Yeltsin, Boris 1931-2007 (Boris Nikolayevich Yeltsin)

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Yeltsin, Boris 1931-2007 (Boris Nikolayevich Yeltsin)


See index for CA sketch: Born February 1, 1931, in Sverdlovsk, Soviet Union (now Russia); died of heart failure, April 23, 2007, in Moscow, Russia. Politician and author. Yeltsin was the first democratically elected president of the Russian Federation and oversaw the first stages of the dissolution of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. Possessing a rebellious spirit from a young age, he grew up during the oppressive Soviet era of Joseph Stalin. During World War II, he suffered consequences for his disobedience when he was playing with stolen hand grenades. One exploded, and Yeltsin lost a thumb and forefinger off his left hand. He studied civil engineering at the Ural Polytechnic Institute, earning his degree in 1955. He then worked as a laborer and foreman for the Yuzhgorstroi trust, eventually becoming a senior engineer and head of the construction board. In 1961, he joined the Communist Party. From 1963 to 1968 he headed the Sverdlovsk House-Building Factory. Entering politics in 1968, he was named secretary and deputy head of the Sverdlovsk Regional Party Committee.

Yeltsin next governed his home region as first secretary of Sverdlovsk from 1976 until 1985. During this time, he gained favor for his populist style, as well as the attention of another up-and-coming Communist Party leader, Mikhail Gorbachev. The two became friends, and Gorbachev, when he became general secretary of the party in 1985, tapped Yeltsin for chief of the Central Committee construction department and mayor of Moscow. The next year, Yeltsin joined the governing Politburo as a nonvoting member. The energetic politician made a point of pursuing and arresting corrupt Party officials, thus gaining even more popularity among the citizenry. By 1987, however, he and Gorbachev began to fall into disagreements. Yeltsin criticized the Soviet leader for reneging on parts of his perestroika—or free society—policies that had begun to grant Soviets more freedoms. When he also charged Gorbachev with being influenced politically by his wife, Gorbachev had him thrown out of the Politburo. Yeltsin regrouped, and in 1989 he was elected to the Congress of People's Deputies; he quit the Party in 1990 and in 1991 was made chair of that body, which is similar in function to the British Parliament. Though he had begun to reform the Soviet Union's oppressive government, Gorbachev was on the defensive by 1991. Military leaders decided to stage a coup against him, surrounding Moscow's White House with tanks and trapping the Soviet leader within. Yeltsin boldly came to Gorbachev's defense, calling for citizens to oppose the military and, in a famous incident, standing on top of a tank and directly confronting the rebellion. The generals backed off, and Yeltsin became the people's hero. From that point, it was only a matter of time before Gorbachev resigned and Yeltsin, riding on a huge wave of popularity, took his place in December of 1991.

Yeltsin would lead his country for the next nine turbulent years. Although he intended to reform his government and wanted the citizenry to be prosperous, Yeltsin proved unable to create a stable, democratic, free-market society. Meeting with other republic leaders within the Soviet Union, he signed agreements granting states such as the Ukraine and Belarus their independence. This effectively marked the end of the Soviet Union in 1991. He then embarked on a series of economic reforms that proved disastrous. He attempted to form a free-market system run by people who had known only socialism, but the economy was taken over by black marketeers and government cronies. Inflation skyrocketed, and average citizens found their rubles becoming valueless. Fearful of losing control of the government, Yeltsin mimicked his predecessor by granting his office more and more powers, even violating his country's constitution in 1993 by dissolving the parliament illegally. Inevitably, there was a rebellion, and on October 3, 1993, protestors rioted in Moscow, seizing buildings and the radio station. One hundred and forty-two people died in the worst violence since the 1917 Revolution. Yeltsin finally quelled the rebellion, and in December of 1993 a new constitution was written that granted people considerable property, business, and other rights. The next policy failure came in 1994, however, when Yeltsin sent troops in to the rebellious republic of Chechnya with disastrous results.

Despite such problems, Yeltsin was reelected in 1996, but a few months later suffered from the second of two heart attacks. In ill health, he governed less and made rare public appearances. Pneumonia hospitalized him again in 1997. The economy continued to slump in the late 1990s, as the Russian government had a hard time collecting taxes to pay its debts. The new stock market that had been established crashed in the summer of 1998. Meanwhile, Yeltsin, who had been rotating prime ministers in an effort to find a solution, settled on former KGB leader Vladimir Putin. In 1999, the Chechens began invading Russian territory and war flared up yet again. Even Moscow was bombed, and Putin began to take charge of the situation. By the end of the year, Yeltsin knew it was time for him to step down. He made the announcement on New Year's Eve, effectively turning over the government to Putin. Even in this failure, however, there was some call to celebrate as Yeltsin became the first Russian leader in history to voluntarily resign from office. He had accomplished a great deal, despite the missteps he made, and led his people on the first tentative steps toward democracy. Yeltsin wrote about his life and career in Against the Grain (1990), The Struggle for Russia (1994), and Midnight Diaries (2000).



Yeltsin, Boris, Against the Grain, Summit Books (New York, NY), 1990.

Yeltsin, Boris, Midnight Diaries, PublicAffairs (New York, NY), 2000.


Chicago Tribune, April 24, 2007, Section 1, pp. 1, 6.

Los Angeles Times, April 24, 2007, pp. A1, A8-9.

New York Times, April 24, 2007, pp. A1, C14; April 25, 2007, p. A2.

Times (London, England), April 24, 2007, p. 59.

Washington Post, April 24, 2007, pp. A1, A16.