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Last Updated: Monday, 23 April 2007, 17:59 GMT 18:59 UK
Yeltsin era: The highs and lows
BBC diplomatic correspondent Bridget Kendall was based in Moscow during Boris Yeltsin's turbulent time in power.

In this BBC News 24 transcript, she reflects on the political career of the former Russian president.

Boris Yeltsin
Boris Yeltsin died unexpectedly, in hospital, of heart failure

Q: Bridget, as someone who was in Moscow for much of the time during the Yeltsin era, this news has taken everybody pretty much by surprise.

A: Well he was known not to have been in good health. Throughout the 1990s there were constant rumours of heart attacks, of medication, of how long he would last.

But when he went into retirement at the end of 1999, perhaps getting rid of all the cares of government, he seemed to feel a bit better and he led a very quiet retirement. But the reports were that he was doing better than he had before. Even so, no-one was expecting his death now.

Q: What was it like being a foreign correspondent, based in Moscow during Yeltsin's time?

There were a lot of people who believed that the shock therapy that he introduced was probably what Russia needed
Bridget Kendall

A: Well, I remember him first before he was president in 1989, when he had been sacked by Gorbachev, who started all the reforms of perestroika (restructuring). He reinvented himself as an opposition politician, got elected to a new Russian parliament which was a sort of experimental, very first parliament in the Soviet Union - and fell in with reformers.

One of my first memories of him is of a very tall, handsome man at the time - he was a big man and he always had very well-cut suits and he was a pall-bearer at the funeral of the dissident, Andrei Sakharov. So at that point he had a very different profile from the one he was to have later as president or even now as retired president.

I did come across him when he was president, we used to have press conferences with him - sometimes meet him.

Boris Yeltsin
Mr Yeltsin's drinking habits were well known

As the 90s went on, he became aware that he was sort of losing his grip really - he wasn't nearly this handsome, healthy figure who was there in the late 80s. He was replaced by a president on a lot of medication, though at times seemed to have had rather too much vodka round the table when he came out to greet the journalists at the press conference and was something of an embarrassment to Russians, I think, by the time he left office.

Q: It would be a great shame if he were remembered purely for those chaotic final years and those drunken incidents in the early part of his presidency achieving so much.

A: That's true, and people who took part in the attempted coup in August 1991, when hardliners, communist and military men tried to stop the reforms in their tracks and return the old Soviet Union - remember how he grasped the moment and he evaded arrest.

He made his base the Russian parliament, known as the White House in those days, and attracted thousands of people from all over Moscow who came to protect democracy, as they saw it.

And the moment when, in an attempt to try and galvanise them and reach them, he jumped up on top of a tank to announce that he was declaring this attempted coup unconstitutional and he was the real president of Russia. That was the moment when he was a sort of superstar and people had a lot of hope in him.

Boris Yeltsin atop a tank in front of the Russian Parliament, 1991
Many saw him as a saviour the day he defied a coup in 1991

And when, after that, he banned the Communist Party and helped lead to the collapse of the Soviet Union, became the new president of Russia, there were a lot of people who believed that the shock therapy that he introduced - the very dramatic economic reforms, painful as they were, were probably what Russia needed if it was going to rid itself of 70 years of a communist legacy.

Now over the 1990s, as life got more difficult, more chaotic, there was a war in Chechnya, there was a crash where a lot of people lost their savings - there was a lot of inflation - his popularity dwindled to really just a couple of percentage points.

And I must say now, here I am in Russia, as it happens in a provincial Russian town - I've been talking to people about what they think about life now and life in the last 10 years - I'm afraid that at the moment there are very few people who have a good word to say about him.

People here remember the years when he was president in the 1990s as years of near-anarchy and instability and feel that they've regained more stability. So I think it's going to take another few years - perhaps a decade or more - before people remember that this was the president who first brought in market reforms.

He got rid of a communist system which clearly was not working. And there may have been a lot of problems with the 1990s, but if he hadn't been this risk-taker, a bold figure who was prepared to bring in rather stark changes quickly, perhaps they wouldn't be living with the growing prosperity that certainly some in Russia are enjoying today.

Boris Yeltsin
He was also a huge personality and he made it his business to go out and meet the people
Bridget Kendall

Q: An incredible legacy in many ways, Bridget. Many of the shots we're seeing and playing here on News 24 of Boris Yeltsin's life show a man with a smile on his face, a man not afraid to joke and show a sense of humour.

A: That's certainly true. He was a real personality. From the moment he was brought to Moscow from the provinces by Mikhail Gorbachev, in 1986 at the very beginning of those perestroika reforms, I remember a Russian friend of mine at the time saying he was a sort of bouncer. He's a tough guy, he's not afraid to take tough decisions and get rid of people.

But he was also a huge personality and he made it his business to go out and meet the people. He would break away from his security men and jump on a tram and talk to ordinary people.

Now at that time the communist leadership kept itself very aloof from ordinary Soviet people and ordinary Russians leading their rather difficult lives often had very little contact with their leaders. People loved him for that.

And although later people said it was a cynical modern politician's ploy just to make himself seem more accessible to the people and to win their support so that he could get elected, at the time people thought it was a wonderful novelty. They really enjoyed the fact that he had a twinkle in his eye, that he wasn't afraid to speak his mind, say what he thought and enjoy a drop of vodka.

Boris Yeltsin dancing
People liked the fact he had a "twinkle in his eye"

But by the time he became president, and Russia was going through much more difficult changes, he had a different role in the country, no longer just a politician who people could meet and complain about their difficulties to. He was the man they wanted to solve their problems - then they weren't so keen on having a president who was also such a large personality - to the extent that there were occasions when he stumbled off planes drunk.

At one occasion at a big ceremony in Berlin, he tried to conduct an orchestra - and at that point, if you asked Russians what they thought of their president, they'd say 'He's shaming us, he's making Russia look incompetent and weak before the world' - and they didn't like that at all.




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