In the light of recent events with Russia, I have once again been prompted to reflect on the events in recent Russian history, some of which I witnessed, albeit in a limited way, first hand. In these reflections my stance is one of broad solidarity with the Russian people, while also deeply regretting the events of the last month in Ukraine.
In 1996 I was a 22 year old language student studying in Novosibirsk, Russia for a year. My home for that time was a rather run-down student hostel in the centre of the city.
It was the nineties, which, for Russians, have now become a by-word for political and social free-for-all following the break-up of the Soviet Union. By the time I arrived, the shortages in shops witnessed by my friend in 1993-4 were a thing of the past. Nevertheless, everywhere there were the signs of decline and demise. Many of the buildings were old and needing repair. Doctors and teachers were being paid a pittance. Throughout the city there were currency exchange points displaying the day's dollar rate. Makeshift stalls and shops were everywhere, as people tried to make a living, while the old Soviet-style state shops continued to operate offering gruff service and poor quality products.
16 June 1996 was the date for the first round of the Presidential election. Yeltsin was standing for a second term. The first round of voting drew a huge variety of candidates, including former USSR President Gorbachov, whom I heard speak in person, at an early hustings meeting, and also Yavlinsky, the leader of the Yabloko Party. Neither candidate commanded a significant share of popular support, the former, in particular, being viewed as a failure and a traitor. By the time of the first round of voting, three candidates stood out from the rest: Boris Yeltsin representing the status quo, Communist Gennady Zyuganov, representing a return to the Soviet past, and Alexander Lebed, a military man, standing on a patriotic platform and whose slogan was, "I can therefore I must."
The second round of voting in the 1996 presidential election, on 3 July 1996, was perhaps the last time the outcome of a national election in Russia was not a foregone conclusion. The Communists enjoyed a groundswell of popular support, especially among the older generation and in view of the many hardships and problems endured. They eschewed the term "democracy", preferring a Russian word meaning "people power". A stone's throw from my student hostel was the football stadium where Yeltsin took part in a pre-election rock concert, dancing on the stage to demonstrate his youthful vigour. In the interests of "keeping the Communists out", the whole panoply of the state media and every conceivable celebrity were marshalled in support of the incument President. Yeltsin also entered into a pre-vote alliance with third candidate Lebed, who was appointed his national security advisor. Yeltsin was visibly old and unwell, but for many represented the "lesser of two evils". Many speculated that, once re-elected, he would be free to fall ill again. Indeed, it was later revealed, he suffered a heart attack in the run-up to polling.
Yeltsin won, of course. To the relief of many at home and abroad. His alliance with Lebed was very shortlasting; Lebed was removed within less than half a year. Lebed, who remained in politics, was later to die, in 2002, in a suspicious helicopter accident in his native Krasnoyarsk. Sure enough Yeltsin's second term was plagued with ill health. More seriously, during the ensuing years 1996-1999, a succession of prime ministers and governments were unable to foster national recovery. In August 1998, during the tenure of Kiriyenko, one of Yeltsin's many Prime Ministers, the rouble crashed and Russia defaulted on its foreign debt. It was shortly afterwards that relatively unknown Vladimir Putin was introduced first as Prime Minister, and then as heir apparent, taking over as acting president from 31 December 1999.