'Power was just something Boris had to do' - Yeltsin's widow
Boris Yeltsin was given the nickname ‘Tzar’ for his tough style of leadership, even though he was the one credited with introducing democracy to the country.
Yeltsin took power in 1991 after the collapse of the Soviet Union, and led Russia through a harsh period of economic and political upheaval, including the financial crisis of 1998.
But in the eight years of his presidency, the country also saw some high-points, including entrance to the G8 group of nations.
The 76-year-old Yeltsin died in Moscow on April 23, 2007, seven years after his resignation.
RT: They say the president’s wife is still the president’s wife, even after the end of the term. But it’s more than just status – it’s a job, and not the easiest, or most rewarding of jobs, just like presidency itself. What did you like most about being the First Lady – what made all the trouble worth it?
Naina Yeltsina: Well, in all honesty, I never really wanted to be the First Lady. The president’s wife also shares his responsibilities, because she also represents her country, in some sense, and it’s only natural. But, apart from liabilities, you don’t have many rights. This was not an easy time for me, I was not quite prepared for it.
RT: You truly loved Boris Yeltsin. Everyone knows it’s true. But how did you feel when you were virtually seeing him off to a battlefield? Because, when he became President, it did mean a battle, and meant he may not have returned. What was it like to know that, even though you loved each other, his work was even more important than you?
N.Y.: You have to know your husband well. We went to college together, and we had lived together for 51 years. We had celebrated our Golden Wedding anniversary. I had the feeling I’d known him since childhood.
I knew him very well, and I knew it was impossible to try to stop him once he’d decided to do something. He had a colossal willpower, and an amazing aura. He could, as they say, convert anyone to his faith. But we weren’t blind followers. I also saw what had to be done, and so did our whole family.
RT: You’ve mentioned family. I’ve always thought that members of the president’s family don’t belong only to themselves. And they’re often associated with things that are not true. Of course, they’re also the ones to suffer from fame and publicity. What did you do to protect your children and grandchildren from it?
N.Y.: I’ve always tried to do it. Boris started being the boss very early on – making his way as the head of the region and so on – and I’ve always tried to prevent our children from feeling the weight of his position. I’ve never felt it myself. I’ve never been the wife of a state official, I was Boris’ wife. As for office and position, it’s only transitory. It comes and goes.
RT: Did Mr. Yeltsin participate in the upbringing of your children? Or did you share the responsibilities: he tackles politics and you take care of children?
N.Y.: Of course he took part in the upbringing of our children. However, when we had grandchildren and I began to interfere, give advice from the grandmother’s point of view, I said to my daughters that you need to educate your children, and then Lena and Tanya told us: but you never educated us…I asked who educated them then.
And they answered – the street. Boris Nikolaevich’s reaction was fast. He said: We did a good job as parents – our children even did not notice that we educated them.
RT: Let’s go back to the difficult times in the 1990s. In 1991, when the Coup occurred, and Boris Yeltsin was standing on a tank in front of the Supreme Council building. Where were you at the time? What does a person feel in a moment like that? Were you scared, proud of him? I don’t know… Where were you?
N.Y.: We were in Arkhangelskoye, at our summer house. He had just come back from Kazakhstan on the 18th, and then everything happened on the 19th. Of course, nobody knew anything. We got a phone call in the morning, when all TV stations suddenly began to show ballet. My daughter Tatyana was downstairs answering the phone. Then she came up to our bedroom, saying – I think, something happened in our country. He was surprised – what could have happened? We turned on the TV. And he said right away that this was a coup.
Pride came later, at that moment I couldn’t think about being proud, I was too worried. Even now it brings tears to my eyes just to think about it. It felt like war – there were gunmen outside. We didn’t know if we were going to be able to get out of there. We were told that our house was surrounded by military.
But it was such a scary time – phones were no longer working, somebody had to go and try to use our neighbours’ phone in order to get a message outside. It is hard to find words to describe how we felt at that time. Bullet proof vests are good, but they can’t really do anything to protect the head.
“Why are you going?” I asked him. “What am I supposed to do? Sit here? I am going where I am supposed to go – to do my job." “But what about the tanks?” “So what? I am taking this flag (which was on his car) and going in front of the tanks, try and stop me." He was trying to sound funny, but I could tell he was tense, realizing the full responsibility. And so he took off and went to work. Of course we were very nervous waiting for the phone call confirming he got there. Then my daughters went to one place, and I took the grandchildren.
The kids were scared, they saw how tense the adults were, saw the armed people hiding behind the bushes. My grandson Boris asked me, getting into the car: “Will they shoot us straight in the head?” It was terrible… For ten years I tried not to think about the events of 1991. In 2001, for the first time, when I was watching programs about it on TV, I started bawling and couldn’t stop. I relived that moment, remembered how weak and powerless I felt.
RT: In his New Year’s address to the country in 1999-2000, Boris Yeltsin passed power to Vladimir Putin. Did you know about his resignation before that New Year’s Eve?
N.Y.: I found out in the morning, because they were going to record his New Year’s address. I was helping him to get ready. It was always my responsibility to help him with the tie – to pick it and tie it, he never did it himself, I thought I was better at that. So this was our tradition for me to send him off to work. And he told me in the morning that he was going to resign, but didn’t say it was going to happen that day, just told me to watch TV.
I was really happy, hugged him, thanked God, this was probably the happiest moment of my life in Moscow. So naturally, when I heard the official statement on TV at midnight, I was excited. And everybody was glad. We didn’t want him to run for the second term. People were saying that he was fighting for power, and power was everything for him. But his attitude was that power was just something he had to do.
RT: What happened in your life after the resignation? Is it true that when the President resigns, he loses half of his friends?
N.Y.: I think that true friends will never leave you. So I would not say that he lost friends. We stayed friends with those we went to the university with. But here in Moscow also, after he resigned, his colleagues would still visit him. The country’s leaders tried to encourage him, especially in the first years, so he would not feel alone. I was afraid he was going to have a hard time. After having so much power, he was no longer connected to anything. But Boris found enough strength, and went through it all with dignity.
RT: Is there friendship between the first ladies, or was it just protocol? Do you stay in contact with anyone?
N.Y.: Well, many also resigned. But when Hillary Clinton was appointed to such a high position, I sent a letter congratulating her.
And she kindly replied. I get many cards. This time at New Year, Mr. Mulroney sent me a card with a picture of the whole family. So of course, there are still contacts. Boris’s colleagues who used to visit him still stay in touch with me. We see each other at some protocol events. Life goes on.
RT: When Boris Yeltsin resigned, he transferred power to Vladimir Putin. You said that at first they stayed in touch. How did their relationship develop?
N.Y.: They always had a very good relationship. I am grateful to Vladimir Putin, he has always been attentive to me. So I can say the best things here. The same with Dmitry Medvedev, I congratulated him, he has even visited us here. This is not respect paid to me, but to Boris, and I am glad.
RT: Many people are saying now that the '90s were awful years. How do you view this period in Russian history? Were those years really this scary?
N.Y.: When he became President, he inherited the empty store shelves, the empty treasury. This couldn’t be fixed in a year or two. And oil was very cheap at that time. And there was nothing else in the country, besides debt.
There was nothing to thank for, life really was hard. But I think that much was done in the country in those years. The foundation of today’s prosperity was laid back then.
RT: How did he feel about criticism, public opinion in general? It was probably hard, even though you are saying it was not personal attacks on him, but the situation in the country in general…
N.Y.: I would not say that he didn’t care about the criticism, but at least he never showed, even to us, that something hurt him. I would even lose patience sometimes. There were a lot of lies about our family, we were said to own castles, and have big bank accounts and all that. In reality, there is nothing.
We don’t have any castles, bank accounts, stocks. So of course, I was hurt. A few times, I even suggested that we should take it to court. But he would answer – “Who are you accountable to?” I am accountable to my conscience and God. He never got defensive with anyone. He just let go. I could not understand it – the press is out of control, yes, we have freedom of the press, but they just went too far. But he would say – they have to get it over with, if we silence them now, we will go back to the past. They have to go through that themselves. Eventually they will get dignity, self-awareness, understanding of life, the press will change too. So we are waiting for it to become dignified.
RT: What was the happiest day of Boris Yeltsin’s presidency for you?
N.Y.: Of course, the day when he resigned. The happiest day was when he told me that he was going to resign.
RT: And the most difficult one?
N.Y.: All the days were not easy. But I will probably say that in 1991 it was the hardest.
RT: What constitutes your life today?
N.Y.: After Boris passed away, a different life began. It is hard to enter it, hard to find yourself in this life. Boris was everywhere. Even now I feel like he will come into the room at any moment. I know it is impossible, but I can’t believe he is gone.
But of course, I get my strength from our family. We have a large family – there are 17 of us. I have two daughters, three granddaughters, three grandsons, four great-grandchildren. And now I try to get the whole family together on Sundays. I try to cook something special for them. Even when my little great-grandchildren visit, I try to make something they will remember.
RT: Thank you very much for your time and God bless you.