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Remembering Yeltsin

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Remembering Yeltsin


The anniversary of Yeltsin’s death, perhaps, is one of those events that is simply impossible to avoid paying attention to. It might be possible in theory, and one might even want to, but it doesn’t happen. Why? Because fundamental changes in the life of the Russian world are connected with the Yeltsin name. To start with, we will refrain from defining these changes in any particular way.

The events surrounding the anniversary of the death of Russia’s first president are interesting in their own right. A monument to Yeltsin, completed by the sculptor Georgy Frangulyan, was unveiled at the Novodevichy cemetery with Russia’s newly elected president and current president attending. The monument, which resembles a Russian tricolor flag flapping in the wind, is built from marble, terrazzo and porphyry. The Ural State Technical University, as well as a street in Ekaterinburg, will now bear Yeltsin’s name.

Streets and universities receiving the names of deceased leaders is a tradition associated with the Soviet past, although there is nothing inherently Soviet about the practice. Such renaming takes place around the world. The Soviet period merely reminds us of the excesses that took place. And while the formalities of renaming were followed, no one in the city was really asked his or her opinion on the issue.  A street and university in Yeltsin’s hometown are hardly modest, and it is difficult to say whether people here agree with the name change. But, alas, the formal rules were followed.

The monument at the Novodevichy cemetery is interesting for another reason. It is difficult to imagine something clashing more with the style of a churchyard cemetery than a bright tricolor, even more so with a dark blue terrazzo. A year ago, after Yeltsin’s funeral, everyone began to remember a different leader, one who was buried in the same place as Nikita Khrushchev and, of course, the black and white monument by Ernst Neizvestny. The Yeltsin family, however, who approved of Frangulyan’s monument, decided not to draw attention to the inconsistencies and ambiguity surrounding Yeltsin himself.

Incidentally, it is possible that what is at issue here is the fact that the monument to Yeltsin does not fit into the general design of the Novodevichy cemetery – an idiosyncratic sculpture from Russian and Soviet history – which highlights the contradiction much more brightly.

Yeltsin resigned and virtually stayed in the shadows from public life for more than seven years. For a state leader, this is almost equivalent to death itself. In any event, he was talked about as a “thing of the past” whose era had ended and who would no longer return to that “life,” that we know from newspapers and television long before his departure. What exactly was said about Yeltsin is another issue. But in any event, hardly anyone was neutral when judging his actions.

These judgments could not be more different. Yeltsin either “ruined a great power” (which is what the majority of the Russian population believe) or he “saved the country from impending catastrophe.” Russia’s first president either plunged the country into darkness” or “prevented the breakup of Russia.” Either he “shot at parliament” or he “led the country along a path of democratic development;” either “drove the country into poverty” or “saved it from inevitable economic collapse.”

To say that “truth lies somewhere in the middle” is silly in this case. It is unclear what kind of “middle” can exist here. Most likely, we have long been doomed to tossing and turning between extreme social judgments – either one or the other will have the advantage. That is what has already been going on for a long time with Lenin, Peter the Great and, to some extent, Ivan the Terrible. In other words, with those who stood at the fountainhead of truly fundamental changes in the life of the country.
The emergence of a massive Russian-speaking diaspora in the newly independent states and the rise of official problems concerning Russian at the state level is part of the legacy of the Yeltsin era. So too is the formation of the state that we live in today and which is called Russia. Yeltsin’s name is connected with a rejection of the Communist and Soviet tradition, at least on an external level. This was also an ambiguous process, one whose affirmation has served first of all the mass phenomenon of nostalgia for the Soviet era and secondly the rise of a post-Yeltsin power system that many have regarded as Soviet in nature. Nevertheless, it was Yeltsin who made it possible to make use of pre-Communist Russian traditions in the new environment. Another question, though, is when and to what extent such use has proven appropriate and successful. 

The possibility of not losing one’s ties to the Motherland when moving abroad to work, the possibility of planning both a departure and a return – and together with this the appearance of qualitatively different Russian-speaking diasporas abroad are also connected with the Yeltsin era (we won’t begin to speak now about why many well-educated people from Russia sought work and continue to seek work abroad).

One could spend a long time listing all the new aspects of life that are in one way or another connected with Yeltsin. During his time we truly began to live in a different era, but striking a balance between the “profits” and “losses,” the good and the bad sides, is a useless exercise. Everyone who lived during his administration has been quick to judge. A much deeper evaluation, however, will be possible only after 30-50 years. Right now our task is simply to recognize that the main constants in the reality of today’s Russia were put in place during the Yeltsin era. And that is something we will have to live with.


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