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News

New Yeltsin Center to Answer Questions About Russia's 'Wild '90s' Legacy

The opening of the center devoted to the legacy of Boris Yeltsin, Russia's first president, on Nov. 25 in the Urals city of Yekaterinburg, came on the heels of speculations surfacing among politicians that the notorious presidential elections of 1996, when Yeltsin won in the second round of voting, were conducted with violations and cannot be considered fair.

Just two months ago the former Kremlin official Oleg Morozov said in an interview with the Gazeta.ru news website that in the 1996 presidential elections — when Boris Yeltsin went neck and neck with the Communist candidate — were "solid evidence" that in the "wild '90s" the voting process could easily be manipulated.

He echoed the rumor that gripped public attention in 2012, when Russian opposition leaders claimed Dmitry Medvedev, then president, told them during a meeting that Yeltsin wasn't the actual winner of the 1996 elections. The statement was quickly refuted by President Medvedev's spokespeople.

"I categorically object to this point of view. The elections were absolutely fair," Naina Yeltsina, the first president's wife, said in an interview with the Gazeta.ru news website on Nov. 21. "It was impossible to falsify anything. We didn't know the results until the end. Anyone who has doubts can check with the elections protocols, it's all there," she said.

While doubts about the legitimacy of Yeltsin's win are yet to be settled, one thing is clear: In 1996 independent media during elections races were replaced with propaganda, said Ivan Kurilla, a historian and professor at the European University in St. Petersburg.

"It was then when we said good-bye to the independent journalism that turned into propaganda even on respectable television channels," he told The Moscow Times.

This is not the only controversial issue discussed nowadays in relation to Yeltsin's legacy.

Russian officialdom has continuously condemned Yeltsin's era, commonly called "the wild '90s," as a dark and unfortunate period of the country's history.

At the same time, Russian society doesn't have a univocal evaluation of the 1990s. For some, Yeltsin's years are associated with freedom — both political and economical — that Russia embraced after the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, and some remember this decade as the time when poverty thrived and criminality and corruption blossomed, blaming their forebears for everything that looks unfortunate today.

Nothing But the Facts

Founders of the Yeltsin Center, a historical and cultural institution, promise not to judge.

"[At the center] no one will impose any judgements or appraisals. Everything is designed in order to give visitors willing to reflect on the subject, especially those who doesn't know a lot about it, to see and feel how it was back then," Alexander Drozdov, director of the center, told The Moscow Times.

The center, 22,000 square meter large, includes a museum portion and several educational facilities for young visitors that will focus on different sciences. The museum portion is devoted to Russian history in general, from Novgorod princedom to the present day, though the history of the 1990s is exhibited in more detail, with, of course, Yeltsin as a focal point.

Part of the exhibition called "The Chechen Tragedy" is devoted to the Chechen wars of the late 1990s, one of the most controversial and harrowing episodes in Russian history. Representatives of the center said they were trying to make the exhibit honest and objective by including the Chechen wars in it. Another large part of it is devoted to the controversial elections of 1996.

The center was founded under a federal law that outlines creating legacy centers devoted to each Russian president at their places of birth and partially funded from the federal budget — according to Drozdov, the center was assigned 4.9 billion rubles ($75 million). Sergei Ivanov, head of the presidential administration, chairs its board, but Drozdov said no one from the Kremlin interfered with the center's work or content of the exhibitions.

Controversy Mounts

The official position about Yeltsin's era is quite clear nowadays. "A lot of my colleagues, presidents and prime ministers, told me that [at the time] they had already made up their minds that Russia, the way it was [at the time,] is about to end its existence," President Vladimir Putin said in the documentary "President," made by the state-owned VGTRK television holding in April, commenting on the state of the country in the 1990s.

Yeltsin, elected in 1991, aimed at transforming Russia's socialist economy into a capitalist market economy. In order to do that, he implemented economic shock therapy, price liberalization and nationwide privatization, which led to skyrocketing inflation rates and almost collapsed the country's economy.

His years in office are also overshadowed by painful military conflicts, including a clash with parliament in 1993 and two Chechen wars.

"The first public opposition activist, with unique experience gained in the Soviet Communist party, Yeltsin was a child of the Soviet totalitarian Communist empire," Gennady Burbulis, state secretary in 1991-92 and one of Yeltsin's closest allies, told The Moscow Times.