"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
Yeltsin was seen as the chief guarantor of reform – especially
after his firm pro-democracy stance during the failed August 1991
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.
Yeltsin’s 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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