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Last Updated: Wednesday, 25 April 2007, 05:02 GMT 06:02 UK
Memories of Yeltsin
After the death of former Russian President Boris Yeltsin on Monday, five BBC Moscow correspondents, past and present, recall their encounters with a man whose charisma helped make him one of the most memorable figures of recent times.

BEN BROWN, BBC Moscow correspondent 1991-95

Strangely, the only time I properly met Boris Yeltsin - apart from chaotic "doorstep" interviews - was outside the toilet of one of Moscow's rather grotty domestic airports.

It was when he was first campaigning to be president of Russia, criss-crossing the country, and I was struck, in equal measure, by his charm, charisma and boundless energy.

Boris Yeltsin and Bill Clinton
Like other memorable figures, Yeltsin had great force of personality

Like Reagan or Thatcher, you felt he had the sheer force of personality to take history by the scruff of the neck and change it.

Maybe he wasn't a profound thinker, but he spoke slowly, clearly and with utter certainty.

At first I admired him as a democrat and a reformer, but like many Russians, my opinions of him gradually changed: year after year, day after day, I saw at first hand the misery of people plunged into poverty by his "shock therapy" economic reforms, and the wasteland of Chechnya - the catastrophic war he launched.

Still, if Lenin was the midwife of the Soviet Union, Yeltsin was the midwife of the new, democratic Russia. Love him or loathe him, he's one of the giant figures of the 20th Century.

KEVIN CONNOLLY, BBC Moscow correspondent 1989-94

When statesmen die, journalists write stories about how they met them, or knew them, or at least interviewed them, stretching moments of perfunctory connection into thousands of words of personal reminiscence. But Boris Yeltsin of course, was no ordinary politician and so this is the story of how I didn't meet him.

Mr Yeltsin was in Novokuznetsk in Western Siberia in the spring of 1991, campaigning for the presidency of Russia, which was then still merely part of a Soviet Union run by Mikhail Gorbachev.

Many of the themes which came to define the Yeltsin years were there to be seen in Novokuznetsk.

There was the chaos he inherited. There was no internal trade in the Soviet Union and provincial cities relied on deliveries of cash from Moscow. In the chaotic last months of communism, Novokuznetsk had received no deliveries for months and had been reduced to barter.

There was the hope he inspired. Russian voters weren't used to voting, and they weren't used to politicians clambering onto platforms and talking to them in straightforward language.

And there was the vodka. Candidate Yeltsin got through his speech, more or less, but after an epic evening's drinking he slept through his appointments for the following morning, including one with me. Pressed for an explanation, a member of his entourage performed a lurching, staggering head-rolling mime of intoxication. This was years before Mr Yeltsin's thirst became standard fare for the world's cartoonists.

Within two months, though, as Russia hung for three days suspended between the uncertainties of future democracy and horrors of a return to the totalitarian past, Yeltsin was clambering onto a tank outside the White House to address the crowds, just as he'd addressed his rally in Novokuznetsk. The populist skills he'd honed were the saving of his country. The weaknesses may have been there all along - so too was the touch of greatness.

STEVE ROSENBERG, producer/correspondent 1991-2006

There's one Russian word which Boris Yeltsin made his own - a word, in fact, which I never heard anyone else in Russia using: "zagagoolinka". It roughly translates as "zigzag" or "surprise move".

Boris Yeltsin campaigning for election in 1991
Yeltsin's popular touch headed off the communist backlash

Yeltsin became famous for his "zigzags"- in politics, in the economy, as well as in his own behaviour. From Russia's first president you could always expect the unexpected: a sudden change of personnel, an unexpected new policy; sometimes, due to ill health, he'd disappear from view without warning for weeks on end.

I remember several occasions in the 1990s when rumours spread that he'd actually died. But he always seemed to bounce back.

For me, Yeltsin's most memorable "zigzag" was the surprise sacking of his government in 1998. I was a BBC producer in Moscow at the time - it was early on Monday morning, there were no reporters in the office, so I had to step forward to make my first ever report.

BRIDGET KENDALL, Moscow correspondent 1989-1994

I remember my first close-up glimpse of Boris Yeltsin. I was hanging around in the break between sessions at the Soviet parliament in Moscow in 1989. I found myself standing next to him. He was tall and upright, in a well-cut blue suit.

When I introduced myself, he courteously but abruptly shook my hand, and turned on his heel. I assumed he thought talking to a foreign correspondent was beneath his dignity.

But I saw him again a few weeks' later, again standing silently and somewhat awkwardly, and I realised he simply felt ill at ease and quite possibly shy.

Fast forward to Boris Yeltsin as president, already in office several years in the mid-1990s. Again I am hanging around - this time waiting for a presidential press conference after a summit of leaders from former Soviet republics.

The doors swing open and we are invited into a grand room dominated by a vast circular table, from where President Yeltsin, red-faced and puffing slightly, summons us over and, slurring, starts to make a joke.

It becomes painfully obvious that he is seriously tipsy. Indeed he is still clutching a glass of champagne which slops bubbles on the table cloth. Kremlin officials hover anxiously.

The other leaders, many of them frowning in irritation and embarrassment, try not to catch anyone's eye. I wonder what matters of state they can have possibly discussed.

Two memories of the same man, some five or six years apart. It is hard to grasp this was the same person. As one Russian said to me, perhaps Boris Yeltsin's biggest mistake was to stay in power as long as he did.

JAMES RODGERS, Moscow correspondent for periods 1991-2007

Boris Yeltsin was the reason I first went to work in Russia. It was June 1991. He was running for election as the president of what was then called the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic.

By the end of the year, the Soviet Union had ceased to exist. Boris Yeltsin had played a huge role in its demise. My first assignment to Russia had given me a front row seat at one of the major events of the 20th Century.

Three years later, I met Boris Yeltsin face to face. He was on his way into the Bolshoi Theatre. He was already dogged by rumours of hard drinking. But that evening, he seemed full of energy as he wandered over to chat to the media. His bodyguards moved around him nervously, as if wondering where he would decide to go next.

I will always associate Boris Yeltsin with my grimmest ever job as a journalist too. In the spring of 1995, I stood in a field in Chechnya. Lines of civilian corpses, some charred by flames, lay awaiting burial. This was the result of the Kremlin's heavy-handed response to the breakaway region's bid for independence.


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