History Stories

Was Bill Clinton's 1994 meeting with Boris Yeltsin the most hilariously awful state visit in history?

Bill Clinton and Boris Yeltsin had a weird relationship. There was the time the Russian president gave the U.S. president a pair of hockey jerseys that said “Yeltsin 96” and “Clinton 96.” There was also the time Clinton doubled over laughing when Yeltsin called the U.S. press “a disaster” at a press conference.

But perhaps the weirdest incident in their professional relationship was when Yeltsin got drunk and wandered into the street in his underwear, trying to get a pizza.

The incident happened during Yeltsin and Clinton’s first meeting in Washington in September 1994. Although there were glancing media reports about it over the years, it wasn’t widely reported on until 2009, when author Taylor Branch published his book The Clinton Tapes, based on his interviews with the president.

“Secret Service agents discovered Yeltsin alone on Pennsylvania Avenue, dead drunk, clad in his underwear, yelling for a taxi,” Branch wrote in his book. “Yeltsin slurred his words in a loud argument with the baffled agents. He did not want to go back into Blair House, where he was staying. He wanted a taxi to go out for pizza.”

When Branch asked Clinton how the situation ended, the president shrugged and said, “Well, he got his pizza.” But the next night, Clinton recalled, Yeltsin tried to do it again.

“Eluding security, he made his way down the back stairs into the Blair House basement, where a building guard mistook him for a drunken intruder,” Branch wrote. “Yeltsin was briefly endangered until converging Russian and American agents sorted out everyone’s affiliation.” Because the guards mistook him for an intruder, “Clinton thought this incident, although contained within Blair House, exposed even greater risk than the pizza quest.”

Russian President Boris Yeltsin finishing his glass of vodka next to President Bill Clinton in 1995 as Russia celebrated the 50th anniversary of the end of World War II in Europe. (Credit: Gerard Fouet/AFP/Getty Images)

Russian President Boris Yeltsin finishing his glass of vodka next to President Bill Clinton in 1995 as Russia celebrated the 50th anniversary of the end of World War II in Europe. (Credit: Gerard Fouet/AFP/Getty Images)

Unfortunately, these nighttime escapades illustrated a larger problem that Yeltsin had with alcohol. The Washington Post has reported that during the 1995 press conference where Yeltsin called the U.S. press “a disaster,” he was drunk on white wine. In another Post article, the former deputy secretary of state under Clinton suggested that the reason the U.S. president  had laughed so hard at Yeltsin’s “disaster” jibe was because he was trying to cover for how drunk the Russian president was. Another time, Yeltsin reportedly called Clinton while inebriated and asked him to hold a secret meeting on a submarine.

During Yeltsin’s presidency from 1991 to 1999, his alcoholism worsened to the point where he was frequently stumbling and falling over. He also exhibited inappropriate behavior on camera, such as when he pinched a couple of female secretaries in front of reporters. These antics have now become a part of his legacy as a world leader.

Upon his death in 2007, the German newspaper Der Spiegel nodded to this fact with a notably blunt obituary title: “The Rise and Fall of the Drunken Czar.”

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