Russian memories of Yeltsin

The passing of Boris Yeltsin did not come as a surprise to most Russians. He was known to be ill for some time, his resignation in 1999 being partly because of health reasons.  Even so, the news brought an atmosphere of reflection to the country. For many Russians, the period of uncertainty and chaos that signified the Yeltsin era is well and truly over. But the memory remains fresh, and with Putin affirming in this year's ‘State of the Nation' address that it would be his last, the future of the nation once again seems unsure. Robin Adams writes from St Petersburg.


Most Russians I talk to are very sympathetic to Yeltsin's legacy. There is no doubt that Yeltsin had an enormous effect on Russian history. As one middle-aged St Petersburg man put it,

“I think that Boris Yeltsin always played a big role in the history of contemporary Russia. We owe a great debt of gratitude to him because thanks to him we discovered what real democracy is. Thanks to him, Russia was able to develop like a democratic state. Thanks to him, Russia was able to avoid civil war. Yeltsin, in the 1990's was a symbol of democracy and a symbol of change.”

The popular feeling in Russia is that Yeltsin was a force for good, who always had Russia's best interests at heart. It is on the execution of his goals that most of the criticism falls. Life under Yeltsin was chaotic at best. The radical political, economic and cultural changes of post-soviet Russia made this chaos almost inevitable. Even so, the extreme poverty caused by the ‘shock therapy' approach employed for the economic reforms made life very difficult for the ordinary Russian. Reminiscing on life under Yeltsin, a university lecturer from St Petersburg told me “Of course life was tough in the time of Yeltsin's reforms. There was no stability, the economy was in transition. But now I hope that that is all in the past”.

The abandoning of price controls and opening up of the market for everyone caused inflation to soar and an immediate gap between rich and poor to take shape. This was heightened with the rushed selling off of the state's assets. Yeltsin himself, in an interview after his resignation admitted many mistakes were made, but explained that he was treading on what was completely new territory at the time and that it was very difficult to get everything right. In the opinion of a St Petersburg historian and tour guide, Yeltsin “just happened to be about at the time, it would have happened anyway. The amount of new legislation that was needed to cope with the new regime would have been difficult enough to deal with in a normal-sized country, let alone one of Russia's scale.”

Yeltsin was more of a personality than simply a President. He used his natural charisma to inspire his people. As one Yeltsin supporter I talked to put it, “he ruled with wisdom and authority, like a tsar”.  There is no doubt that a strong personality was needed to lead Russia through such a turbulent time. However, some Russians I asked judge Yeltsin to have fallen short when it came to the finer points of Presidency; particularly in his second term of office. One woman explains, “he was a very good person, and kind and dear; but as a President?! I suppose it was all down to his health, he was just too old for such a demanding job. I think that when he was chosen for his second term in 1996, it was because there was simply no viable alternative.”

Unfortunately, Yeltsin will be remembered in Ireland for his famous Shannon Airport incident, when he left Albert Reynolds' government waiting for him by the runway while he was too drunk to leave the plane. His alleged alcoholism was well documented and was a source of annoyance for some Russians. However, the consensus seems to be that his flaws made him more of a real person. The pressures of leading such a large country at such a pivotal time in its history must have been enormous and it is understandable that he needed some release.

The older citizens of Russia, in general don't look back on Yeltsin's contribution to society with such sympathy. Having spent the greater part of their lives under the assurance the soviet regime, they are uneasy in the new reality which was brought about by Yeltsin. They see the widening gap between rich and poor, the diminution of Russia's role in the world and the plundering of her resources for the benefit of the few; all as a result of Yeltsin's administration. The state pension in Russia these days is no more than 90 euro per month.

One man told me that he did not want to comment because it was too soon after Yeltsin's death, but that in his opinion Yeltsin was extremely bad for Russia. He had sympathy for Yeltsin's family and regretted his death as a human being, but politically lamented his effect on Russia.

Yeltsin's predecessor Mikhail Gorbachev sums up this view with his statement, “I express my profoundest condolences to the family of the deceased, who had major deeds for the good of the country as well as serious mistakes behind him.”

Yelstsin and PutinAs for the youth of Russia, the question of Yeltsin's impact on the course of their country's history seems to be more of an academic one. Even though it has only been 7 years since his resignation, Yeltsin is now more of a historic than a contemporary figure to Russia's young people. As one student from Krasnoyarsk puts it, “He was and now he's gone. Who cares? Not Me!” This is a measure of the rapid progress Russia has made in recent years. It is also a measure of the impact made by Yeltsin's chosen successor, President Putin, on the new Russia. Walking down St Petersburg's Nevskiy Prospekt in 2007, it's easy to forget that 70 years of communism ever took place.

Of course it is probably too early to be talking about the legacy of Russia's first President in concrete terms. The journey begun by Yeltsin in 1991 has not yet come to an end. In the words of an office administrator in his thirties I talked to, “The question of whether or not Yeltsin was good for Russia is so far not easy to answer but, as they say, ‘If it wasn't for Yeltsin, there wouldn't be Putin' and we wouldn‘t enjoy the stability we have in Russia today”.