This week Yekaterinburg is celebrating the 80th anniversary of Boris Yeltsin’s birth. A big man from the Urals started his political career in Sverdlovsk, then was promoted to Moscow in 1985 and became the first president of Russia. Now his statue is the first monument since the Soviet era erected to a political leader.
The monument is made of 15 ton marble pieces. It’s 10 metres tall - Boris’s height was 1.87m., much taller than his followers Putin and Medvedev (1.70 and 1.62 respectively). No wonder, the monument was erected on the Street named after Yeltsin. In the Soviet times the central street used to be a neglected area with shabby barracks. It was thanks to Yeltsin that the ugly barracks were demolished and people were moved to the new apartment buildings. Yeltsin also ordered to build a Drama theatre on this street. In the future there will be a presidential centre on Yeltsin Street too with a library and a museum. The museum will have an exact replica of Yeltsin’s office in the Kremlin.
2011 is also the 20th anniversary of the failed coup arranged by the Communists in August 1991 when Yeltsin climbed up onto a tank outside the Russian parliament and called for a general strike. On 23 August Yeltsin banned the Communist party in Russia. The photo exhibition of those events is now held in the Museum of History in Yekaterinburg. The exhibition is called ‘Yeltsin – Yes!’
There are very different opinions in Russia of Yeltsin’s presidency. The 90s are remembered as years when few men became billionaires while pensioners lived in poverty. Gangsters and mafia controlled the cities, it was especially characteristic for Yeltsin’s home city Yekaterinburg. The president was famous for his drunken speeches. I heard a lady from Moscow saying on the radio about Yekaterinburg: “Everything is wrong in your city – you killed the Tsar and failed to raise a president.”
By the way, it was Yeltsin who ordered to demolish Ipatyev House – the place of the Tsar’s murder in 1978. Though later he would say the order arrived from the Kremlin and he couldn’t disobey. However, Boris always had a huge support in Yekaterinburg. 95% of the Yekaterinburgers supported him in 1991 and the recent celebration events show that most of the Ural citizens don’t have a grudge against him.
Another interesting exhibition took place on Lenin Avenue. Local contemporary artists erected a carton monument to letter E. It is the most important letter for the city as both Yekaterinburg and Yeltsin start with ‘E’ in Russian. The citizens could bring the photos of the prominent people whose names start with E. The photos were then glued to the monument.
Among the notable citizens of Yekaterinburg Boris Yeltsin’s name is the first that leaps to mind. An engineering graduate of the Ural Technical University, he was a Communist leader of Sverdlovskaya oblast and later became the first President of Russian Federation. I believe it’s still too early to judge about the benefits and contributions that Yeltsin made or failed to make to the country. One thing for sure, he was quite a character. To give you an idea what kind of a personality he was, here’s a story that may be turned into an interesting road-movie one day.
As a student, Boris had a passion for traveling and decided to explore our huge country (it was the USSR back then) by train during summer holidays. If he’d been a foreigner, he would have gone by Trans-Siberian as many of you would. But Yeltsin was Russian and the Russians tend to go south. So here’s Yeltsin’s itinerary: Sverdlovsk – Kazan – Moscow – Leningrad – Minsk – Kiev – Simferopol – Yalta – Novorossiysk – Sochi – Sukhumi - Batumi – Rostov-on-Don – Volgograd – Saratov – Kuybyshev – Chelyabinsk – Sverdlovsk. It’s quite a long trip, isn’t it? Now it’s interesting to mention that Boris didn’t have money to buy train tickets. In fact, a poor student had no money at all. So he traveled on the train roofs. As you can see, the Indian slumdog millionaire wasn’t the first to do it! His friend gave up and got off on the second day of the journey but Yeltsin didn’t. He visited all the places of his itinerary. Of course, he was stopped by the police from time to time. Boris would explain that he was going to visit his sick babushka in Simferopol. When asked about the address of the babushka he always said – Lenin St, 5. The thing is, every town in the USSR had Lenin Street and obviously had # 5. So the police would buy his story. The future president wasn’t the one to travel on the roof. A gang of ex-cons made him play a card game where the looser was to be thrown from the running train. Fortunately, Yeltsin won although had to give the criminals his grandfather’s watch. Boris even managed to make good money somewhere in Ukraine: he helped an officer to get prepared for an exam in mathematics and nearly fell in love with the officer’s wife who was feeding the Ural student with Ukrainian borsch and pirozhki. Finally, Yeltsin returned back to Sverdlovsk. By that time he looked like homeless in worn out pants, straw hat with holes and dusty sandals. He was sunburnt, skinny, happy and full of stories.
I wonder if somebody would dare to repeat his trip these days (on the roof, of course)? May be it’s the road that leads to the presidency…