Clever digital manipulation is not necessary — strategic release of photos often sufficed — to create myths.
Boris Yeltsin perfectly encapsulated Tacitus’ remarks on Roman Emperor Galba: omnium consensu capax imperii nisi imperasset (loosely translated, everyone thought he was capable of being emperor, until he became one). A pivotal figure who oversaw the tumultuous disintegration of the Soviet Union, Yeltsin was a divisive figure; he climbed onto tanks to stop a coup d’état in 1991, only to send more tanks three years later to pulverize his own parliament. He courageously heralded the end of a totalitarian regime, only to replace it with a corrupt oligarchy.
His rule was dyspeptic. Yeltsin had been a sickly child and had heart problems since childhood; the thankless task of modernizing a collapsing empire didn’t improve his health either. An uphill re-election campaign in 1995 further wrecked his health. His puffy eyes, slurred speech, stiff walk and forced self-control were reminiscent of Leonid Brezhnev in his last years. Yeltsin’s Communist opponent jibed that the Russians were being asked to vote for “a walking corpse”.
In an attempt to deny the rumors about his failing heath, Yeltsin’s press office published a photograph of him at work on 14th July 1995. However, journalists noticed the latest picture had strong resemblances to a photograph released in April of that year. In both pictures, Yeltsin had the same hairstyle and wore the same shirt; he was sitting in front of the same curtains and wallpaper, with the identical four telephones and the identical pile of documents in front of him.
But Yeltsin had what many other leaders in the democractic world could only hope for: a cooperative press. Although many accused Yeltsin of bribing the press, the truth was more complex. Although Russian newspapers duly noted darkly that the Kremlin’s practices of suppressing news about the health of the country’s leaders reached back to the Soviet times, they decided not to pursue the story any further. The Russian media was in favour of keeping the democratic option open with Yeltsin in power; a wobbly reformer was better than a Communist, they decided.
A few days later, Yeltsin appeared on television and admitted that he had suffered a heart attack. He won the election, but his health continued to deteriorate. By 1999, Yeltsin would rarely appear in public. When he did so he seemed decrepit, inarticulate and in need of physical support. Retirement seemed a sensible next move, and that was exactly he did on the last day of the departing millennium. By doing so, Boris Yeltsin became the first Russian leader in five centuries to voluntarily walk away.