Russia's only presidential library keeps the fires burning for Boris Yeltsin

Russia's first president remains a controversial figure in his native land, where he is seen by some as a founding father and others as a man who nearly destroyed the country.

Fred Weir
A group of schoolchildren pose with a life-sized figure of Russia's first president, Boris Yeltsin, in the main gallery of the Yeltsin Center in Yekaterinburg, Russia.

Russia has only one presidential library so far, a cavernous glass-and-steel structure that was originally designed to be a shopping mall. In front of it stands a tall white marble obelisk, reputed to be the only monument in Russia that requires around-the-clock police protection.

Welcome to the Yeltsin Center, dedicated to this Urals industrial center's most famous native son, Boris Yeltsin.

There are few things that get Russians hot-under-the-collar faster than bringing up Yeltsin and the stormy transition he presided over in the 1990s. The legacy of Russia's first president includes negotiating the demise of the USSR, and introducing sweeping liberal reforms which gave Russians unprecedented freedom. But those reforms also triggered mass impoverishment, and Yeltsin also oversaw the shelling of his own parliament amid a desperate 1993 power struggle, a war on separatist Chechnya, and authoring the president-centered Constitution that Vladimir Putin later utilized to impose a near-authoritarian regime.

Depending on whom you engage with, the Yeltsin era was, to paraphrase Charles Dickens, either the best of times or the worst of times. It was the spring of hope, or it was the winter of despair. Few express much ambivalence about it.

But for some, merely having the debate over Yeltsin's legacy shows the social and political changes that Russia ushered in during his term.

"We have regular open forums here, where we debate all these issues. It can get pretty heated," says Dina Sorokina, the Yeltsin Center's youthful, energetic director. "I would point out that this is one of the few places in our country where a diversity of views is welcomed and encouraged."

Controversy in Yekaterinburg

Since the center was opened almost a year ago, it's hosted almost a quarter-million visitors in its museum of 1990s history, and has become a fixture on Yekaterinburg's cultural scene by sponsoring a wide range of artistic and theatrical events. There have been protests, including an attack that badly defaced the Yeltsin monument while the center was being constructed. But the idea of the center enjoys wide support from Russia's establishment; more than half of its approximately $200 million cost was provided by the Kremlin, the rest by private donations raised from a who's who of Russia's business world.

Its inauguration last year was attended by Mr. Putin, whose government has been making major efforts to smooth over Russia's wildly contradictory historical record and present it as a single unbroken narrative. The Kremlin has openly catered to growing Soviet nostalgia, sponsored a huge Moscow museum devoted to czarist history, and, in Yekaterinburg, promoted lavish memorials to the last czar, who was murdered here in 1918.

"This center is not just about one man," says Ms. Sorokina. "It's about the hopes and aspirations of Russians and their search for higher ideals."

The museum presents Russia's 1,000-year story as an unending struggle for freedom, often suffering terrible setbacks but culminating in Yeltsin's defeat of a hard-line communist coup in 1991, leading directly to the collapse of the Soviet Union. Understandably, given the center's funding, there is no attempt to assess whether the subsequent Putin era represents a "setback."

Paving the path for Putin?

For some, the arrival of Mr. Putin – handed power by an ailing Yeltsin on New Year's Eve 1999 – signaled the end of Russia's democratic experiment, the gradual imposition of a stifling neo-Soviet blanket over basic freedoms, and the inevitable resumption of geopolitical strife with the West.

Others view Putin as a savior, who reversed the Yeltsin-inspired disintegration of Russia's historically powerful state, renounced destructive Western economic advice, delivered mass prosperity, and lifted Russia from its knees to make it a great power again.

"Yeltsin was a pure destroyer. He brought down the USSR, ruined the economy, wrecked our armed forces, and groveled to the West," says Vassily Rafikov, a former police officer, who now works as a security guard to supplement his pension. "This center is not just a waste of money, it's an insult to millions of honest Russians who worked and fought for the Soviet Union, and then were cast aside by Yeltsin's so-called new Russia."

In the wake of the Soviet collapse, Russia's tightly knit, state-socialist industrial economy crumbled, throwing vast numbers into poverty. The country's GDP shrank by almost 50 percent during the first years of the decade.

After putting down his rebellious parliament with gunfire, Yeltsin re-wrote Russia's constitution to bestow the lion's share of power on the Kremlin – a development, some experts warned at the time, could enable dictatorship if someone less democratically minded than Yeltsin should come to power. He authorized a disastrous invasion of separatist Chechnya that led to humiliating defeat and set the stage for a far more brutal assault on the little republic by Putin a few years later.

Yeltsin narrowly won re-election against a Communist challenger in 1996, and then authorized sweeping privatization of Russia's formerly state economy, granting special deals to Kremlin insiders who later became known as "oligarchs." The decade ended with a financial crash that wiped out the country's incipient middle class, and charges of corruption against Yeltsin's family.

'A work in progress'

At the time of Yeltsin's death in 2007, his reputation among Russians was dismal, though he remained highly regarded in the West. According to a tracking poll by the state-funded VTsIOM public opinion agency, Yeltsin's standing among Russians has only worsened since. In 2007, Yeltsin was regarded "negatively" by 36 percent of respondents, while that number sank to 50 percent in the same poll done earlier this year. This year, just 10 percent of respondents were able to name a single positive accomplishment of Yeltsin's.

But not everyone sees it that way.

"Everyone has their own 1990s," says Yevgeny Roizman, Yekaterinburg's liberal mayor. "For me, those years meant freedom, the world opened up for me, we had chances to act in the interest of changing Russia for the better. Every individual could contemplate a new and different future. Yeltsin managed to break up the Soviet Union without bloodshed – a huge accomplishment – and it's not his fault that he inherited a wrecked economy.

"Of course he had his flaws," Mr. Roizman adds. "He was a big, genuinely Russian man, but he believed in freedom and was never vindictive toward his critics. He remains the only Russian leader in all of history who not only relinquished power voluntarily, but also publicly begged the Russian people to forgive him for his mistakes."

Dmitry Kozelev, editor of the Yekaterinburg branch of Russia's popular online newspaper and a Millennial – which in the Russian context means someone who came of age in the Putin era – says the painful years of transition under Yeltsin probably cleared the way for the relative prosperity Russians have enjoyed under Putin. They also brought about many positive social and political changes that cannot be put back into the box.

"We went through a mostly peaceful transition from socialism to capitalism, and people today are very different from their parents. Russia is not the Soviet Union, and never will be again," he says. "We owe that to Boris Yeltsin, and all we endured in the 1990s. The message I get when I visit the Yeltsin Center is that we don't need authoritarianism to have a better life. Yeltsin showed us that this country is a work in progress, and it's never finished."

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