THE REAL RUSSIA

Putin’s Homage to Yeltsin, and the Ghost of Freedom Past

In his late-November visit to the Yeltsin Center in Yekaterinburg, Putin may have revealed more about his position than he wants publicly to admit.

12.26.15 5:01 AM ET

YEKATERINBURG, Russia — The last year has seen Moscow changing enemies with head-spinning speed. Every few days, it seemed, there were new culprits to blame for the country’s woes. A couple of months ago, the Kremlins vilified the “fascist junta” of Ukraine and the American “authors of the revolution” there.

Then the focus shifted to the dastardly Egyptians, then to the Turks. After what appeared to be a bomb brought down a Russian jet liner, charter flights were canceled for tens of thousands planning their New Year parties in the Sinai.

And then… the Turks shot down a Russian warplane near the Syrian border, triggering a bitter cold war that quickly froze out Russian tourism in Turkey.

By early December, authorities were recommending strongly that Russians just forget about leaving the country at all, and plan to celebrate what is traditionally their biggest party night, New Year, within Russia’s borders.

As freedom of movement began to slip away, nostalgia for it grew huge. People older than 30 immediately remembered the icy shadow of the old Soviet Iron Curtain. So they did what they did back then: they started joking about it.

One of the best jibes circulating on the Russian Internet, which I fear may be lost in translation, read: “We are lucky that Alina Maratovna [last name, Kabaeva, the former Olympic rhythmic gymnast with an amazingly flexible body who is alleged to be Putin’s girlfriend] does not quarrel with Vladimir Vladimirovich [that is, Putin], otherwise, Russians would have to hate women.”

Or, next to a picture of bright, fresh mandarin oranges from North Africa, Russia’s favorite fruit in this celebratory season: “It is important not to screw up relations with Morocco before the New Year.”

Thanks to the Internet, the Kremlin’s big geopolitical game became a laughable subject all across the country, in the Real Russia, from south to far north, to the far east.

So, when it came time to cast blame at home for Russia’s crumbling economy, it came as something of a surprise when the Kremlin changed track.

Until recently, the answer would have been automatic: Russia’s first post-Soviet president, Boris Yeltsin and his team, democrats of the 1990s, were blamed for destroying the nation’s industries and “drowning Russia in blood” during the Chechen war.

“Yeltsin was worse than Hitler,” Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov told me in an interview a few years ago.

Yet on a recent afternoon, Putin personally and officially switched off Yeltsin hate, both for the man and his era, by showing up at the opening of a massive, U.S.-designed Yeltsin Center and praising his predecessor’s human qualities and achievements.

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It all happened with stunning celerity, as if by a powerful swing of a magic wand. On an early morning in late November, once-powerful Kremlin advisers, the so-called The Family, along with Yeltsin’s widow, daughter, and son-in-law, loaded a few hundred Muscovites on a couple of chartered jets and flew them east to the capital city of the Ural mountain region, Yekaterinburg.

Most of the guests, some dressed in casual hipster duds, others in classic designer outfits, were Putin’s bitter critics. During that one-day trip, dubbed by some participants “a Noah’s Ark visit to Russia’s political cemetery,” The Daily Beast spoke with an author, a musician, a contemporary artist, political analysts, oligarchs, activists, and journalists who were veteran observers of both Yeltsin and Putin.

Walking the stairs to the enormous white museum, originally built as a shopping mall, The Daily Beast interviewed former Kremlin adviser Gleb Pavlovsky about memories of Yeltsin. “Between personal security and freedom, he often chose freedom,” said Pavlovsky.

“Once Yeltsin was gone,” said Irina Khakamada, a key member of Yeltsin’s team, “Russia trashed the entire generation of liberals and democrats of the 1990s, rejected all the good reforms by Yeltsin, the memories of transparency, freedom of speech—this place will remind us of freedom, if people will come here.”

And well they might. Yekaterinburg is different from most Russian cities. It is vibrant and developing quickly. Its mayor—poet, art collector, and civil society leader Yevgeniy Roizman—is not a member of the Kremlin’s ruling United Russia party.

“I have my own head on my own shoulders and I have my own opinion about what I want Russia to become,” Roizman likes to say.

The Yeltsin Center is a perfect example of the free expression Roizman says he means to extend. The ground floor is home to a big machine gun mounted on a typewriter; a portrait of Gorbachev with an Indian bindi on the forehead and kohl on the eyes; a flow of Kalashnikov bullets, like a river, were among the contemporary art pieces on the ground floor of the Yeltsin Center. It is meant to become a cultural and educational club for the new generation of Russians.

Putin was running late for the opening. That day the president visited the depressing town of Nizhny Tagil, site of a giant tank factory.

While waiting for the president, Moscow guests discussed why Putin allowed the Yeltsin Center to open at all. Some said he was keeping his word to The Family, and that he expected to get a center like this himself one day. Radio journalist Olga Bychkova suggested, “He must realize that he would hardly have a family and crowd as happy and loving as this to open his museum.”

The Yeltsin Center designers, the American firm of Ralph Appelbaum Associates, creators of the Newseum in Washington, knew what they were doing. Visitors circle around crowded small rooms—pages and chapters of Yeltsin’s life during Soviet and post-Soviet times—before finally walking into a big, bright room with the giant word “Freedom” on the walls, and with windows overlooking the broad Iset River, white under the snow, and the city with its centuries of history, where Yeltsin started his professional life. “I wish this huge house, would fill up with people who would come here to work on their projects, fill it up with life,” author Sergei Parkhomenko told The Daily Beast.

Putin finally arrived with his closest team. The president, Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, and Yeltsin’s widow Naina Yeltsina stood before a crowd of tipsy, happy guests, quite moved by the scale and ideas of what many called the best modern museum in Russia.

“This is not just a tribute to the memory of Russia’s first president,” said Putin. “This center was meant to reflect on the history of the entire epoch.”

Many in the crowd were the activists of that epoch, when, indeed, Putin had been brought onto Yeltsin’s team and the former KGB officer had moved up quickly from the post of deputy chief of staff to head of the KGB’s successor organization, the FSB, and then, very quickly, became Yeltsin’s successor.

One who was not in attendance was Boris Nemtsov, who was murdered last February just outside the Kremlin walls. Together with Yeltsin, Nemtsov and the old Family had taken down the communist flag and put up the flag of Russia.

Nemtsov’s murderers have not been found but his picture is now on the wall of the Yeltsin Center, among many other portraits of Russia’s most devoted democrats, those for whom “freedom” was not just a word.

Was Putin in Yekaterinburg just to pay his respects? Or out of nostalgia? Or is he discovering that amid so many conflicts it is good to uphold old promises, keeping his part of the bargain with the family of the first Russian president in the central deal of modern Russian politics, the one that made Putin what he is today.