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.
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.
On August 19, 1991, the hardliners of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, led by the then-Vice President Gennady Yanayev, put the pro-reform General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev under house arrest. The party also sent tanks to suppress the people’s revolts for democracy.
At that critical juncture, Boris Yeltsin, President of the Russian Federation, defied the hardliners. He made a speech from the turret of a tank, calling on the military to refrain from firing on the people. The Communist hardliners originally planned to occupy the Parliament at 3 a.m. on August 20, 1991. The plan was aborted after the Alpha Group, an elite unit of the KGB, refused to follow orders. In the defeat of the August Coup, the consciences of KGB agents played an important role–some KGB agents had their weapons aimed at Yeltsin on the tank but refrained from firing.
From the moment he scrambled atop the tank, it was clear Boris Nikolayevich Yeltsin knew how to seize the day. Russia’s first freely elected leader in 1,000 years, he was the man who consigned the Soviet Union to history’s dustbin, and one who drove Russia’s chaotic transformation into a fledgling democracy during the ’90s. To cope, Yeltsin turned to vodka. After lunch during an official visit to Germany in ’94, he snatched the baton from a conductor and began to lead the band. A 1996 bypass operation seemed to check his drinking, but his health remained precarious. Public opinion turned against him as crime flourished and tycoons took control of state assets. By the time he resigned in 1999, the elements of suppression he fought were already returning. When he died in 2008, Bill Clinton remembered, “Fate gave him a tough time in which to govern, but history will be kind to him.”