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Russia: Muscovites React To Yeltsin's Death

MOSCOW, April 24, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Following Boris Yeltsin's death on April 23, RFE/RL correspondent Chloe Arnold took to the streets of Moscow to ask residents how they will remember Russia's first post-Soviet president.

Aleksandr, architect:

"What? Is he really dead? Really? I heard that he'd died 10 years ago and his doubles have been doing his job since then. So maybe it's actually his double that's died!

"But seriously, I regard him as a great 'muzhik' [a great guy], he turned everything on its head. But as they say, even if you plough a wasteland, the seeds will eventually grow. And in time, he'll be remembered as a larger-than-life figure, a Genghis Khan, or a Josef Stalin.

"What you plough will become good later, that's for sure. I think that for me, and for my circle of friends, he did an awful lot that was good. And for Russia? Well, what about it? How it used to be, that's how it will remain for centuries to come. In name, I mean. And the people -- they'll be different. That's what I reckon, anyway."

Sergei, 52, taxi driver:

"It's always harder for the first one. And he was the first. You don't know how to behave, you're like a pioneer. You set out, and you don't know which way to go. After one [political] system, starting a new one is very difficult.

"Turning your brain around, your way of thinking, your outlook. I think he did a lot for Russia. He was like a ship, like the 'Titanic,' an icebreaker. It's a pity he has gone. He didn't do everything right, he made some mistakes. He made mistakes.

"The fact that people didn't receive their pensions. The people close to him grabbed everything and others got nothing at all. Privatization, the default. People had saved their pensions, they had, say, 5,000 rubles set aside for their funerals, and suddenly that became enough to buy just a single loaf of bread.

"Everything these old people, these pensioners, had saved, they lost. And so, they lost their faith. All their lives they had toiled for the sake of the Soviet Union. For old people it was very hard. It was very difficult for these elderly people to understand.

"I lived in that system and in this one, and I can understand the difference. I can see that nothing was given in the old regime, nothing was permitted, you couldn't go here, you couldn't go there, if you took a step to the side you were shot. Of course, mistakes were made, but now at least we can move forward, we can try to achieve something."

Tatyana Ivanovna, pensioner:

"I have a negative opinion of him, because he did a lot of very bad things. He broke up the Soviet Union, he started a war in Chechnya.

"Because of those things [I dislike him]. If you compare Putin and Yeltsin, Putin has been around for -- how long? -- eight years? Yeltsin wasn't around for half as long and look how much havoc he caused. He drank while his daughter did all the work, signing documents for him."

Tanya, secretary:

"For me, he was not good news. I lost a great deal. Now it is a lot calmer, it's much calmer [under Putin]. And it will be a great shame [if Putin] doesn't stay on for a third term.

"[Yeltsin] carved everything up, he divided everything this way and that. And it's not even the fact that he split everything up -- that would have been fine, but he could have done it differently.

"Anyway, this is a difficult question, and it would take a long time to answer. I don't agree with what he did.

"That time he conducted an orchestra, the time he appeared in public in that [drunken] state. That, for me, was a shock. A president should behave like a president. For me, that was the first blow."

Margarita Dmitriyevna, librarian:

"Of course it's a pity that he has died. But he played his role, and it was -- how can I put it? -- very controversial.

"But, in principle, Russia won't forget him.

"He was a hero. I'm an old person now, practically the same age as he was. Let's not judge so we will not be judged.

"He played his role."

Yulia Stesko, art director:

"It's such a shame he has died. He was a super person.

"The fact that he swept away the old political system and broke down the communist -- or do I mean socialist? -- regime, only he was able to do that."

Andrei, 56, technician:

"When a person leaves this life, it's not important which position he held, the first thing we feel is grief. Particularly for one who was, for many years, in the spotlight.

"Perhaps now is not the right moment to talk about this because when a person has only just died, remembering the different phases of his life and what people thought of him isn't the correct thing to do.

"But, of course, I more or less agree with the opinion held by many of our political leaders today that Boris Nikolayevich played a vital role in the development and the resurrection of our country.

"But as for looking subjectively, or objectively, at the mistakes that he made, you can still find plenty of people who are willing to go into that."

(photos by Chloe Arnold)

Assessing Boris Yeltsin

Boris Yeltsin (left) meeting with Bill Clinton in the Kremlin on September 1, 1998 (epa)

CLINTON ON YELTSIN: U.S. President Bill Clinton spoke to reporters in Washington on December 31, 1999, shortly after hearing that Boris Yeltsin had resigned. Here are some of his comments:

"[Boris Yeltsin's] lasting achievement has been dismantling the communist system and creating a vital, democratic process within a constitutional framework. The fact that Prime Minister [Vladimir] Putin assumes responsibility today as acting president, in accordance with the constitution, is the latest example of President Yeltsin's achievement."

"The relationship between the United States and Russia under President Yeltsin has produced genuine progress for both our people. Five thousand strategic nuclear weapons have been dismantled. Our nuclear weapons are no longer targeted at each other. We have worked together to eliminate nuclear weapons from the other states of the former Soviet Union."

"Well, I liked him because he was always very [direct] with me. He always did exactly what he said he would do, and he was willing to take chances to try to improve our relationship, to try to improve democracy in Russia."

"I liked him because I think he genuinely deplored communism. He lived with it, he saw it, and he believed that democracy was the best system. I think it was in every fiber of his being."

"We had our arguments. We had our fights. We had our genuine disagreements about our national interests from time to time, but I think that the Russian people were well served to have a leader who honestly believed that their votes ought to determine who is running the show in Russia and what the future direction of the country should be."


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