Ten years ago, on December 31, 1999, Boris Yeltsin, the first president of Russia, resigned, relegating his post to Vladimir Putin who was his prime minister. He announced his decision to the public during a televised address at noon on December 31. Boris Yeltsin’s widow, Naina Yeltsin, agreed to share her recollections of that day with RIA Novosti, describing how the first Russian president arrived at the decision and how the family spent that day.
Question: How did you and Mr Yeltsin celebrate the New Year in 2000? Was it a family gathering? Who came to the party and who called that day? What was the atmosphere like at home? Was Mr Yeltsin sad or relieved and happy? Did you stay up long that night?
Naina Yeltsin: We spent it the usual way. All the family gathered at a big table. On the other hand, it was a special New Year. It felt as if we all were relieved from a heavy burden which had been pressing us for years. We were telling jokes, having fun and making plans. We knew that we belonged to ourselves again. It was an amazing feeling. Boris was making jokes and smiling a lot. He was happy because he knew he had completed a great and important mission.
It is our family tradition to “see the New Year in” twice – first at 10 o’clock by Yekaterinburg time, and then at midnight by Moscow time. We turned on the TV. The traditional presidential address at 11:55 was made by Vladimir Putin, not Boris. Putin talked to the nation from the Kremlin sitting near the Christmas tree. As usual, we went to bed around 2:00 in the morning. The next morning there was no rush. And the morning after that as well. A new life began for us all; we were so very happy.
Question: How did the family react to Mr Yeltsin’s decision to step down? Did they know about it in advance? Did he discuss it with you?
Naina Yeltsin: He never talked business at home. He didn’t like to. We certainly tried to ask him questions; we wanted to know his opinion. But when at home, he preferred to discuss family matters. He was even less inclined than usual to discuss that decision at home. He had only discussed it with his closest political associates. Tanya knew of course, because she worked as his advisor, and Alexander Voloshin, head of the Kremlin Executive Office. He told me the morning of December 31, when he was leaving for the Kremlin. He told me in the hall, moments before getting into his car. I hugged him because I was happy. I nearly cried. Then at noon, the rest of the family found out from his televised address. They were all happy. We were all tired beyond measure after the nearly ten years that he was president, from 1991 to 1999. Masha, our granddaughter, asked: “Granny, does it mean we will only have rights now, and no responsibilities?”
Question: Did he usually plan such dramatic decisions for a long time? How often did he just rely on his intuition?
Naina Yeltsin: He always deliberated for a long time, and planned his decisions thoroughly. Yet, he must have also trusted his intuition. I believe that he began thinking of resigning after the early December parliamentary election results. Unity, a new party supported by Putin, showed good results then. So Boris decided it was time to hand his post over to a new and promising leader. And so he decided to go.
Question: Did he listen at all to your or anyone else’s advice?
Naina Yeltsin: I have already mentioned his reluctance to talk about business at home. He didn’t like it when someone began discussing political or economic issues at home. That is why we refrained from giving him advice, although we were certainly concerned over the situation in the country and wanted it to improve fast.
Question: Was there anything else to remember that New Year by, except Mr Yeltsin’s resignation?
Naina Yeltsin: I don’t think there was anything else. His resignation was the only thing that made that New Year’s different from the others. And probably also because of some unusual relief, I should say.
Question: What were your family’s New Year traditions? What did you cook for the party? What did Mr Yeltsin like best?
Naina Yeltsin: He loved my fish pelmeni. Otherwise, our holiday meal must have been very similar to what other Russians cook for New Year’s. We certainly had the traditional Russian salad, Olivier, otherwise it wouldn’t be New Year! Jellied fish and meat, pickled cucumbers and tomatoes. More salads. The family also likes my pastry, such as cottage cheese cookies, lemon pie and the cake from bird-cherry flour. I have always cooked all that for New Year’s and I still do.
Question: What gift did you buy him that year? What did he give you? Did he like giving presents? What was the best and most precious gift he gave you for New Year’s or another occasion?
Naina Yeltsin: Boris always liked giving presents. The tradition dates back to our time in Sverdlovsk. Boris would be Father Frost. In Moscow, Tanya began helping him, as our Snow Maiden. They kept their gifts secret until everyone gathered at 8:00 in the evening. We sat down at the table, and ate and toasted each other. Then, finally we went over to the Christmas tree where the gifts were hidden. Father Frost said a name, for example “Vanya.” So Vanya came out and recited a poem if he wished, and the Snow Maiden took his gift from under the tree and Father Frost handed it to him. Adults did not recite poems, of course, but they had to come out in front of the tree, too. We had a large family, over twenty people counting all our cousins. So the process could take an hour. Boris’s gifts for me were always special. I remember a beautiful clutch purse, and another time a cashmere scarf, very nice and smooth and warm. Another time he gave me elegant earrings, and three months later for my birthday, a ring to match. Those are still my favorite pieces of jewelry.
Question: What is the status of the Boris Yeltsin Presidential Center in Yekaterinburg? What are your expectations for that center, and will its founders consider your opinion?
Naina Yeltsin: The work is only just beginning. The parliament recently adopted a law stipulating that every Russian president should have such a center. But we are the first. I would like it to be, not just a museum, but a full-fledged cultural center in Yekaterinburg, so that every guest could find something of interest there.
Question: What do you think about allocating some space there for a Yegor Gaidar museum?
Naina Yeltsin: Everyone who made a significant contribution to the emergence of the new Russia should be given space in our center, and certainly Yegor Gaidar, who enjoyed Boris Yeltsin’s special friendship and trust.
Question: Do you see any of Mr Yeltsin’s former associates? What about your fellow students from Yekaterinburg? Where do you meet? Who of them do you like to visit?
Naina Yeltsin: I see my fellow students every time I come to Yekaterinburg. We like to recall our student years. Each of these reunions is unforgettable. I usually see Boris’s associates on his birthday. It is a special day for us. On New Year’s Eve, many of them call me, too, and send their greetings. I mean those with whom he worked. As for visits, I visit my daughters and grandchildren almost every day.