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Incorporating the Yeltsin Legacy into State Propaganda

In a Week in Review column in today’s New York Times, Steven Lee Myers gives some analysis to the Kremlin’s decision to pull out all the stops and provide Boris Yeltsin with a lavish State funeral, and lionize him as the founder of Russian democracy – despite the near policy reversal that has occurred under the current administration.

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From the Times:

After hesitating in the hours after his death on Monday, as if unsure how exactly to respond, the Kremlin employed the full power of the state’s servile television networks to transform Mr. Yeltsin’s beleaguered image into the religious, patriotic father of the political system he bequeathed to the current president, Vladimir V. Putin. In three short days, the authorities here burnished a new founding myth, one that, not incidentally, proved useful for Mr. Putin’s own legacy. In this new-minted myth, the bold, firm hand of patriots is what preserves democracy, not the messy, uncertain expression of popular will. The elevation of Mr. Yeltsin overlooked the darker side — the defeat in Chechnya, the rise of the oligarchs, the capitulation to the West, the drunkenness — partly out of respect for the dead, no doubt, but also because it let Mr. Putin portray himself, too, as a defender of the revolution and restorer of Russian greatness. Mr. Yeltsin became, in this incarnation, what Nina L. Khrushcheva, the great-granddaughter of the Soviet leader Nikita S. Khrushchev, called the “czar of Russian democracy.” “It’s an oxymoron,” she said in a telephone interview from New York, where she teaches international affairs at the New School, “but in a sense, that’s what Putin has made him into.” … Mr. Yeltsin was a historic figure, bridging the totalitarian past and the hopes for a democratic future, one that Mr. Putin’s critics now say is under assault. His funeral represented a break from the past and, simultaneously, an embrace of it. It served as evidence of a country still searching for the symbols that gird its national idea or identity or, perhaps better to say, a country still arguing over them. On the day of the funeral, the lower house of Parliament reversed its earlier vote to remove the Communist hammer and sickle from the Victory Banner, the military flag commemorating the victory over Nazi Germany. Mr. Putin had vetoed the initial legislation. Mr. Putin eulogized his predecessor in a way he rarely did when he was alive, describing him as the steadfast democrat and reformer of “great Russia,” not the weakened, chaotic Russia that emerged from the Soviet ruins. It is surely the legacy Mr. Putin would like to embrace as his own. Mr. Yeltsin’s greatest achievement, arguably, was voluntarily surrendering power for the first time in the country’s history. The day after the funeral, Mr. Putin addressed Parliament and insisted, despite calls to do otherwise, that he would also step aside, when he finishes his second term next year. Ms. Khrushcheva said Mr. Putin embraced Mr. Yeltsin the way Stalin embraced Lenin, appropriating his legacy by transforming him “into the realm of state propaganda” to be used for other ends. Even so, for many here, Mr. Yeltsin’s death served as a reminder of what changes have occurred. More than 20,000 people waited in line for hours for a last glimpse of the man. “Nobody brought them in buses, like before,” Mr. Shevchenko said, referring to the grandiose funerals of Soviet leaders. “They came themselves to say goodbye to the first president of Russia.”