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Russia Begins To Remember A Different Yeltsin

  • Gregory Feifer

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev unveils the monument to Boris Yeltsin in the Urals city of Yekaterinburg.

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev unveils the monument to Boris Yeltsin in the Urals city of Yekaterinburg.

It may not be in Moscow, but nevertheless it's the first significant monument to a political leader erected since the fall of communism: a statue of Boris Yeltsin carved into a block of white granite in his hometown of Yekaterinburg, near the Ural Mountains.

The sculpture was unveiled today to mark the 80th anniversary of Yeltsin's birth. He died in 2007, deeply unpopular among many Russians who blamed him for the hardship and humiliation they suffered in the 1990s.

But if the image of the man who oversaw the collapse of communism is now improving, it's only very slowly.

WATCH: An exhibition titled "Boris Yeltsin and Tatarstan" is on display in Kazan to mark the 80th anniversary of the birth of the first president of the Russian Federation.

'Part of Russia'

Trumpets blared today as onlookers including members of Yeltsin's family watched the unveiling of his statue in freezing temperatures. President Dmitry Medvedev praised the country's first post-Soviet president for "laying the foundations of Russia's new statehood."

"Boris Nikolayevich loved his country," Medvedev said. "He was a part of Russia, and a very brave and resolute person."

Boris Yeltsin (left) speaks on top of an armored vehicle in front of the Russian parliament in Moscow in 1991.
But while the Kremlin may be keen to portray Yeltsin as someone who paved the way to the current, authoritarian government, he's best remembered elsewhere around the world for bringing democracy to Russians. His finest moment came in August 1991, when a group of hard-line communists tried to oust Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev.

At that pivotal moment in Russian history, Yeltsin climbed on one of the tanks sent to put down the opposition and called on his fellow citizens to resist what he called a reactionary coup.

Conflicting Images

By the end of the year, the Soviet Union had disappeared and Yeltsin emerged as Russian leader. Over the next decade, he oversaw a period of unprecedented democratization.

But soon other images of Yeltsin were competing to define his legacy: the drunken Yeltsin conducting a military orchestra in Berlin, and the bloated, ailing leader who remained out of sight for months at a time.

Yeltsin suffered five heart attacks while in office. In his rare public appearances during his second term, he was sometimes barely able to stand.

That did nothing to alleviate his deep unpopularity among most Russians, who saw him as the man who plunged their country into hardship and humiliation during the 1990s. When Yeltsin resigned on New Year's Eve 1999, he appeared on national television to make a public apology for the failures of his own presidency.

Improving Image

Back then, more than half of Russians viewed Yeltsin negatively, according to the Levada Center, an independent polling agency. Although Yeltsin's image is now improving, the agency's director, Lev Gudkov, says it's happening only very slowly.

Opposition leader Boris Nemtsov was a Yeltsin reformer.
"The peak of negative attitudes has passed," Gudkov says, "but now public opinion is dominated by ambivalence, balancing between negative and positive views."

Only around 35 percent of Russians see Yeltsin negatively today, Gudkov says, an attitude most common among poor people and rural residents. It's among urban, well-educated Russians that Yeltsin's image is improving.

Critics of Yeltsin's handpicked successor, Vladimir Putin -- who still controls Russia today as prime minister -- say that's because the urban elite chafes the most under Putin's authoritarian rule.

"More and more people are beginning to value freedom and value the 1990s," says opposition leader Boris Nemtsov, who was recently arrested for two weeks after taking part in a sanctioned protest in Moscow.

"It was a difficult time economically," he adds, "but at the same time it was full of romanticism and hope compared to the cynical, brutal times of Putin."

Chaos Or Democratization?

In the 1990s, Nemtsov was among the so-called young reformers Yeltsin installed in government to spearhead the transition from communism. A former first deputy prime minister once seen as a possible Yeltsin successor, Nemtsov says most Russians don't realize the secret of Putin's success: an economy buoyed by soaring prices for Russia's main export, oil, which had suffered sustained lows under Yeltsin.

Putin, who did away with many of Yeltsin's democratizing reforms, has often characterized the 1990s under Yeltsin as a period of utter chaos and corruption, which the Levada Center's Gudkov says enabled him to present himself as the man who brought about stability and prosperity.

Boris Yeltsin in Minsk in 1991
"It still gives his authoritarian regime a perception of legitimacy and stability," Gudkov says. "But that's changing because a growing number of people are concerned about the country's future. They're beginning to understand the Putin regime is actually a sign of stagnation."

Contradictory Rule

Yeltsin's rule was nothing if not contradictory. He started a brutal and unsuccessful war in Chechnya and enabled a handful of Kremlin-connected businessmen to reap huge fortunes from rigged privatization schemes.

But his supporters say corruption is far greater under Putin, who has ended open elections and marginalized the free press Yeltsin once guaranteed, something Nemtsov says will help lead Russians to someday regard their former president as a great figure.

"Yeltsin's place in history is as the founder of democratic Russia," Nemtsov says, "which will become apparent in time."

Critics say the selection of Putin as Yeltsin's successor betrayed the promises of 1991. But Yeltsin's former allies say he later privately expressed regret over the kind of authoritarian state Russia had once again become under Putin.

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