Europe

Russia's Medvedev unveils Boris Yeltsin statue

  • 1 February 2011
  • From the section Europe
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev stands by the new Yeltsin statue in Yekaterinburg, 1 February

For the first time since the Soviet era, a statue has been erected to a Russian political leader. The monument in Yekaterinburg, Boris Yeltsin's home city, is the centrepiece of the celebrations marking the 80th anniversary of his birth.

Until recently, state-owned channels had been emphasising the out-of-control criminality associated with the Yeltsin years, but this week his official reputation appears to have been re-evaluated with the broadcast of stirring TV documentaries.

The extent of the rehabilitation is best illustrated by the appearance of President Dmitry Medvedev himself at the unveiling of the statue. It is an intriguing development given the Russian political tradition of denouncing one's predecessors.

Naina Yeltsina says she is glad that her husband's memory is being treated with more respect.

"Looking back now, it might seem as if all the problems should have been easier to solve," she told the BBC.

"But you have to remember that at that time there were two camps - those who wanted democracy and freedom, and those who wanted to keep the totalitarian communist regime - and there were a lot of them.

"Imagine what it was like for him trying to force through all these reforms against the will of these people who had a majority in parliament and a lot of influence on the government," she said.

'Defiant speech'

Boris Yeltsin is best remembered for the moment in August 1991 when, in the middle of the coup by Communist hardliners, he climbed up onto a tank outside the Russian parliament to make a speech in defiance of the plotters.

There were millions of protesters on the streets of Moscow at the time, but it was also his charisma and sheer force of will that won the day for the democrats.

When the Soviet Union dissolved, Boris Yeltsin, as Russian president, became the leader of what was still a vast land.

He accelerated the reforms that had been started by Mikhail Gorbachev, rushing in a free market and privatising state industries.

But many Russians remember the 1990s as years in which pensioners became impoverished, while a few men became billionaires through acquiring huge chunks of the country's natural resources.

Gangsters and mafia bosses rose to prominence in many cities. Russia fought two bloody wars trying to suppress separatists in Chechnya.

Several times the president appeared to be drunk in public.

'Not static'

Testing public opinion in Yekaterinburg in an unscientific manner, we met Vladimir, a former submariner from the Soviet navy who blamed the corruption of those years on the people around Yeltsin.

Image caption Yeltsin died of a heart attack in 2007 aged 76

"Boris Yeltsin was just the front man. Behind him there were people involved in all sorts of dealings. They got what they wanted, but he had very little to do with all that stuff."

At his Moscow studio, Georgy Frangulyan - the sculptor and architect commissioned to build the Yeltsin monument - told me: "He came to power in a difficult period and he did a lot of good, but just as with other political leaders not everything he did was successful. That's why my obelisk is not static - it is a block of stone moving forward and leaving debris behind it."

I also went to see Alexander Lebedev, a man who typifies the changes in Russia in the last two decades. A former KGB officer, he is now a banker and owns several newspapers, including the Independent and the Evening Standard in Britain.

But recently he has complained of being harassed by the Russian police.

"I think Yeltsin took us forward to the democratic society, probably 30 or 40 percent," he said.

"Then Putin took us another 10 percent in his first term. Since 2004 I think we moved back another 25 percent - no governors' elections; the electronic media is fully controlled."

"We have all these pictures of Putin and Medvedev taking care of us on a daily basis," he added sarcastically.

One of Boris Yeltsin's legacies is that he was the man who plucked Vladimir Putin from relative obscurity and made him prime minister.

Since then his protege has served two terms as president and is now prime minister once more, and Mr Putin has not ruled out standing for president again next year.

More on this story