This week Russia marked the 80th anniversary of the birth of Boris Yeltsin, the country’s first democratically elected leader. The occasion was accorded official status. President Dmitri Medvedev, unveiling a ten-meter marble statue of his predecessor in Yekaterinburg, declared that “Russia should be grateful to President Yeltsin” and praised his “strength of character.” In Moscow, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin promised the audience at a stately remembrance evening in Bolshoi Theatre to “continue along Yeltsin’s path, to transform Russia into a strong and free country where human rights are fully protected.” Exhibitions dedicated to the former president opened in Moscow, Kazan, and Yekaterinburg. Tatarstan is hosting the 2011 Yeltsin Cup international junior tennis tournament. This year will see the unveiling of the Yeltsin Presidential Center and Library, built with a 3 billion ruble (US $102 million) grant from the federal budget.
It is hard to imagine a more hypocritical way to honor Russia’s first president. For Boris Yeltsin’s legacy is not statues or libraries or tennis tournaments. It was the imperfect but very real Russian democracy that he helped create and sustained, despite the odds, for nearly a decade. His legacy was in the robust free media, the quarrelsome Parliament, the hard-fought elections (often won by his opponents), the wide regional autonomy — everything that he left on December 31, 1999, as he drove away from the Kremlin for the last time. Today all of it lies in ruins, meticulously dismantled by a former KGB colonel presented as “Yeltsin’s successor” — but in fact his political opposite. Behind Vladimir Putin’s phony praise of Russia’s first president lies a deep contempt for everything he represented, from the constitutional freedoms that Mr. Putin turned into a dead letter, to Mikhail Glinka’s “Patriotic Song” — the national anthem of democratic Russia that Mr. Putin replaced with Stalin’s “Bolshevik party anthem” in one of his first acts in office. And there can hardly be a better illustration of the true attitude toward Boris Yeltsin than the sight of his deputy prime minister and favored successor, Boris Nemtsov, being locked up in prison for participating in a peaceful opposition rally.
Mr. Yeltsin rarely spoke out during the last years of his life in Vladimir Putin’s Russia. Perhaps, as former Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov has suggested, he was a “prisoner in a golden cage,” compelled to silence by the new regime. Or maybe, as Mr. Yeltsin’s former chief of staff, Valentin Yumashev, asserted this week, he preferred to convey his discontent to Mr. Putin in private. In any case, there is no doubt that Mr. Yeltsin was upset by Russia’s backsliding. Three times he broke the silence, protesting against the restored Stalinist anthem, defending the independent TV-6 channel as it was about to be shut down, and criticizing Mr. Putin’s decision to abolish gubernatorial elections.
As Soviet dissident Vladimir Bukovsky has observed, for all his mistakes and shortcomings President Yeltsin will be remembered for two unquestionable achievements: it was he who banned the Soviet Communist Party and dissolved the USSR. One day, the first president will be honored without hypocrisy in a Russia he wanted to see, “a free and proud country,” as he said in his last state-of-the-nation address. Boris Yeltsin’s name will live in Russia’s history long after the names of her present-day autocratic kinglets had been forgotten.
Remembering Boris Yeltsin (1)