Yeltsin dances

On June 10th 1996, Alexander Zemlianichenko captured in a photo that would eventually win a Pulitzer and a Word Press Photo award the essence of Boris Yeltsin’s presidency. In the photo, Yeltsin was dancing at a rock concert in Rostov while campaigning for his re-election. In 1996, his main opponent was Communist candidate Gennady Zyuganov, who was ahead of Yeltsin in early polls. His dance at Rostov was to prove that Yeltsin was in good health but it was merely indicative of Yeltsin’s erratic leadership, always known for wrong moves at wrong times. Boris Nikolayevich Yeltsin indeed stood tall on a tank during the failed coup attempt in August 1991, but spent the next decade besmirching this early integrity as not the Soviet system but also law and order collapsed around him. He sat idly as his family and cronies plundered not only the state’s coffers but also its prized assets.

Holed up inside the Kremlin with a trusted group of oligarchic advisors, Yeltsin was also plagued by chronic drinking problem. Yeltsin won the 1996 election handily through publicity stunts like the Rostov concert, and through dozens of popular legislation (such as one that multiplied the savings of all Russians older than eighty by a thousand). The Russian media, which preferred Yeltsin over any harkening back to Communism, also helped him by cordially withholding some negative information. For years the media had speculated that the Russian President was in ill-health, due to his alcoholism, but during the campaign, it disappeared as a major issue.

Yeltsin’s drinking was proverbially “normal” for a Russian, i.e. one bottle of vodka a day. As his ill-health and alcoholism — no doubt exacerbated by the stress of managing increasingly chaotic Russia —  worsened, his erratic acts multiplied. During a visit to Washington D.C., Yeltsin was found on Pennsylvania Avenue, drunk, in his underwear and trying to hail a cab in order to find pizza — that perennial food of choice among the inebriated. Yeltsin would also call the White House from the Kremlin totally drunk. Once above the Shannon Airport, Ireland, his plane circled overhead for at least an hour as the welcoming party waited on ground, Yeltsin being too ill — read, too drunk — to meet the Irish prime minister. Although mostly harmless, this unpredictability caused great alarms in outside Russia as he threatened the West with a world war when the NATO bombs fell over Belgrade in 1999, and ordered the military to shoot on civilians and burn down everything in Chechenya.