The New Yorker | December 9, 2015 | By Masha Gessen
Russians have long been obsessed with privilege, and with motor vehicles as its symbol. So it stands to reason that the first three major exhibits in the Boris Yeltsin Presidential Centre, which opened in Yekaterinburg, in late November, are two passenger cars and an electric bus.
The first car, intended to entice visitors to the museum, which shares a newly constructed building with some shops and galleries, is a grand black Zil, the extraordinarily boxy Soviet superlimousine that Yeltsin used when he served as First Party Secretary—the equivalent of a mayor—here in Yekaterinburg (then called Sverdlovsk) in the nineteen-seventies and eighties. The second car, positioned at the entrance to the museum, is an even grander, bulletproof, custom-made, hand-assembled Zil that Yeltsin used when he was President, from 1991 to 1999.
Then, inside the museum is one of the buses that Yeltsin famously rode when serving as First Secretary in Moscow, between his terms as mayor and President. In a biographical video shown on a large screen at the front of the bus, Yeltsin’s widow, Naina, says, “Boris Nikolaevich often rode the electric bus to work to get a feel for how laborer get to work.” Except that laborers did not ride the bus that went down the city’s—and the country’s—most central, majestic avenue, from a building populated by Central Committee members to the mayor’s office. In the highly fragmented society of the Soviet Union, the nomenklatura lived, worked, consumed, and vacationed at a great spiritual and physical distance from the laborers, who often lived in dormitories on the outskirts of town and worked in the city’s so-called “industrial zones.” Even their buses smelled different. The official term for this segregation was “labor-based distribution.” In the nearly quarter century since the Soviet Union collapsed, the inequalities in Russian society have shifted but have not shrunk, so the obsession with privilege—and with cars—is understandable. In fact, it stands to reason that these motor-vehicle exhibits are among the very few possibly tone-deaf devices in a remarkable new museum.
The core exhibit’s organizational principle is called “The Seven Days That Changed Russia,” and it takes the visitor through a series of rooms that recall the earth-shattering events of the Russian nineteen-nineties. The reference to the Seven Days of Creation may be in questionable taste but it reflects one way in which Yeltsin, who died in 2007, is still perceived in Russia: he was larger than life and he presided over what seemed like a fundamental transformation of the country. Since he left office, on December 31, 1999, Russia has reverted to many of its old ways, making the transformation seem illusory at times. This museum, organized by Yeltsin’s daughter, Tatyana, and her husband, Valentin Yumashev, both of whom worked as Yeltsin’s aides, is an attempt not only to salvage his legacy but to assert that the changes he wrought were permanent.
This does not appear to be a popular view in Russia today. In the current telling of the story, the dissolution of the U.S.S.R. was “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of our time,” as Putin has put it. The nineteen-nineties were a nightmare of lawlessness and poverty, and only Putin was able, first, to restore order, and second, to begin returning Russia to its military and imperial glory. In the Yeltsin narrative, which the museum puts forward, Russia broke free from the Communist yoke in 1991, instituted much-needed economic and legal reforms, braved hardship and survived tragedies, and emerged both freer and stronger before the nineties were over. Yes, that would be before Putin: a giant three-dimensional graph placed toward the end of the core exhibit shows that, by 2000, the country’s economy had recovered. Russia had also acquired a new constitution, which guaranteed unprecedented freedom. The next room features a lineup of ten men who were considered potential successors to Yeltsin. The curator is kind to his subject here: he does not blame Yeltsin for choosing Putin. But he makes the point that Putin was not inevitable.
The current President attended the museum’s opening, on November 25th, and if he toured the core exhibit, he probably was not offended. The museum makes its points firmly but softly, and the really sharp corners are cut. In what is surely the most bizarre part of the museum, a history cartoon shown on a giant concave screen before the “Seven Days” commence doesn’t mention Kievan Rus. Until a year ago, all Russians knew that before there was modern Russia, there was Kievan Rus, with the seat of the empire in Kiev, which lasted until the thirteenth century. But the war with Ukraine has altered history. The cartoon refers to Ancient Rus rather than Kievan Rus, and makes no mention of the Kiev princes. It walks the viewer through the history of Russia, building its narrative on czars who considered or even attempted reforms, and does not hit its next thorny issue until the nineteen-thirties. In Putin’s historiography, Joseph Stalin was a great leader who may have overreached a few times. In the Yeltsin film, the period of Stalin’s rule is an unremitting nightmare of violence and repression, but there is no Stalin. The cartoon shows Lenin and Khrushchev but not Stalin. His crimes are thus depersonalized. The subtext of the film, though, is that Putin gets to keep his lineage of strong Russian rulers, which goes directly from Peter the Great to Stalin to Putin, but Yeltsin is positioned in line with the reformers, who include Alexander the Second and Khrushchev, among others. Yeltsin’s lineage is clearly longer and, the between-the-lines message is that it is the one that will persist.
The museum treats the collapse of the Soviet Union as the moment of Russia’s glorious emergence rather than a catastrophe, but it stays away from vilifying the Evil Empire itself. It is also particularly inventive with the 1994-1997 war in Chechnya, which it completely segregates from the story. The gallery devoted to this war, which has been all but obliterated from Russian memory, is masterly: its creators succeed in presenting the views from both sides—literally, by providing photographs to be glimpsed through bullet holes. But it is installed in a long room that runs parallel to the corresponding part of the main exhibit. The visitor can choose to pass through the war or to pretend that it never happened.
The exhibit ends with a giant empty room. “This is our Liberty Hall,” a guide told me. “You always feel liberated here.” You might also feel lost or overwhelmed, which may be appropriate. The hall has five mirrored columns, each of which symbolizes one of the five new freedoms guaranteed by the Yeltsin constitution: freedom of speech, freedom of movement, freedom of assembly, freedom of religion, and freedom of the press. The mirrors make the place feel a bit like a deserted dance studio. Is this a space that Russia has failed to fill, or one that can still be inhabited?
The museum’s very existence, and its scale—the place is the size of a city block, a Soviet one at that, and one that overlooks much of Yekaterinburg—suggest that it plans to be around for a long time. When Putinism ends, the empty room at the end of a story of Russia as seen by Yeltsin will still be there. It is a problematic story, but as a place to start, it would not be half bad.