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Thursday, April 26, 2007

Remembering Yeltsin III: Kiselyov's Take

Writing in the Moscow Times, pundit Yevegeny Kiselyov gives his take on Yeltsin:

In London there is an attractive statue of Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt in a kind of casual style, with the two statesmen cast in bronze and reclining on a bench in a little square separating New Bond Street from Old Bond Street. The British capital also has an "official" monument to the British prime minister and the U.S. president, but I find the one with them on the bench warmer and smile whenever passing it in London.

No doubt a grandiose monument to Russia's first president will be erected in Moscow. But if it were up to me, I would erect another -- a life-size bronze of Yeltsin in his younger days, waiting for a trolleybus at the stop near the Sheraton Hotel on 1st Tverskaya-Yamskaya Ulitsa.

The stop is across the street from the building where Boris Yeltsin lived when he became the head of the Moscow City Committee of the Communist Party at the end of 1985. Rumors soon began circulating that the new city chief was doing some surprising things. Capitalizing on the fact that nobody yet knew his face, Yeltsin would study life in Moscow by riding the trolleybuses and visiting the stores, cleaners and repair shops to talk to people about their daily lives.

This is not just some populist legend. Years later, while working on the documentary film "The President of All Russia," I found archival footage from a Western television company that actually showed Yeltsin on a trolleybus speaking with the passengers, walking the streets without bodyguards, entering an ordinary medical clinic, and examining the goods on a store's display counter.

Many of today's jaded politicians might, indeed, dismiss this as primitive populism. They would probably be right. But in the context of a Soviet Union that had yet to begin extricating itself from the stagnation of Leonid Brezhnev's times, it was such an unexpected and fresh approach that it rapidly made Yeltsin popular among Muscovites.

His popularity reached such heights that when, in 1987, Yeltsin fell out with Mikhail Gorbachev, who forced him to resign saying, "I will not let you into politics again," it was only a matter of time before the future president would stage a triumphant return.

Yeltsin was a true political animal in the most positive sense of the word. He had an amazing instinct for what people expected from him in critical situations.

Finding himself in disgrace after the clash with Gorbachev, Yeltsin understood that people were tired of endless talk about perestroika and the return to true socialism. It wasn't enough. The people wanted to go further, to a chance for freedom and the end of communism, and Yeltsin understood it.

In his now-famous last address as president, on New Year's Eve 1999, Yeltsin asked Russians to forgive him for everything he had not managed to accomplish. Those were exactly the words the people had wanted to hear. I am certain that not a single one of his advisers, assistants or speechwriters, all of whom loved him and trembled before him, would have ever dared to pen the words. The words were Yeltsin's.

Being in the limelight did not come easily for him, but he gave it his all while trying to be different from the verbose and endlessly vacillating Gorbachev. I later saw some amazing documentary footage shot by director Alexander Sokrov during Yeltsin's late-1980s period of disgrace. The camera showed him sitting alone on the steps of a dacha, clasping his head in his hands, with his heavy thoughts bringing forth a physical reaction of suffering. It is hard to believe the same person would one day throw back his shoulders, march assuredly across the hall during what turned out to be the last congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, mount the dais and drive home the words of his resignation from the Party like so many nails in its coffin.

In contrast to his successor, President Vladimir Putin, whose ability to remain poised before television cameras might be his greatest strength, Yeltsin was uncomfortable in front of the cameras. His former assistants say that his prep time before broadcasts was long and tortured, and that he nevertheless often felt so unsure of himself that taping would sometimes have to be halted and started again from the beginning. Indeed, when I taped my first one-on-one interview with Yeltsin in 1993, I was surprised at how nervous he was before the interview begun. Once the cameras started rolling, Yeltsin suddenly radiated strength and self-confidence.

His ability to pull himself together and gather his strength in times when resolution was needed was one of his defining qualities. In August 1991, already having been elected the president of the Russian Soviet Republic, it was clear to everyone that this would be the leader of the new country when Yeltsin climbed up on a tank outside the White House to tell the organizers of the putsch that their actions were illegal.

Another occasion on which Yeltsin impressed me was that unforgettable moment on the eve of the second decisive round of the 1996 presidential elections, when he stepped out of the Kremlin and told journalists he was firing his chief of security and one of his closest and most dedicated colleagues, General Alexander Korzhakov. In the conflict between his chief bodyguard, who advocated canceling the election, which would have violated the Constitution, and his election committee members, who maintained he could win without breaking the law, Yeltsin sided with those who had helped him finish on top in the first round.

While he spoke, Yeltsin's face remained inscrutable -- something that happens when people are grieving deeply. His wife, Naina, later said in an interview, "When Boris Nikolayevich parted ways with [Korzhakov], he felt as if he were losing a family member." After making his announcement, Yeltsin's face quite unexpectedly broke into a smile, and he said, "Why are you standing around? Run quickly and convey the news! I have given you a hot story!"

Today, there is much debate whether Yeltsin was ever really committed to democracy. Winston Churchill used to liken dictatorship to an ocean liner sailing smoothly across the horizon and appearing invulnerable. He would point out, however, that one well-placed torpedo could send it to the bottom without a trace. Democracy, on the other hand, was like a dingy pitching and rolling with every wave. Because it reflected the will of the people, Churchill said, the dingy was damn near unsinkable. You stay afloat in a democracy, but your feet are always in the water.

I don't know if Yeltsin was familiar with the analogy, but I am certain his commitment to democratic principles was nourished by the instincts of a born politician. He felt and understood well what Churchill was talking about: There is no more reliable way to govern than by a democratic system. There is no better way to be treated well by history than to stand on the side of democracy.

Will Yeltsin's death snap the last rope still anchoring Putin's boat to the shore of democracy? Or will the opposite occur? Standing over his predecessor' coffin, will the president of Russia be compelled to confirm his fidelity to democratic principles and to halting the country's prolonged drift in the opposite direction? We may get an idea as early as Thursday, when Putin delivers his annual state-of-the-nation address.

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