September 01, 2019

Yeltsin's Notorious Bridge Incident

Yeltsin's Notorious Bridge Incident
Boris Yeltsin in 1988, after being put in charge of the State Construction Committee. ITAR-TASS News Agency / Alamy Stock

By September 1989, Boris Nikolayevich Yeltsin had been a heroic figure for two years. The moment when he was launched into national popularity is not hard to pinpoint: as soon as he began being targeted as a critic of the regime, he was transformed from a run-of-the-mill party boss (recently transferred from the Siberian city of Sverdlovsk to head Moscow’s party organization) into a champion of the people persecuted for outspokenness.

On October 21, 1987, he delivered a speech to a Central Committee plenum condemning the slow pace of reform. The party bureaucracy immediately pounced on the provincial upstart, and in the months to come Yeltsin repeatedly repented his sins, and was even hospitalized for a heart attack, presumably from the stress. He was removed from his party post and, in January 1988, put in charge of the State Committee for Construction – a political backwater. In short, he had been demoted to the rank of “nobody.”

But by then Yeltsin was no longer capable of being a nobody. The October 1987 speech had transformed him into a mythic figure. The Yeltsin Center in Yekaterinburg (his hometown of Sverdlovsk, which reverted to its pre-revolutionary name in 1991) has on display 16 different versions of the speech that were published in samizdat at the time (the speech had been given to a closed plenum). It had been transcribed, retyped, and handed around, even to strangers on the street, which in 1987 was extremely daring. In all of these different versions, some of the text accurately reflects what Yeltsin actually said, but they all also put words in his mouth – people simply ascribed to him what, in their opinion, someone who had finally worked up the courage to defend perestroika would say. So began the triumphant rise of Boris Yeltsin.

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