Boris Yeltsin, RIP The Rise and Fall of the Drunken Czar

By Jörg R. Mettke in Moscow

Part 2: 'Boris, You're Right'

A man holds a portrait of the late former Russian President Boris Yeltsin as he stands in line to pay his last respects at Yeltsin's coffin in Moscow Tuesday.

A man holds a portrait of the late former Russian President Boris Yeltsin as he stands in line to pay his last respects at Yeltsin's coffin in Moscow Tuesday.

During the last century, Russia experienced two painful periods of re-birth with much stagnation in between. One followed the October Revolution in 1917. The other, which ultimately came to be associated with the name Yeltsin, was the last decade between the hardliner coup against Gorbachev in 1991 and the start of Putin's reign in 2000.

Transitional figures, allowed to rise to the pinnacle of power by the political class during times of radical change, rarely achieve lasting popularity. When Boris Yeltsin resigned on Moscow's Red Square on New Year's Eve in 1999 and walked out into the snowy winter night, his approval rating had plunged to only 2 percent of eligible voters in Russia. And gradually, very gradually, as Russia's aging president discovered from his heavily guarded home near Moscow, his almost exhausted political capital managed to accrue a little interest.

Shortly before his 75th birthday, which he celebrated at the Kremlin with 200 invited guests, only 17 percent of Russians surveyed believed that the Yeltsin decade was characterized by more good than bad points. Josef Stalin, the "Father of the Nations," continues to receive far better approval ratings than the "democrat" Yeltsin, who was somewhat derisively referred to as "Grandfather" during his tenure on Red Square.

No true democrat

He was not a true democrat, nor did he ever become one. And yet he was someone who knew how to play this role brilliantly in a uniquely Russian fashion, as long as he was still waiting in the wings and constantly sparring with other ambitious climbers. He was truly a man of the people, and the people expressed their enthusiasm for him by wearing coaster-sized buttons that read: "Boris, You're Right."

He earned the sympathy of the public in his ideological dispute with Yegor Ligachev, the powerful and orthodox overseer of ideology in former President Mikhail Gorbachev's Politburo of the 1980s. Ligachev, a party bureaucrat who was Yeltsin's senior by 11 years and had been brought to Moscow from rural Siberia by Gorbachev's predecessor Yuri Andropov, warned against allowing perestroika to get out of hand at the 27th Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union in 1986. According to Ligachev, perestroika, with its double strategy of simultaneously digging deep into the past while aiming high for the future, was increasingly running the risk of losing popular support. And "without broad support," Ligachev warned, "one can never be successful."

Yeltsin, the party secretary in the Soviet capital at the time, offered a different populist concept, emphasizing uncompromising efforts to keep reforms moving forward. His motto was: "Eyes shut and keep going." Before going to work in the morning, he would have his driver take him to the suburbs, where he would squeeze into overflowing subway trains, stand in angry lines of shoppers and publicly complain about the privileges of party officials. "We must eliminate these perks," he told his fellow comrades, before adding -- to keep a back door open -- "where they are not justified."


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