“The Kremlin obviously has an official position on the results of the [1996] elections: Yeltsin won,” the Kremlin source said on condition of anonymity. “As for rumors to the contrary, the Kremlin has no official position.”1,2 The allegations came from Medvedev along with Boris Nemtsov, the latter who was a Russian politician who was famously assassinated in 2015.3 The 1996 Russian election was a wild west show of numerous candidates but it really came down to two feature figures, Gennady Zyuganov and Boris Yeltsin. Nemtsov, among others, did have a reason to criticize the 1996 election primarily because it eventually aided the rise of Vladimir Putin which could be used to argue Putin’s validity but by the time it was said, the question of honest national elections had already been tabled. But the rumors of a managed 1996 Russian election continue to persist.

Boris Yeltsin announced his second term on February 15 in Yakaterinburg, coincidentally, the same day his rival, Gennady Zyuganov had announced his bid. This caused much of the television focus to feature Boris Yeltsin over Zyuganov but Zyuganov wasn’t an unknown entity. To run for president, a candidate had to gather at least one million signatures but Zyuganov came up with 1.7 million, largely attributed to his Communist base followed by his nationalist talk in the preceding years.4 After his announcement, Zyuganov picked up additional support from other Leftist parties into what eventually was unironically branded the People’s Patriotic Bloc. Zyuganov saw some advantages as the Yeltsin economy was failing, the war in Chechnya was going poorly and Russia was racked with instability.

Due to the leftist slant in the more recent years and the threat of Russia returning to communist rule, Yeltsin claimed that he ran for his second term to save Russia. It is more likely he ran again for his own glory, vanity and because he’d be leaving Russia in a worse condition than when he inherited it after the fall of the Soviet Union.5 To consider Yeltsin’s position, a March 20 poll from Moscow Times/CNN placed Yeltsin at the fifth position out of a total of ten candidates. It’s for this reason that Yeltsin ultimately took control of his campaign over roughly the same time and began launching attempts at peace in the Chechnya region.6

Rather than show off the disaster of the preceding years, Yeltsin turned his campaign outward. Since Zyuganov was so closely linked with the Soviet Union and not only didn’t distance himself from the Communist disaster but embraced it, it was easy to pair the leading candidate with the failures and punishing features communism always brings along. It was also as this point, between March and April, when Yeltsin supporter, the Kommersant Corporation published an anti-communist tabloid and sent it out to their reported circulation of 10,000,000 readers.7 The power of this tabloid is debatable but Yeltsin already had a strong apparatus standing behind him; it wasn’t nearly as powerful as what Putin would have but the features of communist centralization were firm and strong throughout the Russian nation.

It should be noted as well that the younger people were also more favorable toward Yeltsin, considering his opposition. While they would predictably have lower turnout rates at the polls, they were a large untapped source of votes that Zyuganov seemed to ignore.8 Indeed, Zyuganov had a large backing to the tune of at least 21 million, with another 8 million potential voters from a select group of nationalist parties.9

Leading up to the first round of the election, 11 out of a “group of 13” elites in Russia requested in an open letter that both Yeltsin and Zyuganov team up. Initially there was a distinct rift between the country and the various candidates however, once Zyuganov had released his economic plan which sought to revive numerous failed Soviet economic policies, these elites wrote a second letter noting that they’ve changed their minds.10 Even Zyuganov seemed to know that the economic plan wasn’t going to be received well since it had been released less than a month before the election.

Leading up to the election also calls into question some other irregularities having been led by the elites within Russia. As Harding reports in A Very Expensive Poison, “[The oligarchs] agreed to get Yeltsin re-elected. In return the president, in effect, sold them Russian state assets at crazily low prices. Berezovsky acquired an interest in a major oil firm, Sibneft [later known as Gazprom], together with a young oil trader called Roman Abramovich.”11 Aside from the Group of 13, there were also reported backroom talks between Yeltsin and Zyuganov about power-sharing possibilities and real risks of holding off the election using Chechnya as an excuse and then the “risk of civil war.”12 Ultimately a deal didn’t arise but that doesn’t excuse the other rumors and the involvement of the economic power players who were supposed to exist outside of politics.

The first round of the election resulted in Zyuganov acquiring 32% with Yeltsin eking out a slightly higher number of 35%. Yeltsin would win in the runoff with 53.8% and a second term.13

Aside from the questions the powerful have sparked with their involvement and Yeltsin’s hold over the government and the power of being an incumbent, Zyuganov almost seemingly, with intent, torpedoed his chances. The first point was that Zyuganov mostly appeared in regions where he had already attained strong support from the nationalists.14 At the same time, Zyuganov almost ignored areas where communists or nationalists did poorly. This is perhaps a mistake that he mostly went to places where he already had the vote. While this had probably encouraged more of his supporters to the polls, he likely did so at the cost of bringing in new voters. We must consider that Zyuganov wasn’t bringing in new voters across the board, while Yeltsin had an untapped reserve among the youth.

Zyuganov further separated himself from new voters, specifically the more pro-western, democratically minded youth when he compared Stalin’s gulags to British prison camps during the Boer Wars in South Africa. Furthermore, he defended Stalin, claiming that more Russians sat in gulags at the moment in the mid 1990s than had languished away in Stalin’s death camps.15 It must also be remembered that as of the mid 1990s, time between the death of Stalin and when Zyuganov made his silly claims was separated by little more than 40 years.

While at times Zyuganov had made good claims, such as his statement against Yeltsin:

There have been attacks on our territory. We have repulsed them all, but the most recent incursion has qualitatively different characteristics. People armed with lies, slander, and fraud came to us, as if they were trustworthy and honest, promising to lead us to civilization, but in reality destroying all the most important institution of the Russian state. Industry is being destroyed. When the Fascists were near Moscow, the drop in production was 24 percent. Now it has fallen by more than 50 percent.16

These claims were accurate. However, these words were also coming out of the mouth of an unapologetic, pro-Soviet figure.

While Zyuganov was repeatedly shooting himself in the foot with his pro-Soviet, pro-Stalin and revisionist histories, Yeltsin was working not only on his campaign, but himself. For the moment he stopped drinking and perhaps, as a result, lost weight and began meeting with people. Yegor Gaidar simplified the election by saying that Yeltsin won because he was the best campaigner in Russia.17 And as was written earlier within this brief article, Armstrong adds, “While I do not rule out small-scale shaving of numbers, the objective realities were that Zyuganov’s support was high but flat and the anti-communists would unite around someone. A fact, that many today are unwilling to accept, is that the majority did not want the communists back. Therefore a communist defeat was always probable and the question was who would be the one to defeat them. In the absence of a ‘third force’, Yeltsin was the most likely beneficiary. No need for fakery or American wizardry.”18 And based on the proof provided here, this largely seems to hold true.

Aside from Yeltin’s attitudes, claims of oligarch involvement, Zyuganov’s nightmarish candidacy and Yeltsin’s power as a sitting president, most of these actions didn’t seem to have much strength at all. It largely seemed to be communism versus the mystery of the future, whatever that may be. Regarding Yeltsin’s power as president, even his publicity on the television, polling had showed, that few were swayed by what they saw on their television.19

During the campaign Yeltsin had also made a number of other moves which didn’t alter the election in his favor by much. Some of these involve appointing Aleksandr Lebed who only gave Yeltsin a 0.7 boost in the second round20, attempted peace in Chechnya also didn’t have a large effect on the election21, and even Yeltin’s vow to reintegrate the former Soviet republics had resulted in flat-lined support followed by a slight decline.22 What had the most impact on all these points seems to be Yeltsin’s economic generosity of paying the Russian people with their own money.

Yeltsin impacted voting by gifting economic incentives. For example, on 10 June, six days before the first round, Yeltsin established and sent out the first payments for a new minimum pension for people 80 years and older. In addition, Yeltsin allowed compensation for those who’d been affected by 1992’s hyperinflation.23 In the first three months of the election year, Yeltsin issued at least 7 new decrees each month. Unpaid wages were also important and while this was a smaller section of the economy, it was still impactful. And as small as it was, it still accounted for 24 trillion rubles (accounting for inflation in dollars, it would be the equivalent of $4.9 billion in 1995 and just over $9.1 billion as of March 2022).24 Even in Tombov, where Zyuganov had strong backing, the deputy governor, Yuri Blokhin stated, “Just in the last few months, when [Yeltsin] started paying pensions and wages, Yeltsin’s rating in the oblast rose from 8 percent in January to about 21 percent in the first round of the election.”25 These claims were repeated in other such areas as the Northern Republic of Karelia.26 The Russian people were essentially bribed with their own money.

Yeltsin won the election for a few reasons. First, he had the brand name that people had already known from the end of the Soviet era and as the first president of the Russian Federation. The second was that Zyuganov was a horrendous candidate which not only reminded the people of the Soviet Union and it’s disastrous recent history but also apologized or downplayed the worst portions of Soviet history. Lastly, Yeltsin offered economic incentives and the Russian people considered it an acceptable exchange for their vote. For this exchange it would be the last mostly honest election the Russian people would ever have. There are inconsistencies in every election but considering Yeltsin and his adversary, it would be difficult to believe that such overwhelming support would’ve flipped in favor of Zyuganov considering his backward economic policies, willfully ignorant statements comparing Jesus Christ to a communist and Zyuganov’s praising of Stalin. In spite of the Russian government’s ominous behavior in every election afterward, for better or worse, the Russian people did choose Yeltsin in 1996.

Works Cited

1. Rewriting Russian History

2. ibid.

3. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ero3AK6hPmo

4. Boris Yeltsin and the 1996 Russian Presidential Election [1149-50]

5. Boris Yeltsin and the 1996 Russian Presidential Election [1149]

6. ibid.

7. In Pursuit of the Russian Presidency [260]

8. ibid. [263]

9. ibid. [257-8]

10. Boris Yeltsin and the 1996 Russian Presidential Election [1157]

11. A Very Expensive Poison [23-4]

12. Boris Yeltsin and the 1996 Russian Presidential Election [1155]

13. Rewriting Russian History

14. In Pursuit of the Russian Presidency

15. Boris Yeltsin and the 1996 Russian Presidential Election [1154]

16. Russia’s 1996 Presidential Election [39]

17. Russia’s 1996 Presidential Election [75]

18. Why the 1996 Russian Election Was an All-Important Turning Point

19. The Election of ´96

20. Why Yeltsin Won [65]

21. ibid. [65-6]

22. ibid. [66]

23. ibid. [67]

24. ibid. [68]

25. ibid. [71]

26. ibid. [71-2]

Bibliography

Armstrong, Patrick. “Why the 1996 Russian Election Was an All-Important Turning Point.” Strategic Culture Foundation, https://www.strategic-culture.org/news/2021/01/20/why-the-1996-russian-election-was-an-all-important-turning-point/.

Brudny, Yitzhak M. “In Pursuit of the Russian Presidency: Why and How Yeltsin Won the 1996 Presidential Election.” Science Direct, 15 June 1998, https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0967067X9700007X.

Depoy, Erik. “Boris Yeltsin and the 1996 Russian Presidential Election.” Presidential Studies Quarterly, vol. 26, no. 4, [Wiley, Center for the Study of the Presidency and Congress], 1996, pp. 1140–64, http://www.jstor.org/stable/27551676.

Harding, Luke. A Very Expensive Poison: The Definitive Story of the Murder of Litvinenko and Russia’s War with the West. Guardian Books, 2017.

McFaul, Michael. “Russia’s 1996 Presidential Election: The End of Polarized Politics.” Google Books, Google, https://books.google.com.ec/books?hl=en&lr=&id=pQHT4kpctB4C&oi=fnd&pg=PR7&dq=russian%2Belection%2B1996&ots=K4PYAo2P6-&sig=GmYS5smHhMMOFV4DtKPh-yafDd0&redir_esc=y#v=onepage&q=russian%20election%201996&f=false.

McFaul, Michael. “The Election of ´96.” Hoover Institution, 30 Sept. 1997, https://www.hoover.org/research/election-96.

Shuster, Simon. “Rewriting Russian History: Did Boris Yeltsin Steal the 1996 Presidential Election?” Time, Time Inc., 24 Feb. 2012, http://content.time.com/time/world/article/0,8599,2107565,00.html

Treisman, Daniel. “Why Yeltsin Won.” Foreign Affairs, vol. 75, no. 5, Council on Foreign Relations, 1996, pp. 64–77, https://doi.org/10.2307/20047744.

Video