Old Saint Basil's Cathedral in MoscowJohnson's Russia List title and scenes of Saint Petersburg
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#14 - JRL 2007-99 - JRL Home
Context (Moscow Times)
April 27-May 3, 2007
On coming to power in 1991, Boris Yeltsin broke with Soviet tradition and ushered in a new attitude toward culture.
By Victor Sonkin

Former President Boris Yeltsin, who died of heart failure on Monday, was often likened to Nikita Khrushchev. Indeed, both leaders opted for openness after a period of acute or senile tyranny, and both were known for acting on whims rather than careful analysis. Khrushchev banged his boot at the UN; Yeltsin tried to conduct an orchestra in Berlin. There was one major difference, though, and it was in their attitude toward culture.

Khrushchev had strong views, and they were not very sophisticated. In an infamous outburst at a 1962 art exhibition, he shouted obscenities at young painters who digressed from Socialist Realism; he gave a speech attacking the poet Andrei Voznesensky; and it was during his rule that Boris Pasternak was denied his Nobel Prize and ostracized in the media, which ultimately contributed to his premature death. Khrushchev wasn't original: All Soviet rulers before and after him expressed some interest in the arts, sometimes patronizing, but more often prohibiting.

On coming to power in 1991, Yeltsin broke that tradition. Yes, many theaters in the 1990s had to close down or starve; yes, the Russian film industry collapsed and has never recovered, whatever the box office tells us these days; yes, the book market was inundated with bad translations and worse original books. But there was never a hint of censorship. Books that would never have seen the light of day under Soviet rule were published freely. Newspapers and magazines mushroomed everywhere; there was incredible creative energy in journalism and essay-writing. These media outlets were vulnerable and often met a swift end -- but always due to economic reasons. Even Yeltsin's prohibition of Communist media after the 1991 coup turned to be short-lived.

Shortly before the collapse of the Soviet Union, state television showed snippets of Western shows that mocked acting presidents, prime ministers and monarchs by presenting them as puppets. It all seemed incredible. And it was even more incredible when a state-run Russian channel started airing its own version of "Puppets," with our ministers and other politicians in funny sketches. Yeltsin, of course, was always featured prominently. Comic impersonators, singing songs in the president's voice, lampooned him on state television in prime time. And to think that was only several years ago.

The ability to take mockery is a good gauge of a person's measure. The ability to refrain from meddling in things one doesn't understand, even when one can, is another. Yeltsin scored uniquely high on both counts.