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"Yeltsin is out of mind..."



Boris Yeltsin (1931-2007) became Russia's first popularly elected head of state (1991-1999). His rule was nothing if not controversial. There were two sides to Yeltsin: the radical reformer condemning the privileges and political corruption of the old nomenklatura and the apparatchik (i.e., a member of the Communist apparat) who was thoroughly imbued with the ethos of the old regime.

These two sides were in constant tension. The tug-of-war between the democratic and the authoritarian aspects of his political personality has allowed Russian journalists to describe Yeltsin as a democrator, a hybrid of democrat and dictator. This hybrid nature of his charisma and leadership in a distinctive way reflected the ambiguities of the country itself.

At first, popular attitudes to Yeltsin were kind. Despite his eccentricities, he was seen as "one of the people" fighting against the corruption and privileges of the party elite. Toward the end of Gorbachev's ill-fated perestroika Yeltsin was seen as the chief guarantor of reform especially after his firm pro-democracy stance during the failed August 1991 coup.

This era saw the revival of some old Brezhnev jokes, but the focus was put on Yeltsin's unorthodox actions:

  When Yeltsin resigned from the Communist Party at the 28th Party Congress in 1990, people used to say that "Yeltsin is out of mind,... honour, and conscience of our epoch".

(A hint at a widespread propaganda slogan: "Party is Mind, Honour and Conscience of our Epoch".)


However, Yeltsin's controversial shock therapy strategy, launched in January 1992 to effect the marketization of Russia, put intolerable strains on the economy and society and opened him to bitter criticism. The price liberalization resulted in a rapid impoverishment of the majority of the population. People were subjected to dubious privatization schemes, their lifelong savings made worthless by inflation, and millions suffered from the nonpayment of wages and pensions.

Yeltsins second presidential term (1996-1999), marked by prolonged spells of passivity and ill health on his part, appears to have been in many respects a period of wasted opportunities for Russia. A heart attack suffered between the first and second rounds of the presidential election in the summer of 1996 required that he undergo heart bypass surgery, which was performed in November 1996. Preparation for the surgery and recuperation from it left him unable to make all but the most pressing decisions for well over half a year.

He resumed a more normal schedule only in the spring of 1997, but even then Yeltsin was unable to exercise the duties of his office with any consistency or impose a common policy line on the huge presidential administration. On 31 December 1999, Boris Yeltsin announced his voluntary resignation and transferred the reigns of power into the hands of his prime-minister, Vladimir Putin. In his resignation speech he asked the Russian people to forgive him for the failures of his reforms.

Most of the jokes of that time mainly revolved around his ill health, inarticulateness and his love of drinking.

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