By Yoshio Hanada / Yomiuri Shimbun Moscow Bureau ChiefMOSCOW — Yekaterinburg, an industrial city in central Russia 1,400 kilometers from Moscow, is the hometown of Boris Yeltsin (1931-2007), the first Russian president.
This year, which marked the 10th anniversary of Yeltsin’s death, I visited the Boris Yeltsin Presidential Museum that opened in central Moscow in 2015.
One exhibit in the museum, called “unpopular measures,” features a replica of a shop unable to stock its shelves due to soaring inflation and supply shortage caused by the abolition of price controls in 1992.
Another exhibit called “the Chechen war” displays a wall riddled with bullet holes. When visitors look through the holes, they see photos of wounded people on the verge of death and grieving individuals.
Yeltsin’s wife, Naina, wrote a message to the museum requesting that visitors encounter the true, unfiltered realities of the era. With this in mind, the museum showcases both the glorious and darker aspects of the Yeltsin era.
While Yeltsin was praised in Europe and the United States as instrumental in the Soviet Union’s collapse and democratization, he is still maligned in Russia for injuring the pride of the once-great nation and bringing about social chaos.
Some wish to completely forget that period in history.
Vladimir Kravchenko, a 27-year-old architect visiting the museum, said: “There were many families [in that time] where the father was an alcoholic and the mother ran away from home. It was very tough for children. President [Vladimir] Putin is much better.”
Putin’s career quickly advanced after he caught Yeltsin’s attention. He has dominated Russian politics since 1999, when he was appointed Yeltsin’s successor. It can be said that there could never have been a Putin administration without Yeltsin.
However, Putin now describes the Soviet Union’s collapse as “the greatest geopolitical tragedy of the 20th century,” harshly describing the Yeltsin era as “the humiliating 1990s.”
Andrei Kolesnikov, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Moscow Center, notes that unless Putin portrays the 1990s as the era in which the Soviet Union collapsed, his image as a national savior would fade away.
In comparing himself to Yeltsin, Putin can present himself as a strong leader who has brought about national stability and prosperity.
Putin has also taken a knife to the country’s history textbooks. They largely do not refer to Stalin’s Great Purge and spare little space for the collapse of the Soviet Union, instead focusing on descriptions of the country’s World War II victories.
A trend of “returning to the Soviet Union” has advanced under the Putin administration, which emphasizes national unity and the country’s resurrection as a superpower.
The museum’s main theme is “Svoboda,” which means freedom in Russian. It is significant that Yeltsin liberated his people from the shackles of Soviet oppression and totalitarianism and brought about freedom of speech.
The 1990s cannot be avoided in discussions on Russia. I felt that the museum calls on visitors to sincerely confront the shadows of history and learn from the concept of “Svoboda.”