Boris Yeltsin was laid to rest in the famed Novodevichy Cemetery. The funeral was attended by a number of dignitaries that included Putin, Bill Clinton, and George H. W. Bush. Yeltsin was buried about 200 yards from another famed reformer, Nikita Khrushchev. The evaluation of Yeltsin’s legacy in the West has been a mix of praise and regret. Praise for the political openness that flourished throughout the 1990s. Regret that Russian democracy didn’t and in many ways couldn’t hold against the onslaught of social and economic crisis, corruption, theft, and crime. In all I think Yeltsin was a tragic figure. He was at once the shaper of history as he was also trapped in its bondage. In this sense, to many especially in the West, Yeltsin’s death comes with another more symbolic loss. That loss is yet another chink in the fantasy that every part of the world can and should be shaped in the West’s own image.
But how is Yeltsin’s death viewed in Russia? Global Voices has provided a short synopsis of what some Russian bloggers are saying. But what of the Russian media?
I think the best place to start on how Yeltsin is being remembered in Russia is with Putin himself. In a short statement declaring April 25 a national day of mourning, Putin said this of his predecessor:
A person who began a new era has passed away. A new democratic Russia was born during his time: a free, open and peaceful country. A state in which the power truly does belong to the people.
The first President of Russia’s strength consisted in the mass support of Russian citizens for his ideas and aspirations. Thanks to the will and direct initiative of President Boris Yeltsin a new constitution, one which declared human rights a supreme value, was adopted. It gave people the opportunity to freely express their thoughts, to freely choose power in Russia, to realise their creative and entrepreneurial plans. This Constitution permitted us to begin building a truly effective Federation.
Other outpourings followed in the Russian press. Writing on SMI.ru, Anna Kuprina gave a representative run down of people’s recollections from some of Russia’s dailies and radio. Ekspert Online has recollections and how his death was received in Sverdlovsk Oblast.
Writing on RIA Novsoti, political commentator Vladimir Simonov claims that the Sinatra song “My Way” best described Yeltsin. His way because he had the will embark
on the path of democracy and the market economy, no matter how awful it seemed to some initially, the mysterious and dangerous communist-controlled Russia turned into a sensible and understandable country. Russians became more like Westerners. Perhaps at that moment, when differences were swept away, the Cold War came to an end. Credit for this historic accomplishment largely goes to Yeltsin as well.
The editors of Nezamisimaya gazeta lauded Yeltsin in similar terms. He “was a particularly brave person” who was “ready to take a sniper’s bullet” when he got up on that tank in 1991. “Maybe he didn’t give [Russian] society genuine freedom and democracy. But he did give it a taste of freedom and democracy. This taste cannot be forgotten.”
Ezhednevnyi zhurnal has several articles dedicated to Yeltsin’s memory, historical impact, and legacy. Despite all of the heroic things Yeltsin did for Russia, the editors of Ezhednevnyi also remind us of his greatest mistake: the Chechen War. A mistake Georgii Satarov says, “He knew himself.” But many fail to notice, argues Andrei Korkin that Chechnya now has more independence under Kadyrov than Dudaev ever demanded. Plus the war continues under the guise of “Chechenization.” Russian police are still dying in military operations and the true nature of the war is hidden from the public in a “fog of secrecy.” Thus Yeltsin may have failed, but that failure was out in the open for Russians to see rather than the quasi-resolution that Putin has managed with the aid of Kadyrov’s bloodletting.
The Russian public was far less laudatory of Yeltsin. That is, if polls are any indication of how Russians collectively remember Yeltsin’s years. VTsIOM asked respondents, “In which epoch would like to live if you had the chance?” 39 percent responded that they would like to live in present day Russia, 31 percent in the time of Brezhnev, one percent during Yeltsin, 6 percent under Stalin, and 4 percent at the beginning of the 20th century. The numbers are hardly a ringing endorsement of the Yeltsin years.
Yeltsin’s image didn’t change much among the majority of Russians even after he left office. 65 percent of respondents said that their opinion of Yeltsin didn’t change, though 27 percent said that their opinion of him changed for the better and only 5 percent said that it changed for the worse. In this sense one can say that Putin’s Russia has been a benefit to Yeltsin’s memory in some ways but, besides perhaps among the Russian intelligentsia, there is little nostalgia for the times he ruled.