silver-haired man in his sixties, dancing with the band. Since Yeltsin was constantly plagued by health woes, it seemed a calculated attempted to demonstrate his physical fitness, not to mention his hipness.
But those campaign trips were grueling – crisscrossing Russia from one end to the other – even those of us in press pool were physically exhausted from the travel. And being that we were considerably younger than Yeltsin, I wondered how he was holding up.
It did not take long to find out. A few weeks after the last trip, he was unable to vote publicly on Election Day. The Kremlin press service said that he had a sore throat and a cold. Despite winning the election, he was out of the public eye for months.
‘Working on documents’
Only much later was the real reason made public: Yeltsin had suffered a heart attack during the campaign. By the end of the year, he underwent heart bypass surgery, forcing him to temporarily transfer power to his prime minister.
Despite the operation, Yeltsin was dogged by health problems. His press spokesmen explained his lengthy absences by saying that he was, quote, “working on documents,” which we in the media community quickly turned into a jocular jab at anyone in our own ranks who had not been seen for a while: he must be working on documents.
The second term of Yeltsin’s presidency was more erratic than the first. He appointed and removed a succession of prime ministers and cabinet ministers, and made rash public statements, once talking of possible world war with NATO countries because of their military campaign in Kosovo.
Then in his New Year’s address on Dec. 31, 1999, Yeltsin stunned the world, announcing that he was stepping down before his term expired. He named his then prime minister, and former KGB spy, Vladimir Putin to replace him.
Dynamic, democratic change - no small feat
After that, Yeltsin enjoyed a relatively uneventful retirement, largely removed from the public eye. Periodically he would appear on Russian television news, taking in a book fair or visiting with fellow, retired world leaders.
He was always referred to by the state-run broadcasters as the “first president of a free Russia,” in a nod to his favored status with the current occupant of the Kremlin.
By appointing his successor, Yeltsin made certain that he would not face prosecution for some of his more egregious policy blunders — to the dismay of his critics. But despite his failings, and they were by any objective measure many, Yeltsin had tangible achievements as well.
Russia has arguably never known such freedom as it did under Yeltsin, not before and not since. He helped to throw the Soviet Union onto the scrap heap of history. There was dynamic, democratic change and he even allowed the Communists to regain influence in parliament. There was real freedom of the press, despite the fact that Yeltsin often was on the receiving end of barbs from the media, and he opened the doors of his country so that Russians were free to come and go as they wished.
Nevertheless, Yeltsin is largely looked down upon in Russia. The country lost its place on the world stage during his tenure and the prestige that came with it. The Russian people lived through privations that they never imagined possible.
Many of the freedoms Yeltsin introduced have been curtailed by Putin. But Russia is now enjoying a stability that eluded it under Yeltsin, which explains Putin’s popularity.
Though since Yeltsin appointed Putin as his successor in the first place, perhaps that ought to be a check mark in the plus column for the late president.