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#10 - JRL 2007: Boris Yeltsin Special Issue - JRL Home
RIA Novosti
April 24, 2007
Boris Yeltsin: a giant in the cause of freedom

MOSCOW. (RIA Novosti political commentator Andrei Vavra, former speechwriter of Boris Yeltsin) - When the people you love die, you reconsider your attitudes to them.

I was not very close to Boris Yeltsin, Russia's first democratically elected president, although I was on his team. I began working with him shortly before November 5, 1996, when he was preparing to undergo heart bypass surgery. He wanted to give a radio address to the people, and we were looking for human words suitable for that dramatic period in his life.

I did not see him often after that, unlike the speechwriters who had worked with him in the early 1990s. I worked for Yeltsin during a time when he was suffering from a difficult illness, when he made few public addresses, and so I spent more time feeling sorry for him than writing. This is why I say that I have lost a dear person.

I saw how he fought to overcome his physical illness. I remember him signing a document in Uzbekistan, when he suddenly reeled and his bodyguard, Nikolai Kuznetsov, ran up to catch him. Uzbekistan's president, Islam Karimov, took over from Nikolai. Yeltsin fought against his weakness, trying to sign the document, and the audience of journalists, diplomats and guards could not take their eyes off him.

I know that it lasted only 20 or 25 seconds, but it seemed like we were waiting for the outcome of the battle for ages. Will he win or not? Will he manage to write his short, only seven-letter, name?

I know of other examples of the strength of his spirit and will during his second term as president.

I accompanied him on his last official foreign trip, to Istanbul. When U.S. President Bill Clinton came into the room at last, everybody pretended not to notice that he had been late and hurried to shake hands with him. Only Boris Yeltsin, who had never been late anywhere, did not budge from his seat, staring at the American leader gloomily. I saw Clinton's smile gradually become strained, as he sensed Yeltsin's heavy stare even without looking at him.

I know that I am rambling now, that this is not the right moment to remember silly things like Yeltsin walking along the Kremlin corridor, smiling and shaking hands with everyone. But he is still alive in my memory, still part of my life.

Many good things have been said about Boris Yeltsin these days, and many more will be said. He deserves every one of these kind words, whatever his enemies may say to the contrary.

During Mikhail Gorbachev's rule and when he was president, Yeltsin showed us enviable examples of human and political courage. He was a giant of a man, and spent his life proving it.

The name Yeltsin is synonymous with courage and freedom. He knew what it means to be free, and, I think, he valued that feeling above all else. He fought for a Free Russia and wrote the word freedom with a capital F, because everything else, including the country's prestige and the material well-being and happiness of its citizens, are the fruits of Freedom.

He did not make our lives easier or simpler, but he changed the country and the people. He gave us the right to choose, and taught us to see, feel and value Freedom. It is now incumbent on us to learn his lessons and pass them on to our children.

I believe that we can do this. If we do, it will be Yeltsin's biggest contribution to history and to the present and future generations.

I had the honor and pleasure to see and work with that bright, strong and whole man, and I am grateful for that.

Goodbye, Boris Nikolayevich, and forgive us.