Yeltsin was not born to money or influence. He was born to hunger, on February 1, 1931, in the village of Butka, in Russia's Sverdlovsk Oblast.
But Yeltsin's ambition helped him survive that harsh decade as well as World War II. His charisma and working-class background won him a place at the Urals Polytechnic Institute's engineering faculty. After graduation, Yeltsin quickly rose from construction foreman at a local machine-building plant to chief engineer of the Yuzhgorstroi construction company.
He joined the Communist Party in 1961, at the age of 30. Yeltsin spent the next two decades rising through the ranks of Sverdlovsk's Communist Party organization, becoming first secretary of the Sverdlovsk Region's Communist Party Committee in 1976.
In 1985, the same year Mikhail Gorbachev came to power, Yeltsin was brought to Moscow and made a member of the Soviet Communist Party's Central Committee. He soon joined the Kremlin's inner sanctum, becoming first secretary of Moscow's Communist Party Committee and a member of the Politburo. But Yeltsin retained a populist touch, which presaged Gorbachev's own democratization campaign.
He rode the subways from time to time, and was fond of turning up at Moscow markets to sample farmers' produce. Just as the first winds of perestroika began to blow, however, Yeltsin broke with his Kremlin mentors.
Moscow was now the capital of two states: Russia and the Soviet Union. But the rivalry would not last long. Yeltsin's defining moment came in August of 1991, when Gorbachev's closest advisers tried to depose the Soviet leader in a ineptly-staged coup. Yeltsin summoned the resistance from atop a tank in Moscow, in the name of the Russian people.
"On the night of August 18 to August 19, 1991, the legally elected president of the country was deposed from power," Yeltsin told the crowd. "Regardless of the reasons used to justify this act, what we are dealing with is a genuine, reactionary, unconstitutional coup. Despite all the difficulties and hardships that our people have known, the democratic process in our country has become broad-based and is irreversible. The people of Russia are becoming masters of their own fate."
Brief clips of Yeltsin speaking outside the Russian parliament in August 1991:
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Boris Yeltsin speaking to RFE/RL's Russian Service shortly after the August 1991 coup attempt:
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The coup was put down, and a humiliated Gorbachev brought back to the Kremlin to preside over the dissolution of the Soviet Union.
Hero Of The Nation
Yeltsin, flush with victory, addressed supporters: "Most of the leaders of the world's countries yesterday, overnight, and this morning, telephoned and said: 'An enormous thank-you to all the people of Russia, to Russia, to Russians, for saving democracy, for saving the union, for saving the peace."
But Yeltsin, who used the power of democracy to propel himself to power, soon began to rule Russia like a benevolent autocrat. He unveiled a series of presidential decrees that launched Russia into a program of crash economic liberalization. Led by a team of young economists, the "top-down "economic reform freed prices, lifted restrictions on foreign investment, and introduced piecemeal privatization in a matter of months.
Wrenching economic adjustment followed, as real wages and domestic production plummeted, and inflation skyrocketed. Shops filled with goods, but mostly for the new rich, who often turned out to be old party bosses, cashing in on their connections. Russia's borders were opened and a free press flourished, but social tensions increased.
The Russian parliament, still dominated by former Communists, increasingly began to oppose the president. In a bid to eliminate this rival center of power, Yeltsin dissolved the parliament by decree in September 1993. But legislators barricaded themselves inside the parliament building, known as the Russian White House, eventually calling for the government's overthrow. Yeltsin sent in tanks to crush the rebellion. The White House was shelled into submission and rebellious legislators arrested.
Yeltsin rewrote the constitution to give him broad powers, ensuring that the next parliament could not oppose him. He also cut deals with several regional governors, granting them special exemptions from federal taxes and controls to retain their favor.
The end of Yeltsin's first term was marked by greater economic stability but also a disastrous decision to send troops to the secessionist Caucasian Republic of Chechnya. As the bodies of dead Russian soldiers continued to pile up, the Kremlin sank deeper and deeper into a guerilla war that was sapping its international prestige and draining financial resources.
The war took a personal toll on Yeltsin, who became increasingly remote and began to spend more and more time in hospitals or at sanatoria. Rumors of Yeltsin's drinking and heart problems dominated international headlines. The Kremlin once again became of place of intrigue and power struggles.
Yeltsin appeared to make a miraculous recovery as he campaigned for a second term as president against Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov. Yeltsin crisscrossed the country and used all available resources to marshal Russia's fractured society to his side. He was reelected in July of 1996 and immediately disappeared from public view, his aides speaking of his "postelectoral exhaustion." The resolution of the war in Chechnya and the running of the country's economy were left to his entourage.
Health Problems Surface
As Yeltsin's absence lengthened, his advisers confirmed the rumors of heart trouble. Yeltsin underwent quintuple bypass surgery in November of 1996, under the supervision of leading U.S. heart surgeon Michael DeBakey. The operation breathed new life into the Russian leader and once again, a long period of withdrawal from the public eye alternated with a brief period of frenetic activity. But it did not last long. Yeltsin ended 1997 much as he had 1996 -- in a sanatorium, recovering from a series of what aides described as "bad colds."
Meanwhile, the country lurched from crisis to crisis, with unpaid workers regularly striking and key reform promises remaining unfulfilled. Yeltsin made one final attempt to forge ahead with reforms in the spring of 1998, by removing long-time Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin from power. He replaced him with the young and ambitious Sergei Kiriyenko, who promised rigid belt-tightening measures and crafted plans to collect taxes from Russia's most powerful companies. But the "oligarchs" -- whose economic and political influence had grown much as Yeltsin's powers had ebbed, revolted.
As the summer of 1998 came to a close, Russia plunged into its most serious economic crisis since emerging from the wreckage of the Soviet Union in 1991. And as panicked Russians rushed out to convert their rapidly devaluating rubles into any solid commodity and the communists and nationalists openly called for the president's resignation, Yeltsin remained holed up in his dacha, a shadow of his former self.
Yeltsin left Russia with a very mixed legacy. The larger than life leader brought Russia independence. He offered bravery and presence of mind, inspiring the nation at defining moments. He unleashed economic reforms.
But Yeltsin, like Gorbachev before him, succumbed with old age to the habits of a party apparatchik, insulating himself from the outside world with a coterie of advisers while his associates grabbed chunks of Russia for their own personal profit, leading the country to the edge of bankruptcy.
On December 31, 1999, Yeltsin stunned the nation by announcing his immediate resignation during a televised New Year's address.
"Today, I am addressing you for the last time as Russian president," Yeltsin announced. "I have made a decision. I have contemplated this long and hard. Today, on the last day of the outgoing century, I am retiring."
Brief clips from Yeltsin's resignation speech:
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The mantle of leadership was passed on to Yeltsin's hand-picked successor, Vladimir Putin. Yeltsin used his farewell address to apologize to the tens of millions of Russians for whom prosperity remained as distant and unrealized a promise as it had under the previous decades of communism.
"I want to ask you for forgiveness, because many of our hopes have not come true, because what we thought would be easy turned out to be painfully difficult," Yeltsin said. "I ask to forgive me for not fulfilling some hopes of those people who believed that we would be able to jump from the gray, stagnating, totalitarian past into a bright, rich, and civilized future in one go."
In the end, whether the new Russian society Yeltsin helped to create will evolve into an economically stable democracy is still up to history's judgment.
|Remembering The 1991 Coup Bid|
In August 2006, RFE/RL looked back on the legacy of the coup attempt that lead to the end of the Soviet Union. more
|Gorbachev Remembers The Coup|
In August 2006, RFE/RL spoke with former President Mikhail Gorbachev about the events in August 1991 that changed history. more
Assessing Boris Yeltsin
Boris Yeltsin (left) meeting with Bill Clinton in the Kremlin on September 1, 1998 (epa)
CLINTON ON YELTSIN: U.S. President Bill Clinton spoke to reporters in Washington on December 31, 1999, shortly after hearing that Boris Yeltsin had resigned. Here are some of his comments:
"[Boris Yeltsin's] lasting achievement has been dismantling the communist system and creating a vital, democratic process within a constitutional framework. The fact that Prime Minister [Vladimir] Putin assumes responsibility today as acting president, in accordance with the constitution, is the latest example of President Yeltsin's achievement."
"The relationship between the United States and Russia under President Yeltsin has produced genuine progress for both our people. Five thousand strategic nuclear weapons have been dismantled. Our nuclear weapons are no longer targeted at each other. We have worked together to eliminate nuclear weapons from the other states of the former Soviet Union."
"Well, I liked him because he was always very [direct] with me. He always did exactly what he said he would do, and he was willing to take chances to try to improve our relationship, to try to improve democracy in Russia."
"I liked him because I think he genuinely deplored communism. He lived with it, he saw it, and he believed that democracy was the best system. I think it was in every fiber of his being."
"We had our arguments. We had our fights. We had our genuine disagreements about our national interests from time to time, but I think that the Russian people were well served to have a leader who honestly believed that their votes ought to determine who is running the show in Russia and what the future direction of the country should be."