Not As Bad As They Thought: The Poor Reception of Boris Yeltsin in 21st-Century Russia

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By Eric Axner-Norrman

CHAOS. This disyllabic word probably sums up better than any other how many Russians would describe the entire first decade of the modern Russian Federation. The man who took Russia out of the Soviet era and into the new millennium, Boris Nikolayevich Yeltsin (1931-2007), has come to personify the harsh shock therapy that the Russian people had to endure during the reorganisation of the country in a Western democratic fashion. It would prove to be quite a challenge.

After Mikhail Gorbachev’s policies of Perestroika (rebuilding) and Glasnost (transparency), the Marxist-Leninist interpretation of communism was initially replaced by a form of liberal socialism and later, during Yeltsin’s tenure, by social (and to some degree a more classic) liberalism, both economically and socially. On one hand, openness and tolerance for political dissent now became a reality for the first time in the life of most Russians. On the other, all the formerly state-controlled companies were bought at ridiculous bargain prices by those who would become the now-infamous Russian oligarchy. A severe shortage of food and other life-essential supplies led to images of babushkas in headscarves and worn-out pelts defying the equally infamous Russian winter in cues outside nearly empty stores being cabled out across the world. All of these and plenty more hardships were, as the Russians saw it, the products of the same decadent Western ideology they had been brainwashed into seeing as the devil on earth, as well as the fall of the ideological empire which – in theory that is – made all men equal and treated all people fairly.

In hindsight and at a distance, it is easy to say that this reality check was needed to wake the Russian people out of its delusions of command economy and anti-imperialist imperial grandeur. For Yeltsin, a diligent and hard-working engineer with athletic skills from the Ural Mountains, it was plain to see. But in this modern Time of Troubles, with neither a tsar nor a Communist Party chairman at the helm but a democratically elected president, it did little to bestow the ordinary Russians much belief in the superiority of this system. Yeltsin in fact oversaw the dismantling of the Soviet Union as the last of its leaders and the birth of the Russian Federation as its first leader. Along with a highly publicised drinking problem (leading to many well-known and, in Western eyes, rather humorous encounters with fellow heads of state), he was by the end of his second term already beginning to be regarded as a weak and incompetent commander-in-chief; an embarrassment compared to the former greats like Peter the Great and Joseph Stalin, who had once ruled vast empires with Russia at their hearts. Yeltsin’s kindness and compassion and the cruelness and inhumanity of his predecessors did little to prevent him from being seen as a disgrace to Russia; as blatant as ever the port-wine stain on Gorbachev’s forehead.

“Yeltsin oversaw the dismantling of the Soviet Union as the last of its leaders and the birth of the Russian Federation as its first leader.”

In several respects, Yeltsin had a different approach to ruling than those who ruled Russia before him. One aspect is his use of language; gone were the bombastic rhetorics and ideological slogans meant to either strike the attending crowds in awe or incite them with dogmatic fervour. He spoke plainly and simply, as a man of the people. Perhaps ironically, he was also the first and as of yet only leader after the fall of the Tsardom to hold as much personal power as he did. Yeltsin effectively governed solely on his own accord. Other than sheer power hunger, this might partially be explained by a feeling of distrust on his part regarding the true democratic values held by those below him in his administrations. Yeltsin himself was a true democrat, despite all. However, the disillusion following the trauma that was the restructuring process of the 1990s left many Russians wanting something more traditionally Russian. A “Little Father”, a tsar, a strongman – a dictator. A Putin.

Vladimir Putin’s antipathy for his former boss and benefactor, along with the general public’s disappointment with the Yeltsin years, has led to the memory of the man who first led the latest incarnation of Russia being more or less actively counteracted. Putin has, contrary to the independent Yeltsin, built up a broad national power base with his own political party and has progressively become more and more authoritarian as his reign continues. He has on one point however continued down a path that his predecessor Yeltsin began, be it more radically and extremely. Yeltsin was, as Putin is, a Russian nationalist. But while Yeltsin’s nationalism was bound by the national borders of the contemporary federation, Putin’s view of Russia’s “real” borders includes – at least – the now independent neighbouring countries of Belarus and Ukraine.

Putin has, contrary to the independent Yeltsin, built up a broad national power base with his own political party and has progressively become more and more authoritarian as his reign continues.”

Yet similarities between the old and the “new” president are not something that the Kremlin under Putin wants to emphasise. Rather, Yeltsin should from the view of the current regime be considered as a kind of intermediary, a historical mistake, between the powerful Soviet Union and the now almost equally strong Russian Federation with Putin as a traditional strongman leader. Putin is strong, stable and sound – the opposite of the weak and vodka-soaked Yeltsin. Having Yeltsin as a negative reference point is good PR for Putin.

So was he really all that bad, the big man with the nice white hair and the big friendly smile? In the collective memory of the Russian people, he is partially to blame for the collapse of the Soviet Union that many long back to and almost entirely to blame for the disorder and unrest that followed. A bad reputation can be hard to improve, especially if the person it concerns is dead and those willing to openly defend that person are few and not able to reach a big audience anyway. Today, Boris Yeltsin is both the appropriate and to some degree legitimate (in short – perfect) scapegoat and sacrificial lamb for both Putin’s regime and for the Russian people. Yeltsin might have physically resembled a Russian bear, but he lacked the temper and perhaps indeed the strength of one.

By: Eric Axner-Norrman

Cover: Kremlin / Wikipedia Commons

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