До Свиданя, Борис Николаевич
Perhaps post-Soviet Russia is not where it wanted to be today, but it’s hard to imagine that it would be at all without the stunning sights of the late Boris Nikolaevich Yeltsin, winning election to the Duma despite opposition from the then-nigh-omnipotent Communist Party, creating an official dissident faction with Andrei Sakharov, and dramatically resigning the party (and inspiring hundreds of thousands of other Party members to do the same—unthinkable!) in the summer of 1990… then winning the presidency of Russia, and standing on top of a tank in front of the Duma during the 1991 coup attempt, openly exhorting the Red Army troops to mutiny.
Considering the financial lawlessness that presided over the conversion from a state to a private economy on his watch, and the Chechen war, Yeltsin’s ultimate legacy is difficult to predict. But there’s no doubt that he made Russia what it is today, for better or for worse.
Shortly after the failed coup, several of us attended Worldcon–ChiCon V. There was a group there from the Moscow State University science fiction club.
Have you ever spoken with someone whose country, at the time you’re talking to them, is being turned upside down? I remember deliberately being very careful in what I said. I had no idea if I was talking to Party loyalists, Gorbachev supporters, Yeltsin supporters… but they were fellow fen, that’s all that really mattered there, and more than anything else, I did not want to sound like a gloating American already arranging the funeral service for the moribund Soviet Union–since I spoke a smattering of Russian, and had taken my degree in political science, that much wasn’t a problem. I was already up-to-date on what was going on over there, but I certainly didn’t feel it on a gut level like they must have.
They didn’t know if they were going to go home or not. I found that interesting, because it really hadn’t been that many years before then that they wouldn’t have dared say anything like that aloud while visiting a Western country–for that matter, they doubtless wouldn’t have been there without a KGB handler anyway. And one of them was, I recall, more concerned for the Mir crew that was on orbit at the time–partly for how they were going to get back, and partly for the changed state of affairs during their mission. Can you imagine launching as a Soviet cosmonaut, and returning as a Russian (or CIS) cosmonaut?
They were frightened for their country, but they were cautiously optimistic.
You knew, at the time, that part of the reason they had any optimism at all was Boris Yeltsin. Whatver happened after that, in 1991 he gave the Russian people something they hadn’t had in a long time: optimism and hope.