YEKATERINBURG, Russia — It’s a stirring exhibition of Russia’s struggle to win rights and freedoms that the country no longer fully enjoys. It’s a shimmering memorial to a late president few Russians miss and an era most would rather forget. And although it’s overseen by the Kremlin, it’s also a tacit symbol of defiance to President Vladimir Putin’s authoritarian rule.
Not surprisingly, many influential people want to shut down, or at least tone down, the unbridled take on 1990s Russia that is on display at the Boris Yeltsin Presidential Center, a state-of-the-art archive and museum dedicated to the country’s first freely elected president.
The drumbeat of disapproval has only gotten louder amid this month’s 25th anniversary of the most profound event in which Yeltsin played a leading role, also something most Russians wish had never happened: the dismantlement of the Soviet Union.
In recent weeks, one of Russia’s best-known filmmakers lacerated the work of the center. The country’s Communist Party leader told parliament to close it. And a prominent mufti suggested that it might be better to blow it up.
That last idea came from Ismail Berdiyev, a Muslim leader known for hard-line positions and a member of Putin’s council on outreach to religious groups. Berdiyev said in an interview widely reported by Russian media that if it is found to be destructive to the state, “this center should be blown to hell.”
What has drawn the most ire is the first exhibit at the museum, nestled in a glistening building 900 miles east of Moscow, in Yekaterinburg, the capital of Yeltsin’s home region and the place where his career as a Soviet party boss took off in the late 1970s.
Visitors are shown an animated film that depicts the history of Russia as a millennium-long brutal and bloody effort by despots, monarchs and communists to crush rule by the people, for the people. The film concludes with the arrival of Yeltsin, whose leadership of the country up to and after the December 1991 Soviet collapse is hailed as the beginning of a new era of democracy and freedom.
This treatment of history flies in the face of Putin’s efforts to create a national identity for Russians that smooths out the rough parts of a long and difficult past. Putin, whom Yeltsin named to replace him on Dec. 31, 1999, with the words “Take care of Russia,” has depicted his predecessor’s decade in office as an era of decline and ineffective leadership that played into the West’s post-Cold War strategy to keep Russia weak. To meet this perceived external threat, Putin has repudiated many of the political freedoms initiated by Yeltsin in the name of consolidating society.
Asked about the controversy during his annual news conference recently, Putin said the way history is treated raises questions, and that “it might be necessary to present some things more accurately.” Russia has always had its battles between Westernizers and traditionalists, he said, but the debaters should not let their “passions get out of control.”
This came after one of the Kremlin’s cheerleaders, the Russian actor and director Nikita Mikhalkov, sounded off about the center.
“Each day, the center is carrying out injections of destruction of people’s self-identity,” Mikhalkov proclaimed in an address to Russian legislators.
Yeltsin’s widow, Naina, fired back, denouncing the criticism as “lies and insults,” and pointing out that Mikhalkov, who campaigned for Yeltsin in 1996, had never been to the museum. (He’s since been, and said he hated it even more now that he’s seen it.) She also took a shot at communist leader Gennady Zyuganov’s calls to close the museum, pointing out that seven decades of communist rule led Russia to the socioeconomic mess that occurred in 1991.
The exhibits, divided into seven critical days in the decade, do not attempt to glorify that time or its protagonists. A country on the brink of total collapse and hunger, “shock therapy” reforms that led to the shutdown of industrial giants that employed millions of workers and the cream of the country’s scientists and engineers, the withholding of salaries, empty shelves, the shelling of parliament in 1993 and military campaigns in Chechnya from 1994 on, the questionably fair presidential elections of 1996, the infirmity of the president in his second term — all of these are on display, largely unvarnished and accompanied by striking visual and audio artifacts.
“It’s not just a museum of the first president, it’s really a museum of that period, of our country, of that history,” said Dina Sorokina, the museum director, in nearly flawless English honed while earning a master’s degree at New York University. “We do not necessarily avoid the sharp edges.”
No, they do not. Although the animated historical film at the beginning of the exhibit has attracted most of the negative attention from the museum’s critics, the most stunning moment comes at the end.
On a bank of screens flashing the blue, red and white of the Russian tricolor, celebrities, athletes and politicians emphatically read out rights that are guaranteed in the country’s 1993 constitution — freedom of the press, freedom of assembly, the right to privacy — and that have been methodically eroded under Putin.
Despite this apparent open challenge to Putin, the museum received a glowing review from the state-run news agency.
An explanation can be found in the origins of the museum, which was established under a 2008 law stipulating the creation of presidential centers similar to the libraries that commemorate former U.S. presidents. Russia tapped Ralph Appelbaum Associates, which designed the museum exhibit space at the William J. Clinton Presidential Center in Little Rock, to help design the Yeltsin Center. Under the law, the chairman of the board of the Yeltsin Center is appointed by the Kremlin, which creates an interesting historical novelty for Russia: Its current leaders are now charged with preserving the legacies of their predecessors.
Sorokina said that the museum had hosted about 250,000 visitors since it opened. This is despite the continuing lack of popularity of Yeltsin, who died in 2007.
According to a poll by the Yuri Levada Analytical Center last December, just 14 percent of Russians saw the country’s first president as a positive figure. The Levada Center has published other polls that suggest that a majority of Russians regret the fall of the Soviet Union, think that it could have been avoided and feel as though the Yeltsin years brought more harm than good.
That feeling is present even in Yekaterinburg, a closed city under Soviet rule (when it was called Sverdlovsk, after a Bolshevik leader) that benefited as much as any in Russia when the communist state collapsed.
“Freedom started here with Yeltsin,” said the city’s mayor, Yevgeny Roizman, 54. “This was a gray, closed city. When the city became open, everything changed.”
Roizman recalled more than 100,000 people turning out for a rally in Yekaterinburg in August 1991, when Yeltsin famously stared down communist coup plotters from atop a tank in Moscow. That day used to be a cornerstone in the new Russian history. This year, the museum was one of the few institutions in the country to mark it.
“The old system was bankrupt,” Roizman said in an interview. “When the communists say how good it was, I say, ‘Don’t tell me fairy tales. I was there.’ ”
Opponents of the museum counter that the exhibits skirt the truth. While it has an emotional display dedicated to Yeltsin’s final address on New Year’s Eve 1999, and plays up his distinction as that rare Russian ruler who voluntarily left office, the museum barely recognizes the powerful oligarchs who divided up Russia’s wealth while the nation suffered (perhaps because some are among prominent donors listed on a wall in the center).
The calls to shut it down may involve political grandstanding by the likes of Mikhalkov, who thrived in the 1990s by making movies that never would have made it into Soviet theaters. But a petition on Change.org to close down the Yeltsin Center is accompanied by genuine expressions of pain.
“My family also suffered from the [Soviet] collapse and its consequences, and we survived,” commented one of the signers, Marina Vasiliyeva. The museum and the respect it affords Yeltsin, she wrote, “spits in the face of ordinary people.”
Sorokina, 32, gets this. Her parents were scientists whose relatively comfortable Soviet lifestyle took a huge hit in the new Russia. She recalls her mother not being able to buy bread, and not being able to buy milk to bake bread. The family relied on her grandparents, who had a house in the country with a small farm.
“It was a very difficult time,” Sorokina said. But it was worth it, she said, for “the opportunities we were able to gain, the new freedoms we fought for.”
Sorokina avoids openly criticizing the Putin administration. But she does not back down from what she considers her mission.
“We are constantly under criticism, we are constantly under watch, we are constantly criticized,” she said. “But if we’re criticized, there must be something right that we are doing.”