Daily Archives: April 26, 2007

Remembering Yeltsin I: Another Original LR Translation

La Russophobe‘s original translator offers the following remembrances of Boris N. Yeltsin from hero journalist Yuliya Latynina, from the pages of Yezhedevniy Zhurnal (an abridged version of this article was also translated for publication in the Moscow Times).

A Great President Has Died

Yuliya Latynina

Yezhednevniy Zhurnal

April 23, 2007

Boris Yeltsin, one of the greatest leaders of Russia, has died. His greatness was not in his being a decisive liberal reformer, like Alexander II; nor in his hacking a window into Europe, like Peter I; nor in his making Russia an enlightened European country, like Catherine II. The greatness of Boris Yeltsin — the peasant’s son, the Party boss, the ruler, the passionate lover of power – was that he had an inborn sense of freedom.

This sense of freedom, joined with a massive personality, was common in Party bosses – Aleksandr Yakovlev, Eduard Shevardnadze – but completely lacking in the majors and lieutenant colonels of the KGB, who plied their trade in those days from embassy to embassy with red caviar, vodka and little denunciations. Exactly this sense of freedom led Yeltsin to his expulsion in the late 1980’s, and to the barricades in 1991, and never once allowed him to cancel elections, manipulate their results or close television stations.

Everything becomes known by comparison. Yeltsin was accused of corruption. But the most that history will produce against him are a few doubtful case-files of his daughter and son-in-law who headed Aeroflot. By whatever means men like Friedman, Khodorkovskiy and Potanin might have come to own half of Russia, it was not because they shared an office with Yeltsin.

What a contrast with the Russia of today. A Russia in which all of President Putin’s friends, everyone who served with him in the KGB or joined him in the “Ozero” (“Lake”) Cooperative, have received stakes in Russian gas, oil, uranium, military equipment, railroad and other companies. [TN: The “Ozero” Dacha Cooperative, co-founded by Putin in 1996, included many of the highest-level business and criminal figures in Saint Petersburg at that time, including Vladimir Smirnov, Vladimir Yakunin, the brothers Sergey and Andrey Fursenko, Viktor Myachin, Yuriy Kovalchuk and Nikolay Shamalov – all of whom have since been appointed to high-level posts in the Russian government or as heads of government-owned companies. ]

The press fiercely criticized Yeltsin for the Chechen War. The mass media ridiculed the dancing, drunken Yeltsin in Germany, and Yeltsin’s story about the 38 snipers. [TN: In 1996, in connection with the Kizlyar Hospital hostage crisis, Yeltsin on national television gave a rambling, mostly incoherent briefing about the Russian military response, in which he mentioned the use of “38 snipers”.] But for some reason, no journalists were killed in the entryway to their apartments for this, and no television executives were put in jail.

What a contrast with the Russia of today. A Russia in which no one dares to criticize President Putin out loud. And we hear nothing from President Putin himself, because he is not in the habit of reaching out to the people during times of national crisis or other important occasions for the nation.

Yeltsin has been criticized for the breakup of the USSR. This is hard to say, because if the USSR had not broken up peacefully, it would have broken up in the manner of Yugoslavia – in a growing sea of blood in every one of its republics. But under Yeltsin, one way or another, Russia held a central role in the CIS, and was an equal partner in the West. We sometimes had to blush at our drunken president, but we never had to live in terror because of an infantile president.

What a contrast with the policies of President Putin: beginning with presidential wrath at the robbery of some Russian diplomats’ children in Poland, which resulted in the vicious beating of Polish diplomats in Moscow; and ending with a turn of phrase about citizens of “certain nationalities”, which lead to the mass deportation of Georgians. The result of these policies is that we now no longer have any friendly countries on our borders. Yeltsin brought the country into the “Group of Eight”, Putin – to the brink of becoming a pariah state.

Yeltsin made a lot of small mistakes: he inconsistently pursued reforms, stayed with Korzhakov too long, then Berezovskiy. Yeltsin also committed one fundamental mistake: he never reformed the intelligence and security services (siloviki). At first he did not think he needed to. Under Yeltsin, the role of the all-powerful silovik was played by Aleksandr Korzhakov, who opposed holding elections in 1996. This is an iconic story for the siloviki: they did not want the president to be dependent on the people for his power. They wanted the president to be dependent only on them.

So when the elections happened and Yeltsin entered his second term, Korzhakov did everything to spoil the elections – with boxes from under the copy machine. The President sent him into retirement, and a few days later suffered a severe heart attack. But Yeltsin nonetheless made his choice – between being dependent on Korzhakov and being dependent on the people. A few years later, following the arrest of Khodorkovskiy, President Putin would make exactly the opposite choice.

But only around 1998 did Yeltsin realize that while he had only poorly reformed the economy, he had not touched the siloviki at all, and this entire horde of employees of the Prosecutors Office, FSB, MVD, all converted into a corporation with many shareholders, subsidiaries and affiliates, all of these colonels and generals, who supplied the oligarchs with girls or factories, attacked Yeltsin under the slogan, “They stole the country”. A slogan which actually boiled down to: “They stole the country, and didn’t give us anything”.

Yeltsin tried to remedy his situation. At first he appointed as head of his Administration the silovik Bordyuzh, but he did nothing. Then the President appointed as head of the government the silovik Sergey Stepashin, but he decided to just get along with everyone. And then the President appointed as head of the government yet another silovik – Vladimir Putin.

Short indeed was the list of siloviki who might be considered in even small measure liberals.

President Yeltsin loved equally both power and freedom. He knew that newspapers were one thing, history another. He did not want to go down in history as the first dictator of Russia. He did not dole out Russian companies to his cronies, did not poison his enemies with polonium or throw them in prison, did not close opposition television stations or pervert the purpose of elections. For this he was laughed at on the television, and Prosecutor Skuratov, when he wasn’t visiting prostitutes, rummaged around in the files of his daughters. President Putin learned from the mistakes of Yeltsin. No one laughs at President Putin on the television. But the question is what will history say about Putin?

True, President Yeltsin did not create very much. He was not much for economics, caused a default, and did not reform the siloviki. But he was a free man, and he shared that freedom with all of us. Under Yeltsin, for the first time in the 20th century, a free society appeared in Russia, and this free society remains free to this day, despite the closed television stations, the seized assets and the Chekisti at the head of government.

Even President Putin will not be able to turn this free society into a unitary enterprise and place at its head an old buddy from the “Ozero” cooperative.

Remembering Yeltsin II: Zaxi Blog

The billingual Zaxi blog offers the following reflections on Boris N. Yeltsin:

Boris Yeltsin’s rickety heart finally failed him Monday at the age of 76 – Russia’s misbehaving first president outliving both doctors’ prognoses and the wilted fruit of his democratic revolution by nearly a decade.

Perhaps no other major world figure’s passing was easier on newspaper editors. More or less each has had a Yeltsin death package waiting since 1996 and it may be a shock that none actually made it to print amid the endless rumors of his various critical ailments. Not much happened to the burly man after Russian bankers used US aid funds to rig the media and carry him to a second term in the face of a Communist threat that year. He hid from view as the economy crumbled and his “family” pilfered. Yeltsin passed the baton on to Vladimir Putin amid chaos as Russia’s most blamed and ridiculed figure – a caricature of incompetence whose ultimate goal was to avoid jail. His last policy statements were watched not for content but coherence. One speech ended when Yeltsin nearly tipped over while standing next to Alexander Lukashenko. Another stopped in mid-sentence when Yeltsin clearly had no comprehension of what he was reading.

“What, is that all?” he asked while twisting the little booklet with his speech every which way and looking for more words to read. An aide rushed over to point at the final period. “That’s all,” Yeltsin added apologetically to confused silence. He read the closing sentence fragment one more time and the Kremlin hall scattered into applause once reserved for Brezhnev.

It is telling that both episodes aired on national television news. Yeltsin was reviled so much in part because Russia was still free to witness its leader’s failings while he bumped into Kremlin walls in his boozy haze. He somehow managed to shed both 10 pounds and 10 years once the burden of the presidency lifted.

zaxi met the man for a day in the summer of 1998 when Yeltsin was enjoying a spurt of vigor and his entourage was mulling a rewrite of the Constitution to keep itself in power past 2000. Yeltsin was wheeled out a few hundred miles east to test the waters in Kostroma. The sleepy city’s electricity was fully restored for the occasion that week. Every surface was repainted – except for a road-sign marking the exit from town that had been spray-painted to indicate “An end to Yeltsin.”

He was led into a linen factory to the awe of the apron-wearing ladies inside. One could not contain her excitement and stepped toward Yeltsin with open arms and a shriek of “Boris Nikolayevich.” Yeltsin’s expression convulsed into horror and he backpedaled several steps in fright. He eventually regained his composure to demand curtly why the machines were not all the same size. The quick-witted director replied that some were made to weave children’s clothing. “I guess that’s alright then,” Yeltsin said gruffly.

He later quizzed a quivering man over how many calves were born per 100 cows on his dairy farm. The man whispered 88. Yeltsin asked why not 99. The man started stammering into the television cameras. “Don’t give me your excuses,” Yeltsin said. “I heard those from the Bolsheviks.” The man did not stir for several minutes after Yeltsin’s entourage had spun off.

Boris Nikolayevich Yeltsin was not a compassionate tsar.

He ruled – health permitting – with the purpose and intimidation of a Urals construction site boss and Communist apparatchik. Yeltsin bullied his enemies and set potential rivals off against each other by surrounding himself with opposing clans while the country sputtered. He changed governments like dirty socks to avoid blame and eventually left state affairs in his daughter’s hands.

Yet Yeltsin’s stubbornness also made the world into a safer place – permanently changing the map of Europe – and offered Russians their first taste of choice and self-determination.

Yeltsin separated the world into good and evil like a child and let no one convince him otherwise. Communism was a devil that had to be quashed by any and all means possible. A free press was a cherished ally whose existence justified itself. The Soviet economic corpse had to handed to the young for resurrection and the West was a partner whose friendship had been forbidden for so long.

He braved coups and potential death for treason by letting the Soviet republics go their own way and removing nuclear weapons from large swathes of the globe.

And Yeltsin embraced a world that only knew Moscow for its succession of senile geriatrics. He spanked the disbelieving leaders of (West) Germany and Japan with birch tree branches in Siberian banyas. Yeltsin flirted with the Queen of Denmark and once promised Europe in a fit of passion that Russia would no longer point nuclear arms its way.

The fact that Russia had no longer been doing so for a number of years confused matters and briefly put the West on heightened alert. But Yeltsin’s heart was in the right place even if his upbringing prevented him from measuring words or consequences.

And Yeltsin fell into depressions like a child when things did not work out as planned. His need to abandon Anatoly Chubais and Yegor Gaidar as the pain of shock therapy took hold left him with no natural alternative to “good” reforms not working. Yeltsin’s decision to shell parliament’s Communists with tanks in 1993 and simultaneous introduction of an autocratic Constitution through a falsified vote left his democratic credential in question.

His resulting policy void and mental anguish was filled by hard drinking old KGB buddies and army generals who eventually tempted Yeltsin into “a small victorious war” in Chechnya aimed at resurrecting his standing. He was struck by his first secret heart attack the week Russian tanks rolled to their fiery graves in Grozny in December 1994.

From then on his power rested in the myth of his larger than life image – a barely walking icon propped up by an increasingly anguished West and abused by ever more savage robber barons that Yeltsin gifted with the Red Directors’ industries in return for support.

“I want this guy to win so bad it hurts,” Bill Clinton said as Yeltsin – suffering another heart attack – lay hidden from public view by a bought-off media days before the 1996 election.

Many reporters later said they would have supported Yeltsin even if their bosses were not now the oligarchs who fought the actual battle for survival. And therein lay the mystery of Yeltsin’s charisma. He nurtured a free media so that it could abuse its privilege in the name of what it saw as a greater cause. His turn from Communism was so radical that it left the country’s economy hostage to the whims of the few who rallied around Yeltsin in its place. And his natural appeal to the people eventually scared and embarrassed a president who intrinsically felt that he had let the nation down.

His mental state was severely impaired by the time Yeltsin left the fate of Russia’s democracy to a KGB man on December 31, 1999.

Thus a shade of Russia’s innocence passed with Yeltsin – but it expired long before his death.

Remembering Yeltsin III: Kiselyov’s Take

Writing in the Moscow Times, pundit Yevegeny Kiselyov gives his take on Yeltsin:

In London there is an attractive statue of Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt in a kind of casual style, with the two statesmen cast in bronze and reclining on a bench in a little square separating New Bond Street from Old Bond Street. The British capital also has an “official” monument to the British prime minister and the U.S. president, but I find the one with them on the bench warmer and smile whenever passing it in London.

No doubt a grandiose monument to Russia’s first president will be erected in Moscow. But if it were up to me, I would erect another — a life-size bronze of Yeltsin in his younger days, waiting for a trolleybus at the stop near the Sheraton Hotel on 1st Tverskaya-Yamskaya Ulitsa.

The stop is across the street from the building where Boris Yeltsin lived when he became the head of the Moscow City Committee of the Communist Party at the end of 1985. Rumors soon began circulating that the new city chief was doing some surprising things. Capitalizing on the fact that nobody yet knew his face, Yeltsin would study life in Moscow by riding the trolleybuses and visiting the stores, cleaners and repair shops to talk to people about their daily lives.

This is not just some populist legend. Years later, while working on the documentary film “The President of All Russia,” I found archival footage from a Western television company that actually showed Yeltsin on a trolleybus speaking with the passengers, walking the streets without bodyguards, entering an ordinary medical clinic, and examining the goods on a store’s display counter.

Many of today’s jaded politicians might, indeed, dismiss this as primitive populism. They would probably be right. But in the context of a Soviet Union that had yet to begin extricating itself from the stagnation of Leonid Brezhnev’s times, it was such an unexpected and fresh approach that it rapidly made Yeltsin popular among Muscovites.

His popularity reached such heights that when, in 1987, Yeltsin fell out with Mikhail Gorbachev, who forced him to resign saying, “I will not let you into politics again,” it was only a matter of time before the future president would stage a triumphant return.

Yeltsin was a true political animal in the most positive sense of the word. He had an amazing instinct for what people expected from him in critical situations.

Finding himself in disgrace after the clash with Gorbachev, Yeltsin understood that people were tired of endless talk about perestroika and the return to true socialism. It wasn’t enough. The people wanted to go further, to a chance for freedom and the end of communism, and Yeltsin understood it.

In his now-famous last address as president, on New Year’s Eve 1999, Yeltsin asked Russians to forgive him for everything he had not managed to accomplish. Those were exactly the words the people had wanted to hear. I am certain that not a single one of his advisers, assistants or speechwriters, all of whom loved him and trembled before him, would have ever dared to pen the words. The words were Yeltsin’s.

Being in the limelight did not come easily for him, but he gave it his all while trying to be different from the verbose and endlessly vacillating Gorbachev. I later saw some amazing documentary footage shot by director Alexander Sokrov during Yeltsin’s late-1980s period of disgrace. The camera showed him sitting alone on the steps of a dacha, clasping his head in his hands, with his heavy thoughts bringing forth a physical reaction of suffering. It is hard to believe the same person would one day throw back his shoulders, march assuredly across the hall during what turned out to be the last congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, mount the dais and drive home the words of his resignation from the Party like so many nails in its coffin.

In contrast to his successor, President Vladimir Putin, whose ability to remain poised before television cameras might be his greatest strength, Yeltsin was uncomfortable in front of the cameras. His former assistants say that his prep time before broadcasts was long and tortured, and that he nevertheless often felt so unsure of himself that taping would sometimes have to be halted and started again from the beginning. Indeed, when I taped my first one-on-one interview with Yeltsin in 1993, I was surprised at how nervous he was before the interview begun. Once the cameras started rolling, Yeltsin suddenly radiated strength and self-confidence.

His ability to pull himself together and gather his strength in times when resolution was needed was one of his defining qualities. In August 1991, already having been elected the president of the Russian Soviet Republic, it was clear to everyone that this would be the leader of the new country when Yeltsin climbed up on a tank outside the White House to tell the organizers of the putsch that their actions were illegal.

Another occasion on which Yeltsin impressed me was that unforgettable moment on the eve of the second decisive round of the 1996 presidential elections, when he stepped out of the Kremlin and told journalists he was firing his chief of security and one of his closest and most dedicated colleagues, General Alexander Korzhakov. In the conflict between his chief bodyguard, who advocated canceling the election, which would have violated the Constitution, and his election committee members, who maintained he could win without breaking the law, Yeltsin sided with those who had helped him finish on top in the first round.

While he spoke, Yeltsin’s face remained inscrutable — something that happens when people are grieving deeply. His wife, Naina, later said in an interview, “When Boris Nikolayevich parted ways with [Korzhakov], he felt as if he were losing a family member.” After making his announcement, Yeltsin’s face quite unexpectedly broke into a smile, and he said, “Why are you standing around? Run quickly and convey the news! I have given you a hot story!”

Today, there is much debate whether Yeltsin was ever really committed to democracy. Winston Churchill used to liken dictatorship to an ocean liner sailing smoothly across the horizon and appearing invulnerable. He would point out, however, that one well-placed torpedo could send it to the bottom without a trace. Democracy, on the other hand, was like a dingy pitching and rolling with every wave. Because it reflected the will of the people, Churchill said, the dingy was damn near unsinkable. You stay afloat in a democracy, but your feet are always in the water.

I don’t know if Yeltsin was familiar with the analogy, but I am certain his commitment to democratic principles was nourished by the instincts of a born politician. He felt and understood well what Churchill was talking about: There is no more reliable way to govern than by a democratic system. There is no better way to be treated well by history than to stand on the side of democracy.

Will Yeltsin’s death snap the last rope still anchoring Putin’s boat to the shore of democracy? Or will the opposite occur? Standing over his predecessor’ coffin, will the president of Russia be compelled to confirm his fidelity to democratic principles and to halting the country’s prolonged drift in the opposite direction? We may get an idea as early as Thursday, when Putin delivers his annual state-of-the-nation address.


Remembering Yeltsin III: Kiselyov’s Take

Writing in the Moscow Times, pundit Yevegeny Kiselyov gives his take on Yeltsin:

In London there is an attractive statue of Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt in a kind of casual style, with the two statesmen cast in bronze and reclining on a bench in a little square separating New Bond Street from Old Bond Street. The British capital also has an “official” monument to the British prime minister and the U.S. president, but I find the one with them on the bench warmer and smile whenever passing it in London.

No doubt a grandiose monument to Russia’s first president will be erected in Moscow. But if it were up to me, I would erect another — a life-size bronze of Yeltsin in his younger days, waiting for a trolleybus at the stop near the Sheraton Hotel on 1st Tverskaya-Yamskaya Ulitsa.

The stop is across the street from the building where Boris Yeltsin lived when he became the head of the Moscow City Committee of the Communist Party at the end of 1985. Rumors soon began circulating that the new city chief was doing some surprising things. Capitalizing on the fact that nobody yet knew his face, Yeltsin would study life in Moscow by riding the trolleybuses and visiting the stores, cleaners and repair shops to talk to people about their daily lives.

This is not just some populist legend. Years later, while working on the documentary film “The President of All Russia,” I found archival footage from a Western television company that actually showed Yeltsin on a trolleybus speaking with the passengers, walking the streets without bodyguards, entering an ordinary medical clinic, and examining the goods on a store’s display counter.

Many of today’s jaded politicians might, indeed, dismiss this as primitive populism. They would probably be right. But in the context of a Soviet Union that had yet to begin extricating itself from the stagnation of Leonid Brezhnev’s times, it was such an unexpected and fresh approach that it rapidly made Yeltsin popular among Muscovites.

His popularity reached such heights that when, in 1987, Yeltsin fell out with Mikhail Gorbachev, who forced him to resign saying, “I will not let you into politics again,” it was only a matter of time before the future president would stage a triumphant return.

Yeltsin was a true political animal in the most positive sense of the word. He had an amazing instinct for what people expected from him in critical situations.

Finding himself in disgrace after the clash with Gorbachev, Yeltsin understood that people were tired of endless talk about perestroika and the return to true socialism. It wasn’t enough. The people wanted to go further, to a chance for freedom and the end of communism, and Yeltsin understood it.

In his now-famous last address as president, on New Year’s Eve 1999, Yeltsin asked Russians to forgive him for everything he had not managed to accomplish. Those were exactly the words the people had wanted to hear. I am certain that not a single one of his advisers, assistants or speechwriters, all of whom loved him and trembled before him, would have ever dared to pen the words. The words were Yeltsin’s.

Being in the limelight did not come easily for him, but he gave it his all while trying to be different from the verbose and endlessly vacillating Gorbachev. I later saw some amazing documentary footage shot by director Alexander Sokrov during Yeltsin’s late-1980s period of disgrace. The camera showed him sitting alone on the steps of a dacha, clasping his head in his hands, with his heavy thoughts bringing forth a physical reaction of suffering. It is hard to believe the same person would one day throw back his shoulders, march assuredly across the hall during what turned out to be the last congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, mount the dais and drive home the words of his resignation from the Party like so many nails in its coffin.

In contrast to his successor, President Vladimir Putin, whose ability to remain poised before television cameras might be his greatest strength, Yeltsin was uncomfortable in front of the cameras. His former assistants say that his prep time before broadcasts was long and tortured, and that he nevertheless often felt so unsure of himself that taping would sometimes have to be halted and started again from the beginning. Indeed, when I taped my first one-on-one interview with Yeltsin in 1993, I was surprised at how nervous he was before the interview begun. Once the cameras started rolling, Yeltsin suddenly radiated strength and self-confidence.

His ability to pull himself together and gather his strength in times when resolution was needed was one of his defining qualities. In August 1991, already having been elected the president of the Russian Soviet Republic, it was clear to everyone that this would be the leader of the new country when Yeltsin climbed up on a tank outside the White House to tell the organizers of the putsch that their actions were illegal.

Another occasion on which Yeltsin impressed me was that unforgettable moment on the eve of the second decisive round of the 1996 presidential elections, when he stepped out of the Kremlin and told journalists he was firing his chief of security and one of his closest and most dedicated colleagues, General Alexander Korzhakov. In the conflict between his chief bodyguard, who advocated canceling the election, which would have violated the Constitution, and his election committee members, who maintained he could win without breaking the law, Yeltsin sided with those who had helped him finish on top in the first round.

While he spoke, Yeltsin’s face remained inscrutable — something that happens when people are grieving deeply. His wife, Naina, later said in an interview, “When Boris Nikolayevich parted ways with [Korzhakov], he felt as if he were losing a family member.” After making his announcement, Yeltsin’s face quite unexpectedly broke into a smile, and he said, “Why are you standing around? Run quickly and convey the news! I have given you a hot story!”

Today, there is much debate whether Yeltsin was ever really committed to democracy. Winston Churchill used to liken dictatorship to an ocean liner sailing smoothly across the horizon and appearing invulnerable. He would point out, however, that one well-placed torpedo could send it to the bottom without a trace. Democracy, on the other hand, was like a dingy pitching and rolling with every wave. Because it reflected the will of the people, Churchill said, the dingy was damn near unsinkable. You stay afloat in a democracy, but your feet are always in the water.

I don’t know if Yeltsin was familiar with the analogy, but I am certain his commitment to democratic principles was nourished by the instincts of a born politician. He felt and understood well what Churchill was talking about: There is no more reliable way to govern than by a democratic system. There is no better way to be treated well by history than to stand on the side of democracy.

Will Yeltsin’s death snap the last rope still anchoring Putin’s boat to the shore of democracy? Or will the opposite occur? Standing over his predecessor’ coffin, will the president of Russia be compelled to confirm his fidelity to democratic principles and to halting the country’s prolonged drift in the opposite direction? We may get an idea as early as Thursday, when Putin delivers his annual state-of-the-nation address.


Remembering Yeltsin III: Kiselyov’s Take

Writing in the Moscow Times, pundit Yevegeny Kiselyov gives his take on Yeltsin:

In London there is an attractive statue of Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt in a kind of casual style, with the two statesmen cast in bronze and reclining on a bench in a little square separating New Bond Street from Old Bond Street. The British capital also has an “official” monument to the British prime minister and the U.S. president, but I find the one with them on the bench warmer and smile whenever passing it in London.

No doubt a grandiose monument to Russia’s first president will be erected in Moscow. But if it were up to me, I would erect another — a life-size bronze of Yeltsin in his younger days, waiting for a trolleybus at the stop near the Sheraton Hotel on 1st Tverskaya-Yamskaya Ulitsa.

The stop is across the street from the building where Boris Yeltsin lived when he became the head of the Moscow City Committee of the Communist Party at the end of 1985. Rumors soon began circulating that the new city chief was doing some surprising things. Capitalizing on the fact that nobody yet knew his face, Yeltsin would study life in Moscow by riding the trolleybuses and visiting the stores, cleaners and repair shops to talk to people about their daily lives.

This is not just some populist legend. Years later, while working on the documentary film “The President of All Russia,” I found archival footage from a Western television company that actually showed Yeltsin on a trolleybus speaking with the passengers, walking the streets without bodyguards, entering an ordinary medical clinic, and examining the goods on a store’s display counter.

Many of today’s jaded politicians might, indeed, dismiss this as primitive populism. They would probably be right. But in the context of a Soviet Union that had yet to begin extricating itself from the stagnation of Leonid Brezhnev’s times, it was such an unexpected and fresh approach that it rapidly made Yeltsin popular among Muscovites.

His popularity reached such heights that when, in 1987, Yeltsin fell out with Mikhail Gorbachev, who forced him to resign saying, “I will not let you into politics again,” it was only a matter of time before the future president would stage a triumphant return.

Yeltsin was a true political animal in the most positive sense of the word. He had an amazing instinct for what people expected from him in critical situations.

Finding himself in disgrace after the clash with Gorbachev, Yeltsin understood that people were tired of endless talk about perestroika and the return to true socialism. It wasn’t enough. The people wanted to go further, to a chance for freedom and the end of communism, and Yeltsin understood it.

In his now-famous last address as president, on New Year’s Eve 1999, Yeltsin asked Russians to forgive him for everything he had not managed to accomplish. Those were exactly the words the people had wanted to hear. I am certain that not a single one of his advisers, assistants or speechwriters, all of whom loved him and trembled before him, would have ever dared to pen the words. The words were Yeltsin’s.

Being in the limelight did not come easily for him, but he gave it his all while trying to be different from the verbose and endlessly vacillating Gorbachev. I later saw some amazing documentary footage shot by director Alexander Sokrov during Yeltsin’s late-1980s period of disgrace. The camera showed him sitting alone on the steps of a dacha, clasping his head in his hands, with his heavy thoughts bringing forth a physical reaction of suffering. It is hard to believe the same person would one day throw back his shoulders, march assuredly across the hall during what turned out to be the last congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, mount the dais and drive home the words of his resignation from the Party like so many nails in its coffin.

In contrast to his successor, President Vladimir Putin, whose ability to remain poised before television cameras might be his greatest strength, Yeltsin was uncomfortable in front of the cameras. His former assistants say that his prep time before broadcasts was long and tortured, and that he nevertheless often felt so unsure of himself that taping would sometimes have to be halted and started again from the beginning. Indeed, when I taped my first one-on-one interview with Yeltsin in 1993, I was surprised at how nervous he was before the interview begun. Once the cameras started rolling, Yeltsin suddenly radiated strength and self-confidence.

His ability to pull himself together and gather his strength in times when resolution was needed was one of his defining qualities. In August 1991, already having been elected the president of the Russian Soviet Republic, it was clear to everyone that this would be the leader of the new country when Yeltsin climbed up on a tank outside the White House to tell the organizers of the putsch that their actions were illegal.

Another occasion on which Yeltsin impressed me was that unforgettable moment on the eve of the second decisive round of the 1996 presidential elections, when he stepped out of the Kremlin and told journalists he was firing his chief of security and one of his closest and most dedicated colleagues, General Alexander Korzhakov. In the conflict between his chief bodyguard, who advocated canceling the election, which would have violated the Constitution, and his election committee members, who maintained he could win without breaking the law, Yeltsin sided with those who had helped him finish on top in the first round.

While he spoke, Yeltsin’s face remained inscrutable — something that happens when people are grieving deeply. His wife, Naina, later said in an interview, “When Boris Nikolayevich parted ways with [Korzhakov], he felt as if he were losing a family member.” After making his announcement, Yeltsin’s face quite unexpectedly broke into a smile, and he said, “Why are you standing around? Run quickly and convey the news! I have given you a hot story!”

Today, there is much debate whether Yeltsin was ever really committed to democracy. Winston Churchill used to liken dictatorship to an ocean liner sailing smoothly across the horizon and appearing invulnerable. He would point out, however, that one well-placed torpedo could send it to the bottom without a trace. Democracy, on the other hand, was like a dingy pitching and rolling with every wave. Because it reflected the will of the people, Churchill said, the dingy was damn near unsinkable. You stay afloat in a democracy, but your feet are always in the water.

I don’t know if Yeltsin was familiar with the analogy, but I am certain his commitment to democratic principles was nourished by the instincts of a born politician. He felt and understood well what Churchill was talking about: There is no more reliable way to govern than by a democratic system. There is no better way to be treated well by history than to stand on the side of democracy.

Will Yeltsin’s death snap the last rope still anchoring Putin’s boat to the shore of democracy? Or will the opposite occur? Standing over his predecessor’ coffin, will the president of Russia be compelled to confirm his fidelity to democratic principles and to halting the country’s prolonged drift in the opposite direction? We may get an idea as early as Thursday, when Putin delivers his annual state-of-the-nation address.


Remembering Yeltsin III: Kiselyov’s Take

Writing in the Moscow Times, pundit Yevegeny Kiselyov gives his take on Yeltsin:

In London there is an attractive statue of Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt in a kind of casual style, with the two statesmen cast in bronze and reclining on a bench in a little square separating New Bond Street from Old Bond Street. The British capital also has an “official” monument to the British prime minister and the U.S. president, but I find the one with them on the bench warmer and smile whenever passing it in London.

No doubt a grandiose monument to Russia’s first president will be erected in Moscow. But if it were up to me, I would erect another — a life-size bronze of Yeltsin in his younger days, waiting for a trolleybus at the stop near the Sheraton Hotel on 1st Tverskaya-Yamskaya Ulitsa.

The stop is across the street from the building where Boris Yeltsin lived when he became the head of the Moscow City Committee of the Communist Party at the end of 1985. Rumors soon began circulating that the new city chief was doing some surprising things. Capitalizing on the fact that nobody yet knew his face, Yeltsin would study life in Moscow by riding the trolleybuses and visiting the stores, cleaners and repair shops to talk to people about their daily lives.

This is not just some populist legend. Years later, while working on the documentary film “The President of All Russia,” I found archival footage from a Western television company that actually showed Yeltsin on a trolleybus speaking with the passengers, walking the streets without bodyguards, entering an ordinary medical clinic, and examining the goods on a store’s display counter.

Many of today’s jaded politicians might, indeed, dismiss this as primitive populism. They would probably be right. But in the context of a Soviet Union that had yet to begin extricating itself from the stagnation of Leonid Brezhnev’s times, it was such an unexpected and fresh approach that it rapidly made Yeltsin popular among Muscovites.

His popularity reached such heights that when, in 1987, Yeltsin fell out with Mikhail Gorbachev, who forced him to resign saying, “I will not let you into politics again,” it was only a matter of time before the future president would stage a triumphant return.

Yeltsin was a true political animal in the most positive sense of the word. He had an amazing instinct for what people expected from him in critical situations.

Finding himself in disgrace after the clash with Gorbachev, Yeltsin understood that people were tired of endless talk about perestroika and the return to true socialism. It wasn’t enough. The people wanted to go further, to a chance for freedom and the end of communism, and Yeltsin understood it.

In his now-famous last address as president, on New Year’s Eve 1999, Yeltsin asked Russians to forgive him for everything he had not managed to accomplish. Those were exactly the words the people had wanted to hear. I am certain that not a single one of his advisers, assistants or speechwriters, all of whom loved him and trembled before him, would have ever dared to pen the words. The words were Yeltsin’s.

Being in the limelight did not come easily for him, but he gave it his all while trying to be different from the verbose and endlessly vacillating Gorbachev. I later saw some amazing documentary footage shot by director Alexander Sokrov during Yeltsin’s late-1980s period of disgrace. The camera showed him sitting alone on the steps of a dacha, clasping his head in his hands, with his heavy thoughts bringing forth a physical reaction of suffering. It is hard to believe the same person would one day throw back his shoulders, march assuredly across the hall during what turned out to be the last congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, mount the dais and drive home the words of his resignation from the Party like so many nails in its coffin.

In contrast to his successor, President Vladimir Putin, whose ability to remain poised before television cameras might be his greatest strength, Yeltsin was uncomfortable in front of the cameras. His former assistants say that his prep time before broadcasts was long and tortured, and that he nevertheless often felt so unsure of himself that taping would sometimes have to be halted and started again from the beginning. Indeed, when I taped my first one-on-one interview with Yeltsin in 1993, I was surprised at how nervous he was before the interview begun. Once the cameras started rolling, Yeltsin suddenly radiated strength and self-confidence.

His ability to pull himself together and gather his strength in times when resolution was needed was one of his defining qualities. In August 1991, already having been elected the president of the Russian Soviet Republic, it was clear to everyone that this would be the leader of the new country when Yeltsin climbed up on a tank outside the White House to tell the organizers of the putsch that their actions were illegal.

Another occasion on which Yeltsin impressed me was that unforgettable moment on the eve of the second decisive round of the 1996 presidential elections, when he stepped out of the Kremlin and told journalists he was firing his chief of security and one of his closest and most dedicated colleagues, General Alexander Korzhakov. In the conflict between his chief bodyguard, who advocated canceling the election, which would have violated the Constitution, and his election committee members, who maintained he could win without breaking the law, Yeltsin sided with those who had helped him finish on top in the first round.

While he spoke, Yeltsin’s face remained inscrutable — something that happens when people are grieving deeply. His wife, Naina, later said in an interview, “When Boris Nikolayevich parted ways with [Korzhakov], he felt as if he were losing a family member.” After making his announcement, Yeltsin’s face quite unexpectedly broke into a smile, and he said, “Why are you standing around? Run quickly and convey the news! I have given you a hot story!”

Today, there is much debate whether Yeltsin was ever really committed to democracy. Winston Churchill used to liken dictatorship to an ocean liner sailing smoothly across the horizon and appearing invulnerable. He would point out, however, that one well-placed torpedo could send it to the bottom without a trace. Democracy, on the other hand, was like a dingy pitching and rolling with every wave. Because it reflected the will of the people, Churchill said, the dingy was damn near unsinkable. You stay afloat in a democracy, but your feet are always in the water.

I don’t know if Yeltsin was familiar with the analogy, but I am certain his commitment to democratic principles was nourished by the instincts of a born politician. He felt and understood well what Churchill was talking about: There is no more reliable way to govern than by a democratic system. There is no better way to be treated well by history than to stand on the side of democracy.

Will Yeltsin’s death snap the last rope still anchoring Putin’s boat to the shore of democracy? Or will the opposite occur? Standing over his predecessor’ coffin, will the president of Russia be compelled to confirm his fidelity to democratic principles and to halting the country’s prolonged drift in the opposite direction? We may get an idea as early as Thursday, when Putin delivers his annual state-of-the-nation address.


Remembering Yeltsin III: Kiselyov’s Take

Writing in the Moscow Times, pundit Yevegeny Kiselyov gives his take on Yeltsin:

In London there is an attractive statue of Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt in a kind of casual style, with the two statesmen cast in bronze and reclining on a bench in a little square separating New Bond Street from Old Bond Street. The British capital also has an “official” monument to the British prime minister and the U.S. president, but I find the one with them on the bench warmer and smile whenever passing it in London.

No doubt a grandiose monument to Russia’s first president will be erected in Moscow. But if it were up to me, I would erect another — a life-size bronze of Yeltsin in his younger days, waiting for a trolleybus at the stop near the Sheraton Hotel on 1st Tverskaya-Yamskaya Ulitsa.

The stop is across the street from the building where Boris Yeltsin lived when he became the head of the Moscow City Committee of the Communist Party at the end of 1985. Rumors soon began circulating that the new city chief was doing some surprising things. Capitalizing on the fact that nobody yet knew his face, Yeltsin would study life in Moscow by riding the trolleybuses and visiting the stores, cleaners and repair shops to talk to people about their daily lives.

This is not just some populist legend. Years later, while working on the documentary film “The President of All Russia,” I found archival footage from a Western television company that actually showed Yeltsin on a trolleybus speaking with the passengers, walking the streets without bodyguards, entering an ordinary medical clinic, and examining the goods on a store’s display counter.

Many of today’s jaded politicians might, indeed, dismiss this as primitive populism. They would probably be right. But in the context of a Soviet Union that had yet to begin extricating itself from the stagnation of Leonid Brezhnev’s times, it was such an unexpected and fresh approach that it rapidly made Yeltsin popular among Muscovites.

His popularity reached such heights that when, in 1987, Yeltsin fell out with Mikhail Gorbachev, who forced him to resign saying, “I will not let you into politics again,” it was only a matter of time before the future president would stage a triumphant return.

Yeltsin was a true political animal in the most positive sense of the word. He had an amazing instinct for what people expected from him in critical situations.

Finding himself in disgrace after the clash with Gorbachev, Yeltsin understood that people were tired of endless talk about perestroika and the return to true socialism. It wasn’t enough. The people wanted to go further, to a chance for freedom and the end of communism, and Yeltsin understood it.

In his now-famous last address as president, on New Year’s Eve 1999, Yeltsin asked Russians to forgive him for everything he had not managed to accomplish. Those were exactly the words the people had wanted to hear. I am certain that not a single one of his advisers, assistants or speechwriters, all of whom loved him and trembled before him, would have ever dared to pen the words. The words were Yeltsin’s.

Being in the limelight did not come easily for him, but he gave it his all while trying to be different from the verbose and endlessly vacillating Gorbachev. I later saw some amazing documentary footage shot by director Alexander Sokrov during Yeltsin’s late-1980s period of disgrace. The camera showed him sitting alone on the steps of a dacha, clasping his head in his hands, with his heavy thoughts bringing forth a physical reaction of suffering. It is hard to believe the same person would one day throw back his shoulders, march assuredly across the hall during what turned out to be the last congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, mount the dais and drive home the words of his resignation from the Party like so many nails in its coffin.

In contrast to his successor, President Vladimir Putin, whose ability to remain poised before television cameras might be his greatest strength, Yeltsin was uncomfortable in front of the cameras. His former assistants say that his prep time before broadcasts was long and tortured, and that he nevertheless often felt so unsure of himself that taping would sometimes have to be halted and started again from the beginning. Indeed, when I taped my first one-on-one interview with Yeltsin in 1993, I was surprised at how nervous he was before the interview begun. Once the cameras started rolling, Yeltsin suddenly radiated strength and self-confidence.

His ability to pull himself together and gather his strength in times when resolution was needed was one of his defining qualities. In August 1991, already having been elected the president of the Russian Soviet Republic, it was clear to everyone that this would be the leader of the new country when Yeltsin climbed up on a tank outside the White House to tell the organizers of the putsch that their actions were illegal.

Another occasion on which Yeltsin impressed me was that unforgettable moment on the eve of the second decisive round of the 1996 presidential elections, when he stepped out of the Kremlin and told journalists he was firing his chief of security and one of his closest and most dedicated colleagues, General Alexander Korzhakov. In the conflict between his chief bodyguard, who advocated canceling the election, which would have violated the Constitution, and his election committee members, who maintained he could win without breaking the law, Yeltsin sided with those who had helped him finish on top in the first round.

While he spoke, Yeltsin’s face remained inscrutable — something that happens when people are grieving deeply. His wife, Naina, later said in an interview, “When Boris Nikolayevich parted ways with [Korzhakov], he felt as if he were losing a family member.” After making his announcement, Yeltsin’s face quite unexpectedly broke into a smile, and he said, “Why are you standing around? Run quickly and convey the news! I have given you a hot story!”

Today, there is much debate whether Yeltsin was ever really committed to democracy. Winston Churchill used to liken dictatorship to an ocean liner sailing smoothly across the horizon and appearing invulnerable. He would point out, however, that one well-placed torpedo could send it to the bottom without a trace. Democracy, on the other hand, was like a dingy pitching and rolling with every wave. Because it reflected the will of the people, Churchill said, the dingy was damn near unsinkable. You stay afloat in a democracy, but your feet are always in the water.

I don’t know if Yeltsin was familiar with the analogy, but I am certain his commitment to democratic principles was nourished by the instincts of a born politician. He felt and understood well what Churchill was talking about: There is no more reliable way to govern than by a democratic system. There is no better way to be treated well by history than to stand on the side of democracy.

Will Yeltsin’s death snap the last rope still anchoring Putin’s boat to the shore of democracy? Or will the opposite occur? Standing over his predecessor’ coffin, will the president of Russia be compelled to confirm his fidelity to democratic principles and to halting the country’s prolonged drift in the opposite direction? We may get an idea as early as Thursday, when Putin delivers his annual state-of-the-nation address.