A stone drunk Boris Yeltsin stood across from the White House in Washington. He was there in his underwear hailing a taxi. In his stupor, Yeltsin just wanted to go out for a pizza.
That bizarre incident from the 90s made the news recently. The PR blitz for a book by Taylor Branch about the Clinton presidency seems to have propelled the story.
But those Yeltsin antics of inebriation aren't the scandal here. Indeed, the recently-circulated story was not actually news. The whole tale had been told earlier by Strobe Talbott in his book on Clinton presidential diplomacy. It was released in 2002 and garnered media attention back then.
So then what is the "Yeltsin Scandal"? The crux of it is the Western press' inexplicably lenient treatment of the Yeltsin presidency, especially in comparison to his successors.
It's Another Bizarre Story
As a media professional, I've followed with interest the press coverage of the recent Russian presidents: Boris Yeltsin, Vladimir Putin, Dmitry Medvedev. And, I have to admit that I've found the nature of the coverage itself to be yet another bizarre story, one with mystery and intrigue of its own.
Over the years, Yeltsin has been characterized variously as a hero who brought down communism, as the foremost proponent of Russia's transformation to democracy and a market economy, and as a stalwart of Russia's free press.
Beyond that popular imagery, however, there was a less attractive side. Yeltsin presided over a looting of state assets that created a circle of newly-minted tycoons that helped to protect Yeltsin. In addition, acting against the constitution, Yeltsin dismissed the duly elected parliament. And when the members refused to go, he brought in tanks to shell the parliament building in a confrontation that ultimately claimed approximately 150 lives. Somehow he was able to win reelection in a contest where he held roughly a 5 percent approval rating going into the election season. Ultimately, Yeltsin led the country into a financial collapse near the end of his presidency.
Yeltsin is nevertheless used in many media accounts and in political discourse as a standard of accomplishment against which his successors are being compared. Notably, Putin is criticized widely in the media for rolling back the democratic gains of the Yeltsin era, for reversing the course Yeltsin had taken away from Soviet-era autocratic rule, and for clamping down on Russia's free press. Typical headlines include "The Rollback of Democracy in Vladimir Putin's Russia" (Washington Post) and "How Putin Muzzled Russia's Free Press" (Wall Street Journal).
According to my analysis, media accounts seem generally to advance a Yeltsin persona that combines hero, fierce democratic and market reformer, and relatively harmless drunk. President Bill Clinton has been quoted as observing, "We can't ever forget that Yeltsin drunk is better than most of the alternatives sober."
Putin's persona in the press, however, is more that of a suspicious, power-hungry autocrat who will stop at nothing, not even murder. On the PBS News Hour with Jim Lehrer, Senator John McCain once accused Putin's Kremlin of instituting a "state-run kind of Mussolini style government."
A Closer Look at Yeltsin
As a case-in-point, I examined the New York Times coverage of Yeltsin's shelling of the parliament in 1993. That was one of Yeltsin's most egregious acts. The Times ran a story entitled "SHOWDOWN IN MOSCOW: Tactics; Yeltsin Attack Strategy: Bursts Followed by Lulls." Here are some excerpts illustrating how the Times covered the story:
"The assault on the Russian Parliament building today was a textbook example of the decisive application of military power...