Master of Ceremonies
In the final days of 1999, just as he had each December for several years, Konstantin Ernst prepared to film the presidential New Year’s address. Ernst, then thirty-eight, with a face of cheerful, perpetual bemusement and a floppy mane of brown hair that nearly covered his shoulders, is the head of Channel One, the network with the country’s largest reach, a position that grants him the stature of an unofficial government minister. He is not only the chief producer of his channel, but also, by extension, the director of the visual style and aesthetics of the country’s political life—at least the part its rulers wish to transmit to the public. The New Year’s address, delivered at the stroke of midnight, is a way to do exactly that: a way for a Russian leader to impart a sense of narrative to the year past and offer some guiding clues and symbols for the year to come. The tradition took shape in the seventies, under Leonid Brezhnev, whose rule stretched on for so long that his droning, puffy-faced New Year’s addresses all blended together. Gorbachev tried to instill a sense of discipline and purpose in his New Year’s appearances, even as, with each passing year, the country was in a state of slow-motion disintegration.
Boris Yeltsin, who took power in 1991, continued the tradition. And so, on December 27, 1999, three days before the new millennium, Ernst and a crew from Channel One made their way to the Kremlin to film Yeltsin’s address ahead of time, to have everything ready in advance per long-standing practice. By the late nineties, Yeltsin, once a feisty, charismatic advocate of democratic reform, had entered a spiral of decay of both body and spirit, becoming an enervated shell of his former self. He was still capable of episodic vitality, but was largely weakened and chiefly concerned with leaving office in a way that would keep him and his family safe and immune from prosecution. The country was only a year removed from a devastating financial crash that had led the government to default on its debt and saw the ruble lose 75 percent of its value; at the same time, Russian troops were fighting their second costly war in a decade in Chechnya, a would-be breakaway republic in the Caucasus. Ernst watched as Yeltsin sat in front of a decorated tree in the Kremlin reception hall and spoke a few saccharine words into the camera, the standard appeal to unity and patriotism and the opportunities of the new year—including, as Yeltsin mentioned, the upcoming presidential election in the spring that would determine his successor.
After he finished, as the Channel One crew was packing up, Yeltsin told Ernst that he wasn’t satisfied with his address. He said he didn’t like the way his words had come out, and he was also feeling hoarse—could they rerecord a new version sometime in the coming days? Ernst said yes, of course, but they should hurry, since there wasn’t much time left before the new year. Yeltsin proposed the thirty-first of December; Ernst pleaded for an earlier appointment, reminding him that given Russia’s massive size and eleven time zones, the clock strikes midnight in Chukotka—the first place the president’s address is aired—when it is still the early afternoon in Moscow. Fine, Yeltsin said, come on New Year’s Eve at five in the morning.
Ernst and his crew set up their equipment the night before, and returned before dawn on the morning of the thirty-first. Valentin Yumashev, Yeltsin’s son-in-law and confidant, quietly handed Ernst the text of Yeltsin’s new address. Ernst tried to contain his shock: Yeltsin was about to announce his resignation, departing the presidency in sync with the close of one millennium and the dawn of another. His successor would be Vladimir Putin, a politician whom most Russians were just getting to know: Putin had risen from bureaucratic obscurity to become head of the FSB, the post-Soviet successor to the KGB, and had been named Yeltsin’s prime minister four months earlier. Even as Yeltsin’s administration sputtered to a close, he was still capable of the dramatic, unexpected flourish—no one in his government, let alone the country at large, expected him to leave office before the end of his term. Ernst told a production assistant to enter the text into the teleprompter without letting anyone else in on the news. It should come as a surprise to everyone. At ten in the morning, Yeltsin entered the reception hall, took a seat, and began to speak.
“I have taken a decision, one which I pondered long and painfully. I am resigning today, the last day of the departing century,” Yeltsin began. He spoke with the labored cadence of a tired man. “Russia should enter the new millennium with new politicians, new faces, new people who are intelligent, strong, and energetic,” he said. His speech turned reflective, intimate even, spoken in a language of fallibility that Russians had not seen from their leaders before, and have not seen again. “I want to ask your forgiveness—for the dreams that have not come true, and for the things that seemed easy but turned out to be so excruciatingly difficult. I am asking your forgiveness for failing to justify the hopes of those who believed me when I said that we would leap from the gray, stagnating totalitarian past into a bright, prosperous, and civilized future. I believed in that dream, I believed that we would cover the distance in one leap. We didn’t,” he said. His physiognomy matched his words: his eyes were narrow and tired, his breathing heavy and full of pained effort. “I am leaving now. I have done everything I could.”
Yeltsin finished by rubbing a visible tear from his eye. The air in the room was heavy with emotion. Someone from the Channel One crew started to clap, then another, and soon they had all risen to give Yeltsin a standing ovation. They swarmed around him. The most experienced member of the team was a woman named Kaleria Kislova, a veteran producer, then seventy-three, who had filmed every New Year’s address going back to Brezhnev. She walked up to Yeltsin, her face ashen and uncertain, and asked him, “Boris Nikolayevich, how can it be?” He gave her a reassuring hug and said, chuckling, “Here it is, babushka, Saint George’s Day.” It was a moment of wry humor: Saint George’s Day, a holiday in late fall, entered Russian lore during serfdom, as the one time each year when an otherwise indentured peasant was free to move from one baron to another. Yeltsin and the Channel One crew drank champagne, toasting the new year and the import of the scene they had all just shared. Ernst was impressed by the gravity of Yeltsin’s decision: he had voluntarily given up power, an essentially unprecedented move in Russia’s political history—and, in so doing, had restored in Ernst’s mind the image of Yeltsin as a decisive and courageous politician. All the equivocating and sloppiness of the past few years seemed instantly swallowed up by this one moment.
The next order of business was for the Channel One crew to film a New Year’s address by Putin, which would air at midnight, after Yeltsin’s. Putin’s face looked young and taut on camera, a picture of vitality compared to the obviously unwell Yeltsin. “The powers of the head of state have been turned over to me today,” Putin said. His tone was serious, reassuring, businesslike. “I assure you that there will be no vacuum of power, not for a minute. I promise you that any attempts to act contrary to the Russian law and constitution will be cut short.”
Ernst got into a waiting car and set off with copies of both speeches, Yeltsin’s and Putin’s. He sped from the Borovitsky Gate, a commanding tower of red brick on the Kremlin’s western edge, and rode through the capital with a police escort, blue sirens flashing. He headed toward Ostankino, the sprawling complex of television studios and a 2,000-foot-high broadcast tower that beams out the country’s main stations, including Channel One. Once he arrived, Ernst handed over the cassettes and, exactly at noon, gave the order to broadcast Yeltsin’s address.
Ernst watched from his perch in the channel’s control room. Yeltsin hosted a lunch reception with ministers and generals in the Kremlin’s presidential quarters. “The chandeliers, the crystal, the windows—everything glittered with a New Year’s glow,” Yeltsin remembered later. A television was brought in, and his guests, some of the toughest men in the country, watched the announcement in total silence. Putin’s then wife, Lyudmila, was at home and hadn’t watched Yeltsin’s midday address, which meant she was confused when a friend called her five minutes after it ended to congratulate her. She presumed her friend was offering her a standard New Year’s greeting—until the friend explained that Lyudmila’s husband had become the acting president of Russia. A news segment on Channel One showed Yeltsin and Putin standing side by side in the Kremlin’s presidential office, a ceremonial passing of authority more persuasive than any election campaign event. On their way out, Yeltsin told Putin, “Take care of Russia.”
Copyright © 2020 by Joshua Yaffa. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.