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Guests featured in this episode:
Masha Gessen, a distinguished journalist & staff writer for the New Yorker. Born in Moscow in the Soviet Union, Masha moved to the United States in 1981, only to return to Russia as a journalist a decade later. A strong critic of Putin’s regime from the very outset, Masha decided to leave Russia and return to the US due to the politically motivated crackdown on gay parents by Russian authorities.
They have authored 11 books, most recently, Surviving Autocracy (2020), an insightful account of the Trump Presidency that also draws on their experience of living in Russia. Two of their other books discussed within the podcast are; The Future Is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia, and The Man without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin (2012).
Who was Boris Yeltsin?
(00:19:15 or p.5 in the transcript)
Boris Yeltsin, Russian politician who became president of Russia in 1991, he was the first popularly elected leader in the country’s history, guiding Russia through a stormy decade of political and economic retrenching. During his first presidency Yeltsin publicly supported the right of Soviet republics to greater autonomy within the Soviet Union, took steps to give the Russian republic more autonomy, and declared himself in favour of a market-oriented economy and a multiparty political system.
At the same time, Russia’s parliament, the Congress of People’s Deputies, had grown increasingly hostile toward his free-market reforms. Yeltsin and the Congress were also deeply divided over the question of the balance of powers in Russia’s proposed new constitution, which was needed to replace the obsolete 1978 Soviet-era Russian Constitution. On September 21, 1993, Yeltsin unconstitutionally dissolved the Congress and called for new parliamentary elections. In response, hard-line legislators attempted a coup in early October but were suppressed by army troops loyal to Yeltsin. Parliamentary elections and a referendum on a draft constitution were held in December. Yeltsin’s draft constitution, which increased the powers of the presidency, was narrowly approved, but the anti-reform character of Russia’s newly elected parliament, the Federal Assembly, compelled Yeltsin to govern primarily by executive decree in the coming years.
In another spectacular comeback, however, he won reelection over a communist challenger in the second round of elections held in July 1996. He spent the months after his electoral victory recovering from a heart attack he had suffered that June during the rigours of the campaign. The state of Yeltsin’s health was a recurring issue.
In the late 1990s political maneuvering dominated much of the country’s government as Yeltsin dismissed four premiers and in 1998 fired his entire cabinet, though many were later reappointed. The following year the State Duma initiated an impeachment drive against Yeltsin, charging that he had encouraged the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991, among other allegations The Duma, however, was unable to secure the necessary votes to proceed. Ever unpredictable, Yeltsin announced his resignation on December 31, 1999, in favour of what he characterized as a new, energetic leadership. He named Prime Minister Vladimir Putin acting president, and in turn Putin granted Yeltsin immunity from future prosecution. Source:
Who was Vladimir Zhirinovsky?
(00:29:53 or p.7 in the transcript)
Vladimir Zhirinovsky, Russian politician and leader of the far-right Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR) from 1991 to 2022. Known for his fiery Russian nationalism and broad anti-Semitic asides, he later acknowledged his Jewish roots.
Much of Zhirinovsky’s personal history is vague, unknown, or disputed. He left his hometown at age 18 to attend Moscow State University, where he studied Turkish and other languages. After graduating about 1969, he went to work as a translator in Turkey, but he was expelled under murky circumstances eight months later. After returning to Moscow in 1972, he worked in various state committee and union posts. He completed an evening law program at Moscow State University, earning his degree in 1977 and then working in a state-run law firm (from which he was later asked to resign). In 1983 Zhirinovsky landed a position as head of the law department at the Mir publishing company, a post that served as a springboard for his political career.
Zhirinovsky cofounded the LDPR in 1989. The following year the party was launched in Moscow, and Zhirinovsky was asked to become its chairman, but by October his views had provoked his expulsion. In the spring of 1991 Zhirinovsky created his own party, giving it his previous and party’s name, and in June he first ran for the Russian presidency; he ran several times for presidency during his long political carrier. A figure as colorful as Zhirinovsky was bound to be the object of rumour and speculation. It was widely reported that his career could have been possible only under the auspices of the KGB. Source:
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