Russia marks 80th birthday of former leader Yeltsin

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Russia this week marks the 80th anniversary of the birth of former president Boris Yeltsin, praised by some for his courage in steering the country towards democracy and best remembered by others for his drunken antics.

A tribute to Russia's first democratically-elected president, who would have turned 80 on Tuesday, includes a series of photo exhibits, television programmes and concerts.

President Dmitry Medvedev early this week is expected to fly to Yekaterinburg, Yeltsin's home city in the Urals, to unveil a new monument to the former leader, who used to say he wanted to live to 100 to see a new, happy Russia but died of a heart attack in 2007 aged 76.

"Thoughts of Russia never left him," said Yeltsin's widow Naina. "But he did not live to see the renaissance."

Speaking on national television, she said the country's true revival was a matter of a distant future.

When Yeltsin dramatically resigned on New Year's Eve in 1999, the country sighed with relief. Tired of his fondness for the bottle and ill health, the nation longed for a new leader.

But as they now grapple with corruption and terrorism, more Russians become appreciative of Yeltsin's achievements and take an increasingly critical view of his hand-picked successor and current de facto leader Vladimir Putin, who is accused of curtailing freedoms.

"You could speak freely then," said Olga Sviblova, head of the Moscow House of Photography, one of the country's premier art exhibit venues, which is celebrating Yeltsin's birthday with a photo exhibition.

"People awaited orders from him to go right or left and he gave us an opportunity to decide for ourselves," she told AFP.

Yeltsin helped bring down the Soviet Union in 1991, but his reforms traumatised millions of Russians as he pushed the ex-Soviet country towards a free market economy.

While many ordinary people lost their savings, others became super rich overnight by snapping up top companies in controversial privatisation auctions.

Sviblova's exhibition charts these and other pivotal changes.

Pictures show the leader, famous for his towering figure and a shock of white hair, inspecting empty shelves, rubbing shoulders with G8 leaders and kissing a ballerina's hand.

Nostalgia for freedoms of the 1990s is unmistakable at the display, which is festooned with a fluttering Russian flag. Images of ruins in rebel Chechnya and mass protests are plastered against copies of Yeltsin-era freewheeling newspapers.

"We had to find a common thread that would cement his epoch," said Sviblova. "I think it was the freedom of the press."

Even if Russians remain deeply divided over his legacy, more appear to speak sympathetically of Yeltsin.

"This is the first head of state in Russia who was popularly elected," said Anna Isaikina, a 23-year history student. "People did not stop believing in him."

Arkady Melnikov, 68, came to see the photo display despite the fact that he blamed the former president for facilitating the Soviet breakup and his controversial Caucasus policies.

"He is an important man for us," said his wife Vera, 64.

"He was a bold man. It is always very difficult to start from scratch," added Nikolai Kuznetsov of the Kurchatov Institute, the country's top nuclear research institute. And he was more honest than Putin, the scientist added.

"Putin is still a dark horse."

Most agree that time has not yet come to fully appreciate Yeltsin's legacy.

"The true understanding of what Boris Nikolayevich is has not yet come to this country," Anatoly Chubais, the architect of Russia's privatization plan, said in a television programme dedicated to the leader.

Aides say that just like every other politician, their boss made mistakes but he also had humility to ask for forgiveness.

In his December 31 resignation speech, a sickly, swollen-faced Yeltsin famously asked Russians to forgive him that many of their dreams had not come true. The television crew that recorded the secret address cried.

"Not every politician and stateman leaving his post finds the strength and courage to apologise before the people and assume the blame," said his former spokesman Sergey Yastrzhembsky.

© 2011 AFP

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