Yeltsin, Boris (b. 1931)

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YELTSIN, BORIS (b. 1931)


Soviet politician, first president of Russia (1991–1999).

Born in the village of Butka some 250 miles east of Yekaterinburg (Sverdlovsk), the young Boris Nikolayevich Yeltsin was caught up in Joseph Stalin's collectivization struggle, and many of the Yeltsin family, as kulaks (rich peasants), were shipped to exile in the East. The family moved to Berezniki in the Perm region to work on the construction of a giant potassium-processing plant. Living in barracks, the possession of a she-goat gave warmth and milk. World War II saw further privations and the loss of Boris's left thumb and index finger as he tried to dismantle a hand grenade. Boris was an able and courageous pupil in the local primary school, and at secondary school he became master of numerous sports, but excelled at volleyball.

In 1949, at the age of eighteen, Yeltsin entered the department of civil engineering of the Ural Polytechnical Institute in Sverdlovsk. He traveled the country widely as captain of the institute's volleyball team, and while a student he met his future wife, Naina Girina, from Orenburg. On graduating in 1955, Yeltsin insisted on firsthand experience working on a building site, and then became foreman on a building site. By 1957, newly married, he was placed in charge of the construction of the Sverdlovsk Textile Kombinat, a huge job that he finished within the allotted time. In 1961 he joined the CPSU, while continuing to rise in the sphere of civil construction. Finally, in 1968 he became a bureaucrat, as head of the Construction Department of the Regional Party Committee (Obkom). After a long wait Yeltsin became one of three Obkom secretaries in 1975. He had been disappointed by the slow climb, with his "obsessive ambition" being noted at the time.

In November 1976 Yeltsin finally became Obkom first secretary over a region with a population of nearly five million, covering an area half the size of France. For eight and a half years Yeltsin wielded enormous power in one of the country's leading industrial regions and entered the ranks of the country's elite. He focused on enhancing investment strategies and labor productivity while improving the supply of housing and consumer goods. An innovative although demanding leader, he kept up a relentless pace of initiatives and pressure. At the Twenty-Sixth Party Congress in March 1981 Yeltsin was elected a member of the Central Committee.

Leonid Brezhnev's death in November 1982, followed by the brief interregnum of Yuri Andropov and Konstantin Chernenko, finally allowed Mikhail Gorbachev to come to power in March 1985. In April of that year Yeltsin moved to Moscow as head of the CC's construction department, and on 24 December 1985 he was appointed head of the Moscow party organization and with it shortly afterwards given membership in the Politburo. The relentless pace of sackings, arrests, and initiatives in Moscow alienated many, but Yeltsin gained enormous popularity in pursuing "social justice" through his campaign against corruption and the privileges of the elite. After criticizing Gorbachev for the slow pace of reform at the plenum of 21 October 1987 and declaring his intention to resign from the Politburo, Yeltsin encountered a storm of criticism. Hospitalized with heart pains on 9 November, a few days later he was called in to the Moscow party plenum, where he was relieved of his post, although he was offered a consolation prize as the head of Gosstroi (State Construction Agency).

Yeltsin was now an outsider, and ready to ride the wave of anti-Soviet feeling that was to propel him to the leadership of Russia. Elected a deputy to the new Soviet Congress of People's Deputies (CPD) in March 1989 in a triumphant display of popular support in Moscow, he was then elected to the Russian CPD in March 1990 and in May he was elected chair of the body in a hard-fought contest. The declaration of Russian state sovereignty on 12 June 1990 symbolized the emergence of Russia onto the world stage as an independent actor. At the Twenty-Seventh Party Congress a month later, Yeltsin dramatically renounced his party membership. Gorbachev was increasingly overshadowed by Yeltsin's resolute espousal of democratic and market values. The creation of the presidency in May 1991 led to Yeltsin's election as the first Russian president on 12 June 1991. It was in this position that he faced down the attempted coup on 18–21 August 1991. Yeltsin did little to save the USSR in its dying days. With the formal disintegration of the country in December 1991, Yeltsin was undisputed leader of Russia.

Yeltsin's presidency combined market-oriented liberal, democratic, and westernizing policies. Yeltsin remained remarkably loyal to the idea of democratization, although in practice at times straying far from the ideal. The launching of a "shock therapy" shift to the market in early 1992 lost Yeltsin much of his earlier popularity and provoked a rupture with the CPD, now under the leadership of his erstwhile ally Ruslan Khasbulatov. The violence of 3–4 October 1993 saw the parliament crushed by tanks. The adoption of the new constitution on 12 December institutionalized a strong presidency, whose powers Yeltsin used to drive through market reforms. However, the lack of effective accountability over privatization allowed massive insider dealing. Yeltsin's decision in November–December 1994 to intervene militarily in Chechnya was perhaps his greatest mistake. Although he had become deeply unpopular, Yeltsin's alliance with the new "oligarchs" won him a second term in 1996, but at the price of allowing a form of oligarchic capitalism to flourish. This period was only brought to an end by his government's partial default on its debts in August 1998.

Yeltsin's second term was marred by his failing health, although a multiple heart bypass operation in late 1996 allowed him to continue. In foreign policy Yeltsin accepted the post-Soviet borders and sought Russia's integration into the world community. Domestically, Yeltsin allowed regional elites: autonomy in exchange for loyalty. Yeltsin remained consistent in his broad attempt to achieve the "decommunization" of Russia, but this left a large part of the old institutional order intact, above all the security apparatus and the military. The core paradox of Yeltsin's leadership is the tension between the ideas that informed his leadership and the sordid practice, including drinking bouts that barely allowed him to work. Yeltsin resigned from office on 31 December 1999, allowing his designated successor, Vladimir Putin, to take office. Yeltsin's claim to be the "father of Russian democracy" is not without substance, but democracy at the close of his presidency was far from consolidated. However, the potential for the democratic path of development remained open, and this perhaps was his greatest achievement.

See alsoChechnya; Gorbachev, Mikhail; Perestroika; Putin, Vladimir; Russia.


Aron, Leon. Boris Yeltsin: A Revolutionary Life. London, 2000.

Breslauer, George W. Gorbachev and Yeltsin as Leaders. Cambridge, U.K., 2002.

Medvedev, Roy. Post-Soviet Russia: A Journey through the Yeltsin Era. New York, 2000.

Morrison, John. Boris Yeltsin: From Bolshevik to Democrat. New York, 1991.

Sakwa, Richard. Russian Politics and Society. 3rd ed. London and New York, 2002.

Shevtsova, Lilia. Yeltsin's Russia: Myths and Reality. Washington, D.C., 1999.

Yeltsin, Boris. Against the Grain: An Autobiography. Translated by Michael Glenny. London, 1990.

——. The Struggle for Russia. Translated by Catherine A. Fitzpatrick. New York, 1994.

——. The View from the Kremlin. Translated by Catherine A. Fitzpatrick. London, 1994.

——. Midnight Diaries. Translated by Catherine A. Fitzpatrick. London, 2000.

Richard Sakwa

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