ASP Abridged: The Promise of “Democracy” during the Yeltsin Years

  • We are pleased to present the latest in our ASP Abridged blog series, in which authors give readers a short and sweet introduction to their latest book.

Here, David Cratis Williams, Marilyn J. Young, and Michael K. Launer introduce us to their new book, The Rhetorical Rise and Demise of “Democracy” in Russian Political Discourse, Volume 2: The Promise of “Democracy” during the Yeltsin Years.

Tell us what The Promise of “Democracy” during the Yeltsin Years is about in simple terms.







Mikhail Gorbachev was named General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union on March 11, 1985. Less than seven years later, the USSR had ceased to exist. Most of the world probably remembers pictures of Boris Yeltsin standing on top of a tank in Central Moscow waving a Russian (not Soviet) flag—an act that drew worldwide acclaim and cemented his popularity throughout Russia (if only temporarily).

Thus, in a few short years, a vast empire with a planned socialist economy and a single, dominant political party was transformed into fifteen new countries faced with the problem of redefining the nature of their societies and integrating themselves into a world characterized by market-based economies and competitive political parties. The largest and most influential of these new nations was the Russian Federation.

The Promise of “Democracy” during the Yeltsin Years—Volume Two in the series The Rhetorical Rise and Demise of “Democracy” in Russian Political Discourse—describes how that process played out during first decade of Russia’s new reality by examining the ways in which political figures employed rhetoric and argumentation to achieve their political goals and personal aspirations. 

The effort to reconstitute Russian national identity from an authoritarian state with a controlled economy to one with greater individual freedom and the elements that make such freedom possible – along with a market-based economy – was arduous and, ultimately, unsuccessful. Indeed, the search for a new identity, both for the individual and for the nation, is so central to the reordering of Russian society that it becomes more than a leitmotif; it is, rather, an overarching quest that dominates the discourse and makes an appearance in one form or another in virtually all the essays in this volume.

To a large extent, the political history of Russia in the 1990s revolves around the efforts of three distinct groups – the Reformers, the Communists, and the Ultra-Nationalists. Our focus is on intangibles—how political actors, and the movements they led, used persuasion and discussions of political philosophy to advance their agenda and to lead the citizenry toward their vision of what Russia should be and could become.

Boris Yeltsin inherited a country steeped in economic ruin and environmental degradation. The official inflation rate in 1992 was an incredible 2,539%. Part One of our study outlines this situation through a number of book reviews and interviews.





Yeltsin on a Tank 1991; Source: Dmitry Aleksandrovich Pushmin – Yeltsin Center


In Part Two we examine the Duma elections of 1993 and 1995, as well as the presidential election campaign in 1996. Fighting among themselves, the liberals failed to capitalize on the enthusiasm for reform that still existed in 1993 (despite the economic hardships faced by average Russians), thereby hobbling chances to initiate real democratic change, inculcate a culture of democratic communication, or instantiate the institutional prerequisites of a democratic society. The inability of the reformers to accommodate themselves to the arithmetic of the electoral procedures in effect at that time weakened their influence in the Duma and provided additional leverage to the Communists and Ultra-Nationalists.

Yeltsin was a complex personality. Part Three examines him as an autocrat, a democrat, and a populist “man of the people.” Our emphasis is on his use of language as a national leader and as a campaigner for a second term as president.

In Part Four, we survey the decade of the 1990s as a whole and look forward somewhat to the ensuing presidency of Vladimir Putin – which will be the focus for Volume Three (Disaster, Putin, and the Redefinition of “Democracy” – 2000-2008) and Volume Four (The Demise of “Democracy” after Putin’s Return to Power).

Why does The Rhetorical Rise and Demise of “Democracy” matter? Why is it important/needed in the field?

The Rhetorical Rise and Demise of “Democracy” in Russian Political Discourse represents one of the first, if not the first, major efforts in Western academic literature to examine the late Soviet and post-Soviet periods from the standpoint of the language used by various actors – not only politicians themselves, but other segments of Russian society, as well.

David Cratis Williams, a recognized authority on Kenneth Burke, is Professor of Communication and Rhetorical Studies at Florida Atlantic University, where he also serves as Executive Director of the International Center for the Advancement of Political Communication and Argumentation (ICAPCA).

Marilyn J. Young is the Wayne C. Minnick Professor of Communication Emerita at Florida State University. She has published numerous essays and monographs on the general topic of democratization in Russia.

Michael K. Launer is Emeritus Professor of Russian at Florida State University. He is an experienced technical translator and interpreter.

The Promise of “Democracy” during the Yeltsin Years is available now for purchase from ASP or wherever you buy your books. See also Vol. 1 in the series, The Path from Disaster toward Russian “Democracy”.