BROOKE GLADSTONE: Boris Yeltsin died this week. It seemed to matter more over here, where it dominated CNN, than it did over there, where the initial television coverage was less fervent. Several of Russia’s leading TV stations, all state-controlled, reportedly chose not to interrupt their scheduled programming to break the story.
It was, however, front page news in nearly all of Russia’s major dailies, which says something about the nation’s media, and even more about the man. The front page obit in Vremya Novostei said history needs heroes. Yeltsin was the last hero. Probably not - that is, not the last and not a hero, at least not always. ANNE APPLEBAUM: The paradox of Yeltsin and his kind of manic-depressive presidency is that he was able to abolish the KGB and he was able to revive the KGB. He was able to speak about freedom and he was able to be personally rather autocratic. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Anne Applebaum, author of Gulag: A History, lives in Warsaw. ANNE APPLEBAUM: And I think, depending on how you remember the 1990s, you’ll remember him standing on the tank calling for freedom, or you’ll remember him drunk on stage in another place. DAVID HOFFMAN: I would venture a guess that almost everything Yeltsin did was instinctive. He was that kind of politician. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Washington Post foreign editor David Hoffman reported from Moscow from 1995 to 2001. DAVID HOFFMAN: If you sat and thought about whether or not you wanted to publicly attack the ruling party in a country as big and powerful as the Soviet Union, you might have talked yourself out of it. Do you think that Yeltsin schemed before he decided to oppose the coup and stand on that tank? He didn’t. He was impulsive. But you know what? His instincts were one of his strengths. BROOKE GLADSTONE: And one of his weaknesses. Nearly a week since his death, you probably had a chance to reacquaint yourself with Yeltsin’s bio, his historic trajectory from impoverished peasant to construction foreman to party boos to party favorite to party scourge to party destroyer. In August of ’91 he stood on that tank in Moscow to keep hardliners from deposing reformist President Mikhail Gorbachev, but by December, Yeltsin was strong enough to take the reins of Russia himself, and he drove the old Soviet Union straight over a cliff.
Then he abolished the Communist Party, for a while, privatized industry, embarked on economic reform and freed the press. Hurray! Kind of. MASHA LIPMAN: Everything was a mirage. President Yeltsin genuinely wanted Russia to become democratic, but not himself, nor, of course, the Russian nation, figured what an insurmountable task this was. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Masha Lipman is an editor and expert in the Civil Society Program at the Carnegie Moscow Center. MASHA LIPMAN: To build a democracy with institutions, with checks and balances, a democracy as it is known in western countries, after seven decades of an inhuman regime with outlawed private property, censorship across the board, not to mention, of course, the years of bloody terror, with no experience with democracy and freedom, to expect that Russia would have institutions in place within a few years was so naïve. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Instead of a prosperous and civil society, the Yeltsin years brought Russia a crushing poverty, rampant corruption and a profoundly unpopular war on its borders - and a free press. Yes, Yeltsin did deliver that. David Hoffman. DAVID HOFFMAN: Yeltsin never closed down any newspaper. Yeltsin didn’t take over television. Yeltsin realized that competition is the oxygen of democracy, and competition is the oxygen of free markets. And even at the risk of his own poll numbers in single digits, even at the risk of his war on Chechnya turning every night into a bloody spectacle on NTV, he allowed it to happen, no matter what the cost. BROOKE GLADSTONE: NTV, the most popular TV channel, was owned by banker Vladimir Gusinsky, who thought it would be fun to run a newspaper and a TV station. He was one of the oligarchs, a handful of rich men who built or bought Moscow’s fledgling independent media outlets. They all slammed Yeltsin when his power was secure, but they all rallied round him when the communists threatened to take him down in the 1996 election. To the ordinary Russian, the media’s united front screamed bias, shrieked that the fix was in. DAVID HOFFMAN: The great moment of sin by the media was the fact that they threw their support unequivocally behind Yeltsin in the ’96 campaign. They did it with their eyes open. They felt they had no choice. It was him or a communist. It was an existential choice. They did it. BROOKE GLADSTONE: I worked in Russia during Yeltsin’s first term, when pensioners were murdered by mobsters for their newly privatized apartments. But it was no longer illegal to be gay, when millions of jobs and billions of foreign aid dollars disappeared overnight, but history books were rewritten to tell the truth; when mine workers were paid in tampons, seriously, when they were paid at all, but the press was free.
Yeltsin was the first Russian to be freely elected, the first to voluntarily resign, and in his manic-depressive way, he anointed a successor who would turn it all around. MASHA LIPMAN: Institutions did not take root in Russia - not the media, not the parliament, not the independent judiciary. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Masha Lipman. MASHA LIPMAN: In fact, what happened in Russia was time and especially, lately, in President Putin’s tenure, is Russia slipping back to the old track, with an omnipotent state and an impotent society.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: When Yeltsin resigned on December 31st, 1999, he was humble. I apologize, he said, because our dreams have not come true. On Wednesday, Vladimir Putin said that Yeltsin, quote, “would always be a bright symbol of changes, a fighter against archaic dogmas.” But Yeltsin didn’t fight when Putin rolled those changes back.
Well, once he did, when Putin restored the old Soviet anthem that Yeltsin had previously banned. Yeltsin said, quote, “My only association with the old anthem is Party congresses and conferences that consolidated the power of the Party’s bureaucrats.” On Wednesday, it was played by a military band over his grave. [CHOIR SINGS SOVIET ANTHEM, UP AND UNDER] ARUN RATH: Coming up, a preacher lady and a corn chip bandit. BROOKE GLADSTONE: This is On the Media from NPR.