Lev Ponomarev on Boris Yeltsin: The Hero Who Was Deleted from History

1 February 2023

by Lev Ponomarev, human rights defender

Source: Ekho Moskvy

Kremlin.ru, CC BY 3.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Today is the birth date of Boris Yeltsin, democratic Russia’s first president, the first president elected nationally in free and fair elections, the first president who wasn’t afraid to bring about a peaceful democratic revolution together with the people.

Every year on this day, my friends and I lay flowers on Yeltsin’s grave. Now that we cannot be in Russia, I feel obligated to remind people of the concrete contribution Boris Nikolaevich made to Russia’s history.

He did not need to blow up apartment buildings in Moscow. He did not need to attack neighboring states to maintain his power. By saying, “Take as much sovereignty as you can swallow,” he kept regions, above all, Tatarstan, inside Russia.

I worked with Yeltsin for several years, from 1989 to 1993. And I am certain that in time he will enter the history textbooks just as I presented him above. Right now, though, everyone has pointedly “forgotten” him. Putin’s supporters have “forgotten” him, naturally. Understandably. Unfortunately, people are also forgetting him who took part with him in the country’s democratic transformations. Yielding to aggressive anti-Yeltsin propaganda, they don’t want to be linked to Yeltsin. I would like to see Anatoly Chubais write a truthful article about Yeltsin, especially since he is abroad. I would also like Grigory Yavlinsky, his criticism of Yeltsin’s economic policy notwithstanding, to admit that without Yeltsin there would not have been a victory for the democratic revolution and he himself would not have become the leader of a democratic political party.

Briefly on Yeltsin’s contribution to the country’s history.

Of course, the public’s mood in the late 1980s was ripe for regime change. Including through the policy of the Communist Party led by Mikhail Gorbachev, who had begun transformations à la socialism with a democratic face. Finding himself under tremendous pressure from the conservative circle inside the party leadership, Gorbachev, unlike Yeltsin, would not risk national elections for president, thereby maintaining his independence from his circle (he was elected president by the USSR Congress of People’s Deputies). Herein lay his main problem: cautious further steps and the end of his career.

Of course, Gorbachev’s greatest service was that he risked open national elections for the USSR Congress of People’s Deputies, while understanding that at the congress he might get support from the Communist Party’s democratic wing. Which he got. It was the democrats who set the congress’s agenda, going head to head with the “silent majority.” 

This is when the politician Yeltsin appeared, joining the interregional deputy group along with Andrei Sakharov, Gavriil Popov, Anatoly Sobchak, and many others. This group opposed Gorbachev in many ways, although he, relying on the silent majority, most often won on votes.

I was a witness to and participant in the main events in Moscow at the time and together with my friends prepared the democratic transformations. We supported the deputies of the interregional deputy group. Our united democratic movement was later called “Democratic Russia.” 

Our movement faced a choice at the very beginning: rely more either on Gorbachev or on someone from the interregional deputy group. I remember that the first rallies even included posters supporting Gorbachev. Gorbachev, however, was frightened of coming into contact with us and our choice landed on Yeltsin—Gorbachev’s main opponent, a genuine people’s deputy. 

The issue was solved definitively in August 1991, when the conservative GKChP [State Committee on the State of Emergency], which aimed to replace Yeltsin and disband the RSFSR Congress of People’s Deputies, was routed. Yeltsin, who was in the White House at the time and received an offer to leave it for a place of safety, refused and was prepared to stand up to the special services and the army together with the people, without weapons. And at that moment he became a national hero. 

Yeltsin frequently appeared at rallies and was a genuine people’s president.

The RSFSR Congress of People’s Deputies, and later the first State Duma, passed basic laws that created the premises for the country’s democratic development. Yeltsin signed all the laws passed by the deputies and basically did not interfere in legislative work. Under him, a grandiose economic reform was brought about that eliminated the Soviet Union’s command-administrative economy and allowed a real market economy to appear.

History teaches us, though, that after a successful reform, as a rule, counterreforms set in, since the bulk of the people do not get permeated with the reforms’ spirit and purpose. Moreover, among the democrats who did not have membership in the Communist Party, which was maintained just in case, there weren’t the necessary number of professionals able to fill administrative posts. Former Communists and Communist Party functionaries formed a solid circle around Yeltsin and true democrats no longer had access to him. Nonetheless, Yeltsin, maneuvering, saved the achievements of democracy and liberalization up until 2000.

But it is the years 1989-1993 that will go down in Russia’s history as the years of peaceful democratic revolution and as the years of Yeltsin.

Despite the mistakes Yeltsin made, it should be noted that Russia under him was both free and democratic. Despite the appearance of the oligarchy and its concentration of power.

Up until 2000, there was still freedom for the media (suffice it to mention the “Kukly” [Puppets] television show and Yeltsin’s image on it). Up until 2000, the country preserved its democracy. By way of example, let us recall that in the late 1990s the parliament was under the control of the Communists, which spoke to sufficient freedom of elections.

After 2000, all democratic institutions ceased to exist.

Translated by Marian Schwartz

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