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June 21, 2022 Special Dispatch No. 10029

Yeltsin Center In Russia's Yekaterinburg Is Safe For Now, But May Have To Accommodate Russian Leadership

June 21, 2022
Russia | Special Dispatch No. 10029

The second report on tensions between the Russian leadership and Russia's fourth largest city Yekaterinburg will focus on the city's Yeltsin Center named after Boris Yeltsin, Russia's first president following the collapse of the Soviet Union. The name Boris Yeltsin already promises controversy. It was Boris Yeltsin, who led the fight for reform within the Communist Party in the Gorbachev era and then signed on the document dissolving the Soviet Union. With the renewed nostalgia for the Soviet era, this makes Yeltsin anathema in some quarters. However, it was Yeltsin, who first anointed Vladimir Putin as his successor and during his tenure as president he ensured the supremacy of the Russian president over the Duma. In Yekaterinburg, the largest city in the Urals, Yeltsin enjoys favored son status, because he grew up and made his political career in the Urals. He could claim to represent the periphery against Moscow.

The Yeltsin Center, that is an important fixture in Yekaterinburg's life and serves an extensive audience of all age groups, has acquired a reputation as a liberal bastion in an increasingly conservative regime. This image was formed even before the war in Ukraine but was further exacerbated when the center called for ending the war on February 25, 2022, a day after the Russian invasion of Ukraine was launched. It also observed a week of silence in March to protest the war, lately as attacks and calls for its closure have mounted, it has hosted pro-war events in an attempt to shed its ultra-liberal image in the eyes of its critics. Despite calls for its closure, the Yeltsin Center has not yet suffered the fate of other liberal institutions that have been forced to shutter.  been trying to fight its closure after a campaign was launched against the center by TV presenter Vladimir Solovyov who has attacked Yekaterinburg as a center of vile liberal scum. Lately, the center that had hosted human rights activists and had recently hosted an international symposium on Stalinism has hosted pro-war spokespersons to prove that it is not "unpatriotic" as its critics claim.

MEMRI's report on the beleaguered Yeltsin Center follows below:


Picture of Boris Yeltsin projected on the Yeltsin Center (Source: News.ru)

The Center Provokes Hostility

The Yeltsin Center drew hostility due to a statement that it made upon the outbreak of the war in Ukraine:

"After 30 years, Russia and Ukraine found themselves on opposite sides of the front line. This is an unthinkable disaster for both countries and their peoples. Realizing the full measure of responsibility that lies with us as citizens of the stronger side to the fratricidal conflict, we call for an immediate halt to hostilities," the presidential center said in a statement.[1]

The center has not endeared itself due to other topics that it addressed. It has hosted human rights activists who pushed back against proposals to revive the death penalty. In June, 2022, it staged an international scientific conference on the history of Stalinism that included discussion of sensitive issues. Additionally, the program gave credit to organizations such as Memorial that have been shut down by the Kremlin. It should also be noted that Josef Stalin has been undergoing rehabilitation in Russia, and therefore the conference ran against the tide of official thinking.[2]

Attacks On The Yeltsin Center

Leading the attack on the Yeltsin Center was the Kremlin surrogate and tv presenter Vladimir Solovyov, who referred to a dance performed by Yekaterinburg's Lyceum No. 12 school, a dance that had homosexual undertones. The school had previously been awarded a prize by the Yeltsin Center. Solovyov pounced: Look, this is Lyceum No. 12 in Yekaterinburg... Of course, it could be some kind of joke. But something like that. Hmm ... This is probably also the spirit of freedom in the style of the Yeltsin Center style. But [the dance] is certainly not in spirit of freedom in the Urals."[3]

Solovyov claimed that such a performance was the result of Yeltsin Center indoctrination: "This is not a school in Sodom, this is Yekaterinburg. Lyceum No. 12 has been preparing for this for a long time: in 2019 it received a special prize from the Yeltsin Center, and every year schoolchildren are given tolerance lessons."[4] ”said the TV presenter.

The conservative film director Nikita Mikhalkov proposed that the Yeltsin Center be declared a "foreign agent" just as the authorities declared the liberal Moscow radio station and website Echo of Moscow station a foreign agent shortly before shuttering it: "Why is [Echo Moscow's editor Alexey]. Venediktov declared a foreign agent, but the Yeltsin Center is not? But does the Yeltsin Center do less harm than Echo of Moscow did?"[5]

Mikhalkov has been a persistent critic of the Yeltsin Center. In 2016, at parliamentary hearings in the Federation Council, he called for recalibrating the organization's program to show a different more patriotic of view of history. "Today, in Yekaterinburg, there is a center in which a daily injection destructive of the children's' national identity takes place."[6]


Nikita Mikhalkov (Source: Tass.ru)

Alexander Schipkov, the Deputy Head of the World Russian People’s Council and the First Deputy Chairman of the Russian Church’s Synodal Department for Relations Between the Church, Society, and the Media proposed an original idea – The Yeltsin Center would be repurposed to house a museum of traitors to Russia. [7] Actress and television presenter Maria Shukshina supported the call to recognize the Yeltsin Center as a foreign agent, claiming that the Russian people demanded no less. Musician Vadim Samoilov and singer Yulia Chicherina backed Solovyov's attack on both the center and Yekaterinburg's liberal subculture.[8]


Maria Shukshina (Source: Eg.ru)

As the Yeltsin Center is building a branch in Moscow, Sergey Savostyanov Moscow City Duma deputy representing the Communist Party claimed that the Yeltsin Center's destructive influence extended even to toddlers playing in the sandbox: "The boy in the sandbox says, ‘I don’t want a red scoop'.  This is how the accomplices of the State Department and lovers of the Yeltsin Center grow up," warned Sevastyanov.[9]

With the attacks mounting, things did not look good for the Yeltsin Center. Journalist Maxim Shevchenko, who had previously been backed the Communists, but broke with the party because he opposed the war expected the worst:

"Judging by the collective hysteria of everyone in the world from the propagandist Solovyov to the Communist Party (and on this issue Solovyov and the Communist Party merge in a single ecstasy, and even the voices of some United Russia members are heard in this choir), I think, yes, most likely, the Yeltsin Center will be closed."[10]

The Center Remains Open For Now

Despite the forebodings of Shevchenko and others, the axe has not yet fallen on the Yeltsin Center. One reason may be the local reaction.

Yekaterinburg Online published responses to Mikhalkov's call to label the Yeltsin Center a foreign agent. Some supported his idea but the majority of the responses were critical and caustic. One response was to label the Kremlin a foreign agent. Another admired Mikhalkov's ability to accommodate himself to any regime. Other respondents gave voice to regional resentment by asking if the Moscow comrades had nothing better to do than try to score points at the expense of the regions. Another suggestion was that the Moscow officials distribute their ill-gotten gains to the needy. Who would protect us against another assault of the Kremlin yoke, asked another respondent? In a dig at recent elections, another commentator called Boris Yeltsin Russia's only freely-elected president.[11]

Not only ordinary citizens were annoyed by what they perceived as Moscow's bullying, the governor of the Sverdlovsk region, Yevgeny Kuvayshev, who has had previous run-ins with Solovyov over the latter's claims that Yekaterinburg had not lined up enthusiastically behind the war, dismissed Solovyov's attack on Lyceum 12. According to Kuyvashev, the students of the school and their parents did not see anything terrible in the dance and supported the school director. “And I trust them much more than the TV presenter [Vladimir] Solovyov, who once again did not like something in our city,” the governor added.[12]


Yevgeny Kuyvashev (Source: Uralpolit.ru)

These reactions were apparently noted in Moscow, and the authorities, who do not need another headache now at least temporarily poured cold water on the request to label the Yeltsin Center a foreign agent. Putin's press secretary Dmitry Peskov observed that while some episodes in the work of the Yeltsin Center provoked broad public discussions, the label foreign agent had to be decided according to the legal criteria. Declaring his unfamiliarity with Mikhalkov's proposal Peskov explained "There are certain criteria for a foreign agent in the law, and, in fact, our Ministry of Justice is guided by these criteria, which are clearly enshrined in the law...here is what can be said on this topic."[13] On occasions where the Kremlin had sought to close down a liberal institution, the elastic legal criteria could usually be found without excessive difficulty.

The head of the Yekaterinburg branch of the Russian Art Union, Yevgeny Fateev pleaded for a delicate approach to the problem and took notice of Peskov's comments that he claimed were critical of Mikhalkov's proposal. A correct approach was to reform the institution if there were problems. The idea of a presidential center, even if borrowed from the Americans was a good one and Fateev envisaged a future Medvedev Center and a future Putin Center. Here Fateev was telegraphing the Kremlin that attempts to denigrate Yeltsin hurt the Russian presidency.

He reminded his readers of the importance of Yeltsin's legacy "Look, Boris Nikolaevich [Yeltsin] gave us Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin. This is what he did well. Or, for example, during his reign there was a U-turn over the Atlantic by [Prime Minister] Yevgeny Primakov [upon hearing of NATO's bombing of Yugolslavia] . He [Primakov] was his, Yeltsin's prime minister. Under Boris Nikolaevich, for example, our paratroopers rushed to Pristina, which was just one of the first signs of our revival, our correct military self-awareness."

Closing the center was wrong and would leave too large a vacuum. "It is generally not serious to ban the Yeltsin Center, such a huge colossus has been built there, it has already become part of urban life. But it is necessary to implement certain cultural policies – subtly."

As he was writing in the ultraconservative Tsargrad.tv, Fateev described himself as a conservative but then went on to laud conservatism because it championed diversity. It did not emulate the West's cancel culture: "You need to be capable of moderating this diverse flowerbed, you need to do it smartly, and not repeat what is happening in today's West, where they play at some kind of cancellations, in deleting entire layers of culture."[14]

Damage Control By The Yeltsin Center

Having received an at lease temporary reprieve, the Yeltsin Center is trying to correct the impression that it is "unpatriotic" and recently hosted two sessions that could be described as pro-war.

On June 10, 2022 Ura.ru military correspondents Dmitry Grigoriev and Eduard Kornienko told students of Ural Federal University, Ural State Law University, RANEPA, and Ural State Economic University about their trips to the Donetsk Peoples' Republic. At a previous meeting, Hero of Russia, Sergey Voronin spoke to students of another university on this platform.

Grigoriev and Kornienko described the special operation in Ukraine from February 18 to May 11. During that time Grigoriev and Kornienko witnessed Russia's recognition of the breakaway republics, as well as a Ukrainian missile strike on the center of Donetsk that claimed the lives of 20 civilians.

The two war correspondents told the students about the fake news put out by the Ukrainians and the West, which they had debunked. Grigoriev spoke of his new job as the agency’s correspondent in Donetsk "I must confess my love for Donetsk and Donbass. I discussed it with the management [of the media agency] and decided to relocate there in order to work on a permanent basis, in order to be URA.RU’s correspondent there." explained Grigoriev.

Grigoriev, although an ardent supporter of the war had no patience for Solovyov and his attacks on Yekaterinburg. "Personally, I was deeply offended by Solovyov’s words. I know for a fact that there are a lot of patriots in the Urals. I’m a Yekaterinburger myself, I have a patriotic stance." However, Grigoriev acknowledged:  "Be that as it may, without Solovyov, without his harsh statements about both Yekaterinburg and the Yeltsin Center, this public meeting of ours wouldn’t have happened." [15]

 

 

[1] Itsmycity.ru, February 25, 2022.

[2] Yeltsin.ru/news/Programma-XIV-Mezhdunarodnoj-nauchnoj-konferencii-Istoriya-stalinizma, June 7, 2022

[3] Ural.kp.ru, June 1, 2022.

[4] Nakanune.ru, May 31, 2022.

[5] Obltv.ru, June 6, 2022.

[6] Vedomosti.ru, June 6, 2022.

[7] Ural.kp.ru, June 1, 2022.

[8] Ural-meridian.ru, June 13, 2022.

[9] Ura.ru, June 8 2022

[10] Ura.ru, June 4, 2022.

[11] E1.ru, June 6, 2022.

[12] Nakanune.ru, May 31, 2022.

[13] Vedomosti.ru, June 6, 2022.

[14] Vladimir.tsargrad.tv, June 8, 2022.

[15] Ura.ru, June 10, 2022.

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