MOSCOW — Boris Yeltsin looked weary that day 20 years ago, as if he somehow understood the burden he was taking up would eventually overwhelm him.
On July 10, 1991, Yeltsin was inaugurated as the first elected president in Russia’s 1,000-year history. He stood before the nation in the Kremlin Palace of Congresses, heralded by a trumpet fanfare, and promised his countrymen that their poverty and servitude — they had forever bowed to czar or commissar — was ending.
“Our great Russia is rising from its knees,” he said. “We will definitely turn it into a prosperous, democratic, peace-loving, law-abiding and sovereign state.”
Yeltsin began burying the communist past that moment. The enormous picture of Lenin that normally dominated the hall had been replaced by the white, blue and red flag of the Russian Federation. Patriarch Alexis II, head of the Russian Orthodox Church, helped to hurry out the last days of official atheism, blessing the new president with the sign of the cross and reminding him that the nation had lost its moral values during 70 years of communism. Though Russia remained a part of the Soviet Union, which would not dissolve until the end of the year, it was now run by a president instead of a party secretary.
On the streets of Moscow, people still stood in line for bread, and sugar was scarce. GUM, the pre-revolutionary shopping arcade on one side of Red Square, had mostly empty shops selling a few ghastly neckties, ill-fitting shoes and badly made clothing. The capital was dimly lit, its lovely pre-revolutionary buildings tilting and crumbling, its people poorer than even they realized.
Yeltsin promised thorough economic reform, and six months later his government set off economic shock therapy, ending control of food prices. In a few weeks, with profits to be made, shelves grew fuller. The new choices were bewildering for some — how could cooking oil cost a few kopecks more in one shop than another, indignant Russians demanded?
Many Russians were newly impoverished as prices galloped ever higher. Elderly women, their pensions worth less and less, stood on streetcorners selling their teacups or their dead husband’s boots. Factory managers, losing subsidies and unable to figure out how to make their aging plants profitable, grew restive and their complaints were heard in Parliament, which rebelled against Yeltsin and his rush toward market reforms.
After days of standoff and fear of disorder in Moscow, Yeltsin in 1993 ordered an assault on the Russian White House, and with the firing of tanks the heady dreams of a new kind of country began to dissipate.
Next, in 1994, came the first Chechen war. Then the presidential election of 1996, when Yeltsin’s advisors, fearful of a Communist resurgence, made deals with a small group of businessmen. In return for the privilege of buying state property at fire-sale prices, they would use their influence to assure Yeltsin’s reelection. So began the era of the fabulously wealthy oligarch and the growing disenchantment of the average man with free markets and democracy.
Yeltsin was growing ill and politically weaker. On Dec. 31, 1999, he resigned, handing over the presidency to Vladimir Putin, a former agent of the KGB, the secret police who had represented all the dark powers that Yeltsin had once rallied the nation against.
Today, high oil prices have brought the majority of Russians out of Soviet-era poverty. They have the freedom to travel. The GUM arcade glitters with designer shops and goods from the world over. Moscow shelves are full of bread, freshly baked French baguettes, pain au chocolat, Italian ciabbati and a full range of tortilla wraps.
Free elections are no more, now controlled by a government that allows only favored political parties to field candidates. The Nineties left democracy with a tarnished reputation. Yeltsin, who had the strength to destroy the past, found building the future too formidable a task. He died in April 2007, his words from that gloriously hopeful inaugural day mostly forgotten. The crowds shouting for freedom and democracy have long gone quiet.
“I am sure that the vicious tradition of dividing the society into those who are right and those who are wrong, into friends and foes, will disappear for good,” he had said.
“The times when the people were silent are receding into the past, never to return again.”