A Labyrinth to Freedom and Democracy

A Labyrinth to Freedom and Democracy

by Kenneth Rayman on November 20, 2019

I remember one image; a frail man meandering in front of the camera, who I was told was “not a good man” with maybe a comment or two about “him being the only one on the ballot” in the election. The only other image I had of that time period was Sunday evening news features on the country’s rampant alcoholism. Again, I thought “how do these images match up?” but as a small child, politics and social epidemics were beyond my comprehension. This made learning the Perestroika and Glasnost period a keen interest point attending “History 382 - Modern Russia” in college, having focused my time on the past to understand cultural context. Instead of improving the Union’s international standing and domestic standards, by relaxing of certain information and media, it instead exposed the aging rigid system’s frailty as the Chernobyl explosion saw the government backtracking in a panic to old tactics, trying to downplay the severity while doing damage control behind the scenes. The system was shown to be irrevocably damaged and the man seen to be the changing face of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev, seen as powerless against an apparatus with its heels stuck in the mud. Boris Yeltsin was only shown to be no friend of Mikhail’s, but the class stopped right at Dec. 25, 1991.

It wasn’t until reading, “On My Country and the World” by Gorbachev that I truly understood 1985-91 in a way that made sense. Gorbachev has an easily understandable narrative throughout the book, though a bit academic, and Boris’ political opposition to him and the Communist party were laid bare. Gorbachev’s referendum to reform political representation, granting the 15 republics more political stewardship within the Soviet sphere, was a misjudgment, carrying consequences in the Baltics. As the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic sought to gain power over internal law, it was if Boris said, “If we are now Russia, yet underneath the Soviet Union (or in Mikhail’s proposed Union of Sovereign States confederation), and able to govern ourselves, what is the purpose of your office and what authority do you hold?” I thought of Washington, D.C. suddenly declaring itself independent of the government composing the Federal District, itself, saying, “If we are our own state within the USA, what authority does Congress and the President have over us?” only Boris posed that question on a much larger scale. Conor O’Clery’s book, “Moscow, December 25, 1991: The Last Day of the Soviet Union” played on the political endfighting between the two men, as one deliberately avoided the other as they sent mixed messages through aides. The “My Perestroika” documentary introduced him as a prominent figure fighting with the populous behind him. Coverage of the '91 coup attempt as he stood atop a tank imploring the people of Moscow to resist the coup leaders and the military was my first visual of him not as a delirious frail man.

With my request granted to go to Ekaterinburg, I requested to see the Yeltsin Center; I did not know I was being hosted as a distinguished guest of the local Rotary, which met in the Center’s restaurant. My host Giorgi and I went through together after the weekly meeting. A video played in a large room that I was told was the Russian battle for freedom and democracy. As we waited to enter at the beginning of the video, I curiously thought how an average American might hear those words upon entering and possibly discount the experience they were about to have due to preconceptions. Right away, I thought of my mission to help get around those beliefs and increase cultural understanding. Democracy in different forms is a reality I’ve come to find in every place I’d visited so far, but why is Russia so “unbelievable” in that context? In those few minutes waiting to enter, I thought, “The mirror universe Russia and the United States find themselves in; Russia has always been a direct opposing image of the United States, regardless of culture or era… could this be why America views Russia at large with caution?” 

The video shown the various periods of history from Alexander Nevsky to Ivan the Terrible, to Peter the Great, Catherine the Great, and the Tsar Liberator, to Lenin and Gorbachev, with reforms and rollbacks defining and/or scaring generations of Russians and their psyche, to finally Yeltsin addressing the Soviet Congress in ’87 saying Gorbachev's reforms won't change the system. Reform must be born out of the destruction of the old instead of from within. The Communist era exhibit with Yeltsin’s childhood, sports career, and party membership as the head of the region’s committee highlighted. It concluded with a representation of Yeltsin addressing the Politburo in 1987 and resigning from the party, frustrated with the lack of meaningful reform under Perestroika. It was meant to show the societal changes underway internally, as criticizing the leader of the Central Committee was unheard of, as was resigning from the party. I would sit in an actual party member chair listening to the speech before moving on to see those changes during the 80s, such as the underground music scene with Viktor Tsoi and Yeltsin’s political re-emergence, the 1990 creation of the Russian republic's own Supreme Soviet, independent of the USSR's council, and Yeltsin's election as President of Russia in June 1991.

“Seven Days That Changed Russia” is meant to show the tremendous social changes that happened as a result of political realities and social boundaries shifting, almost overnight, in an environment expansive in size and cultural makeup which knows, and accepts, a certain level of corruption as part of life with centuries of this expansiveness playing into it culturally. Adding political and social unsteadiness into that expansiveness made life change seemingly “hour by hour” at times in '90s my hosts, Giorgi and Nikolai, would each say. The exhibit’s groundwork was set through Yeltsin’s political suicide in 1987 then his re-emergence in 1990 to when, on Day 2, he stood on a tank declaring the actions of essentially a “foreign” committee interfered with Russia’s domestic freedom, as other Soviet republics began to assert their own independence. Day 2’s August Coup section displayed pictures of Moscow citizens united against a Soviet army, working against the plotter’s imposed martial law to bar the army from taking control of the White House where the Supreme Soviet of the RSFSR met. Replica displays of the barricades in front of the White House stood along the walls consisting of anything you might imagine, as citizens scrambled to put whatever they could in front of what, for them, meant self-determination of their future from the “Gang of Eight” hard line Soviet Communists. Images from “My Perestroika” flooded back again, as the film’s subjects live in Moscow, some were away on holiday, one was skeptical of the motives of the army and leadership, and the others were with the demonstrators at the White House. The barricades and photos made the film’s moments and emotions of the residents ever more real. Seeing the actual Russian flag that flew above the White House on August 19th and 20th was, to me, like laying eyes on the Russian “voice” which stood up to the Hammer and Sickle, akin to the versions of “Old Glory” that stood up to the British Union Jack at Yorktown, Lexington, or Bunker Hill.

Russia’s experience of normalizing this new reality would come in the remaining “days” in the museum, walking through an empty grocery store showcasing the elimination of price controls with “Shock Capitalism” which devalued the currency and caused products to be too expensive to replenish and re-stock, leading to the image of the cue lines becoming synonymous with the flawed (as it was viewed in the West) image of Russia. The newly available products that could be now bought in the new Russia were also on display. I chuckled a little seeing the pile of denim jeans, remembering the line from “My Perestroika,” in conjunction with the collapse of the country with their Western influence, as well as the technology of the 90s reminding me of my own age. 

The 1993 crisis was almost completely unknown to me having only seen the image of the burnt-out White House but never why. I learned about the clashes between Yeltsin and the remaining “old guard” as Yeltsin looked to define his Presidential power and continue to stabilize the country and economy. The old Soviet legislative system was still in place, which blocked most of Yeltsin proposed, so Yeltsin moved to dissolve the ruling legislative body which they responded by impeaching him, leading to a political confrontation between factions. Yeltsin sought to solidify authority over a constitution still holding the last vestiges of the Soviet Union within Parliament and replace it with a new one, independent of it's past. 

The election of 1996 was a watershed moment for the direction of the country. With the chaotic start to the decade economically, Yeltsin had historically low approval ratings and the Communists saw a legitimate opportunity to return to power. I heard multiple times during this visit, whether in Moscow or Ekaterinburg, of the feeling that Communism would return and the unease as the returns came in that evening; yet it was Yeltsin’s hope that an engaged youth would carry him to victory as they had since 1991. Shortly after the victory “Day 6” occurred with Yeltsin’s heart surgery and yet another financial crisis in 1997 which was illustrated by exchange rates along a stock ticker and the 1996 rate of 4 Rubles to 1 US Dollar (the current exchange rate is 63.8 to 1).

Yeltsin used constitutional power to repeatedly reform his cabinet, replacing ministers as needed, addressing problems the new Russia faced but political support in the legislative body and the country’s populous eroded, with foreign policy mistakes, worsening financial issues, and then corruption charges of his own. It was here, on Day 7, I learned Yeltsin resigned on New Year’s Eve in 1999. At 13 years old, I thought Vladimir Putin was Yeltsin's “blessed successor” in the election, before learning of the ever-changing cabinet level advisors and Putin's appointment in 1999. Boris, it seemed, resigned to preserve the legacy he helped usher in of freedom in Russia, but not prolong any issues that plagued the decade by letting new leadership take over. Russian constitutional law did dictate, though, that upon abdication of the office an election had to be held within three months, so the previously scheduled June 2000 election was instead held in March to which Putin won a majority.

I exited through Yeltsin's Presidential office, redone exactly how it was in the Kremlin, complete with Christmas tree along the wall from 1999 and his suit coat draped over the desk chair. I now understood the piece of the Russia puzzle that was political in my lifetime, where political narratives took hold of the story, disinteresting me or confusing me. As Russia began anew with democracy as it's aim, a world which regarded Russia and the Soviet Union as one and the same skeptically looked on. Yeltsin, today, is a divisive figure in Russia for the failures of the 90s but also, with the museum, heralded for bringing about a finally uniquely free and democratic Russia.