Kinder View of Yeltsin Emerges in Eulogies

By Peter Finn
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, April 26, 2007

MOSCOW, April 25 -- In the two days since former president Boris Yeltsin died, his official standing here has undergone a strange and unlikely transformation. He has been lionized by a political establishment that spent the last six years demonizing what it views as the anarchy and humiliation of Russia during his rule in the 1990s.

Yeltsin "sincerely tried to do everything possible to make the lives of millions of Russians better," President Vladimir Putin said at a reception after Wednesday's funeral, according to the Russian news agency Interfax.

"Such personalities as Yeltsin do not die, they continue to live in the ideas and aspirations of peoples, in the successes and achievements of the motherland," Putin continued. "We have just said the last goodbye to Yeltsin. We said goodbye to a decisive person with strong will, a person of a scale and soul inherent to Russia."

"I have never heard such words in my life," Yeltsin's widow, Naina, said in response. "And Vladimir Putin spoke so succinctly. If Yeltsin had been listening to him, he would have been very pleased."

Indeed, Yeltsin heard little such praise when he was alive.

The explanation for such effusive eulogies may be as simple as the adage: Don't speak ill of the dead. But there was a head-spinning quality to the glowing commentary that was almost ubiquitous Wednesday.

Regular programming on state television Wednesday, a day of national mourning, was replaced by odes to the dashing, silver-haired Yeltsin, depicting him as the flamboyant revolutionary of yesteryear, the kindly grandfather in graceful retirement.

But there was little or nothing noted in between. No billionaire tycoons, no expansion of the NATO alliance, no poverty, no war in Chechnya, no economic collapse, no presidential drunkenness at international events.

Where did that Boris Yeltsin go?

Since Putin came to power in 2000, Yeltsin's Russia has been depicted as the incarnation of all that could go wrong with a country. That memory provided much of the ideological underpinning for Putin's construction of a strong, centralized state.

Once freewheeling institutions such as parliament, the press, political parties and regional executives have been brought to heel. The steely, sober, stabilizing Putin became the hugely popular antithesis of his predecessor. Yeltsin's chaotic democracy was transformed into something called "sovereign democracy" -- the turn of phrase of a Kremlin spin doctor that has come to mean the absolute ascendancy of executive power.

"On days like this you don't say bad things," said a host on Channel One, where some of Yeltsin's old cronies, rarely seen now on television, spoke fondly of their former boss Wednesday morning. Such reminiscing, however, never veered into any comparison with Putin. The potential juxtaposition of their very different approaches to democratic freedoms was left unexplored.

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