Yeltsin, Boris Nikolayevich
YELTSIN, BORIS NIKOLAYEVICH
(b. 1931), charismatic anticommunist reformer, first president of post-Soviet Russia.
Democrat or impatient revolutionary, corrupt schemer or populist, Boris Yeltsin displayed a certain recklessness from his childhood through his rise to the presidency of Russia. While Yeltsin orchestrated the peaceful breakup of the Soviet Union, he succumbed to poor health and personal rule and failed to build a strong new Russian state.
Yeltsin was born on February 1, 1931, and raised in Sverdlovsk (Ekaterinburg) Oblast in the Ural Mountains. He received a degree in construction engineering from Urals Polytechnical Institute in 1955 and spent the early years of his career in a variety of construction and engineering posts in Sverdlovsk, moving from project manager to top leadership positions in the building administration. He joined the CPSU in 1961 and in 1968 became chief of the Construction Department of the Sverdlovsk Oblast Party Committee (obkom ). In 1975 he was appointed industry secretary of the Sverdlovsk Obkom.
Yeltsin was known for encouraging innovation, and his production successes made a name for him in Moscow. In 1976 he was named first secretary of the Sverdlovsk Obkom. Among his notable policies from this period, he ordered the midnight bulldozing of the Ipatiev House, the execution site of Nicholas II and his family, as the Kremlin feared it was becoming a shrine. He built a reputation for honesty and incorruptibility mixed with impatience and a tendency toward authoritarian leadership.
Yeltsin's Party career continued to flourish as he moved up the ranks. He served as a deputy in the Council of the Union (1978–1989), a member of the USSR Supreme Soviet Commission on Transport and Communications (1979–1984), a full member of the CPSU Central Committee (1981–1990), member of the Presidium of the USSR Supreme Soviet (1984–1985), and chief of the Central Committee Department of Construction (1985).
AGAINST THE GRAIN
Yeltsin soon became part of the new team of young, reform-minded communists under new CPSU General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev. On the advice of CPSU ideology and personnel secretary Yegor Ligachev, Gorbachev brought Yeltsin to Moscow in April 1985. Yeltsin quickly grew restless at a desk job and welcomed his promotion to first secretary of the Moscow City CPSU Committee, succeeding the aging Viktor Grishin. Subsequently, Yeltsin also was elected a candidate member of the Politburo (February 1986) and a member of the Presidium of the USSR Supreme Soviet (1986). Yeltsin was extremely popular as Moscow's de facto mayor, known for riding the subways, dropping in unannounced at local shops, and championing architectural preservation, while exposing and criticizing the privileges enjoyed by the Party elite.
Eventually Yeltsin clashed with key members of the Party leadership. Yeltsin complained openly about the pace of perestroika, criticizing the senior Kremlin leadership for complacency and lack of accountability and Gorbachev for timidity. In particular, he locked horns with Ligachev. Yeltsin's campaign to remove complacent Grishin cronies infringed upon Ligachev's personnel portfolio. Ligachev also pointedly objected when Yeltsin began to close Moscow's special shops and schools for Party officials. Yeltsin became so frustrated that he tendered his resignation in the summer of 1987. Gorbachev refused to accept it, asking him to hold his complaints until after the upcoming celebration for the seventieth anniversary of the October Revolution so that a united front would lead the festivities. Yeltsin declined to heed this advice.
Yeltsin aired his grievances at the Central Committee Plenum on October 21, 1987. The plenum agenda included approving Gorbachev's anniversary speech, but that was not the presentation that attracted the most attention. Following Gorbachev's presentation, Yeltsin delivered an impromptu speech, lasting for about ten minutes, complaining about the slow pace of reforms, Ligachev's intrigues, and a new cult of personality emerging around Gorbachev. Yeltsin charged that leaders were sheltering Gorbachev from the harsh realities of Soviet life. Though this secret speech was not published at the time, its contents soon became public. The plenum itself turned into three hours of criticism heaped on Yeltsin. He was criticized not so much for the content as for the style and the timing of his comments. Yeltsin regularly had opportunities to voice such concerns at weekly Politburo meetings; that he had chosen this particular forum against the direct order of Gorbachev indicated Yeltsin's immaturity and arrogance. Gorbachev now accepted Yeltsin's prior resignation from the Moscow Party Committee and asked the Central Committee to enact appropriate resolutions for his removal. He was also stripped of his seat on the Politburo. Yeltsin thus became the first high-level Gorbachev appointee to lose his position.
Yeltsin was not exiled back to Siberia, however. Gorbachev appointed Yeltsin to be first deputy chair of the USSR State Committee for Construction, a post that allowed him to remain in Moscow and in the political limelight. Yeltsin also remained popular with Muscovites, many of whom felt they had lost an ally. Almost one thousand residents of the capital staged a rally to support Yeltsin, which had to be broken up by police. Yeltsin was unavailable. As would frequently occur during his political career, times of high political drama tended to incapacitate him. At the time of the Central Committee Plenum, Yeltsin was hospitalized for an apparent heart attack. He was literally taken from his hospital bed to attend the session of the Moscow City Committee to be formally fired.
Yeltsin reappeared in public at the 1988 May Day celebration, joining other Central Committee members to watch the annual parade. He was selected as a delegate from the Karelian Autonomous Socialist Republic for the extraordinary Nineteenth CPSU Conference in June; Party officials may have selected the remote constituency to reduce publicity for Yeltsin. Instead, the publicity came on the last day of the Conference.
Gorbachev allowed Yeltsin to speak at the Conference in order to clear the air of rumors regarding the October affair and to see what this "man of the people" had to say. On live television, Yeltsin began by responding to criticisms recently levied against him by his fellow delegates and then tried to clarify his physical and mental condition at the Moscow City Plenum. He repeated his criticism of the slow pace of reform and of privileges for the Party elite. Then, for the first time in Soviet history, a disgraced leader publicly asked for rehabilitation. Yeltsin was followed to the podium by Ligachev, who continued to criticize and denigrate the fallen Communist. When the Conference ended, Yeltsin had not been reinstated. But in a move suggesting that Gorbachev had some respect for Yeltsin's point of view, Ligachev was soon reassigned to agriculture.
Yeltsin began a remarkable political comeback with the March 1989 elections to the first USSR Congress of People's Deputies (CPD). Although the Central Committee declined to put Yeltsin on its slate of candidates, some fifty constituencies nominated him. Yeltsin opted to run from Moscow—not Sverdlovsk—and won almost 90 percent of the vote, despite an official smear campaign. When the CPD announced candidates for the new Supreme Soviet, Yeltsin was not on the ballot. Large popular protests began in Moscow, and delegates were swamped with telegrams and telephone calls supporting Yeltsin. Ultimately Alexei Kazannik, a deputy from Omsk, offered to relinquish his seat to Yeltsin—and Yeltsin only. Yeltsin became co-chair of the opposition Inter-Regional Group and called for a new constitution that would place sovereignty with the people, not the Party. Further signaling his break with Gorbachev, during the July 1990 Twenty-eighth Party Conference, Yeltsin dramatically resigned from the CPSU, tossing his party membership card aside and striding out of the meeting hall. He had cast his lot with the Russian people.
Meanwhile, Yeltsin had established roots in the RSFSR, giving him a political base to challenge Gorbachev. He was elected to the Russian Congress of People's Deputies in March 1990 and became chair of the Russian Supreme Soviet in May 1990. He declared Russia sovereign in June 1990, triggering a war of laws between his institutions and those of Gorbachev. In June 1991 Yeltsin was elected to the newly created office of RSFSR President. Unlike Gorbachev as president of the USSR, Yeltsin had been popularly elected, a mandate that gave him much greater legitimacy than Gorbachev could claim for himself. He even called for Gorbachev's resignation in February 1991. During the negotiations for a new union treaty in early 1991, Yeltsin demanded that key powers devolve to the republics. Eventually the two leaders came to an agreement, and Yeltsin planned to sign the new Union Treaty on August 20, 1991.
When hard-line communists tried to block the treaty and topple Gorbachev, Yeltsin sprang into action. While Gorbachev was under house arrest in the Crimea, Yeltsin was at his dacha outside Moscow. Refusing his family's and advisers' pleas that he go into hiding, Yeltsin eluded the commandos surrounding his dacha and went to the Russian parliament building, known as the White House. Climbing atop one of the tanks surrounding the White House, Yeltsin denounced the coup as illegal, read an Appeal to the Citizens of Russia, and called for a general strike. Yeltsin's team began circulating alternative news reports, faxing them out to Western media for broadcast back into the USSR. Soon Muscovites began to heed Yeltsin's call to defend democracy. Thousands surrounded the building, protecting it from an expected attack by hard-line forces. Throughout the three-day siege, Yeltsin remained at the White House, broadcasting radio appeals, telephoning international leaders, and regularly addressing the crowd outside. When the coup plotters gave up, Yeltsin had replaced Gorbachev as the most powerful political figure in the USSR. Yeltsin banned the CPSU on Russian soil, effectively endings its operations, but did not call for purges of communist leaders. Instead, he left for his own three-week Crimean vacation.
While Yeltsin inexplicably left the capital at this critical time, Gorbachev was unable to rally support to himself or his reconfigured Soviet Union. Upon his return to Moscow, Yeltsin seized more all-union assets, institutions, and authorities until it became obvious that Gorbachev had little left to govern. Then, on the weekend of December 8, 1991, Yeltsin met with his counterparts from Belarus (Stanislau Shushkevich) and Ukraine (Leonid Kuchma). The three men drafted the Belovezhskaya Accords, in which the three founding republics of the Soviet Union declared the country's formal end.
THE STRUGGLE FOR RUSSIA
Yeltsin began the simultaneous tasks of establishing a new state, a market economy, and a new political system. Initially the new Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) served to regulate relations with the other Soviet successor states, although Ukraine and other western states resented Yeltsin's argument that Russia was first among equals. Yeltsin, for example, commanded the CIS military, which he initially used in lieu of creating a separate Russian military. Domestically, he faced secessionist challenges from Chechnya and less severe autonomist movements from Tatarstan, Sakha, and Bashkortostan. Radical economic policy was implemented as Prime Minister Yegor Gaidar's economic shock therapy program freed most prices as of January 1, 1992, and Anatoly Chubais led efforts to privatize state-owned enterprises. The two policies combined to bring Russia to the brink of economic collapse. Not only did Yeltsin face public criticism on the economy, but his own vice president, Alexander Rutskoi, and the speaker of parliament, Ruslan Khasbulatov, also denounced his policies.
On the political front, Yeltsin found himself in uncertain waters. Although work was underway to draft a new constitution, the process had been interrupted by the collapse of the USSR. Russia technically still operated under the 1978 constitution, which vested authority in the Supreme Soviet. However, the Supreme Soviet had granted Yeltsin emergency powers for the first twelve months of the transition. As these powers neared expiration, Yeltsin and the Supreme Soviet became locked in a battle for control of Russia. As a compromise, Yeltsin replaced Gaidar with an old-school industrialist, Viktor Chernomyrdin, but that did not appease the Congress, which stripped Yeltsin of his emergency powers on March 12. Narrowly surviving an impeachment vote, Yeltsin threatened emergency rule and called a referendum on his rule for April 25, 1993. Yeltsin won that round, but the battle between executive and legislature continued all summer.
On September 21, 1993, Yeltsin issued decree number 1400 dissolving the Supreme Soviet and calling for elections to a new body in December. Parliament, led by Khasbulatov and Rutskoi, refused, and members barricaded themselves in the
White House. Rutskoi was sworn in as acting president. Attempts at negotiation failed, and on October 3, the rebels seized the neighboring home of Moscow's mayor and set out to commandeer the Ostankino television complex. Yeltsin then did what the hardliners did not do in August 1991: He ordered the White House be taken by force. Troops stormed the building, more than one hundred people died, and Khasbulatov, Rutskoi, and their colleagues were led to jail.
Parliamentary elections took place as scheduled in December. Simultaneously, a referendum was held to approve the super-presidential constitution drafted by Yeltsin's team. If the referendum failed, Russians would have voted for an illegitimate legislature. Fearing rivals for power, Yeltsin had eliminated the office of vice president in the new constitution, but he also refused to create a presidential political party. As a result, there was no obvious pro-government party. Gaidar and his liberal democrats lost to the ultra-nationalist Liberal Democratic Party of Vladimir Zhirinovsky and the Communist Party of the Russian Federation (CPRF). Rumors persist that turnout was below the required 50 percent threshold, which would have invalidated the ratification of the constitution itself.
The Duma, the new bicameral parliament's lower house, began with a strong anti-Yeltsin statement. In February it amnestied the participants in the 1991 putsch and the 1993 Supreme Soviet revolt. Yeltsin tried to accommodate the red-brown coalition of Communists and nationalists in the Duma. Economic liberalization eased, privatization entered its second phase, and a handful of businessmen—the oligarchs—snatched up key enterprises at deep discount.
Yeltsin reached out to regions for support, with mixed results. A series of bilateral treaties were signed with the Russian republics, especially Tatarstan, giving them greater autonomy than specified in the federal constitution. However, one republic, Chechnya, remained firm in its refusal to recognize the authority of Moscow, and a showdown became imminent. A group of hardliners within the Yeltsin administration orchestrated an invasion of Chechnya on December 11, 1994. Although they had expected a quick victory, the bloody war continued until August 1996.
Yeltsin approached presidential elections scheduled for June 1996 with four key problems. First was the ongoing and highly unpopular war in Chechnya. Second, the communists dominated the 1995 Duma elections. Third was his declining health. (He had collapsed in October 1995, triggering a succession crisis in the Kremlin.) Fourth, his approval ratings were in the single digits, and advisors Oleg Soskovets and Alexander Korzhakov urged him to cancel the election. But yet again, Yeltsin launched an amazing political comeback. He fired his most liberal Cabinet members, including Foreign Minister Andrei Kozyrev whose pro-West policies had angered many, and floated a new peace plan for Chechnya.
In a campaign organized by Chubais and Yeltsin's daughter Tatiana Dyachenko, Yeltsin barnstormed across the country, delivering rousing speeches, handing out lavish political favors, and dancing with the crowds. The campaign was bankrolled by the oligarchs—a group of seven entrepreneurs who had amassed tremendous wealth in the privatization process under questionable circumstances and wanted to protect their interests. The Kremlin boldly admitted to exceeding the campaign-spending cap. Yeltsin failed to win a majority of the votes in the election, forcing him into a run-off with CPRF candidate Gennady Zyuganov.
Between the first election and the run-off, Yeltsin suffered a massive heart attack. This news was kept from the Russian population, who went to the polls unaware of the situation. Only after Yeltsin had secured victory was news of his health released. He underwent quintuple bypass surgery in November 1996, contracted pneumonia, and was effectively an invalid for months. During this time, access to the president and the daily business of running the country fell to Yeltsin's closest advisors: Chubais and Dyachenko, known as "The Family."
Yeltsin's last years in office were marked by a declining economy, rising corruption, and frequent turnover in the office of prime minister. The oligarchs soon turned on each other, fighting for assets and access. Yeltsin's immediate family was implicated in a variety of graft schemes. With the economy declining, Yeltsin embarked on prime minister roulette. He fired Chernomyrdin, replacing
him with Sergei Kiriyenko (March–August 1998), Chernomyrdin again (August 23–September 10), then Yevgeny Primakov (September 10, 1998–May 12, 1999), and Sergei Stepashin (May 12–August8). In August 1998 the ruble collapsed, and Russia defaulted on its foreign loan obligations. Next in line as prime minister came ex-KGB agent Vladimir Putin.
In 1999 Yeltsin associates floated the idea of his running for a third term. They argued that the two-term limit imposed by the 1993 constitution might not count Yeltsin's 1991 election, as it occurred under different political and legal circumstances. Yeltsin's health was a key concern, as was his family's complicity in a growing number of corruption schemes. Before Yeltsin could leave office he needed a suitable successor, one that could protect him and his family. On New Year's Eve, 1999, Yeltsin went on television to make a surprise announcement—his resignation. According to the constitution, Prime Minister Putin would succeed him, with elections called within three months. As acting president, Putin's first action was to grant Yeltsin immunity from prosecution.
Yeltsin retired quietly to his dacha outside of Moscow. Unlike Gorbachev, he did not form his own think tank or join the international lecture circuit. Instead, Yeltsin wrote his third volume of memoirs, Midnight Diaries, and largely kept out of politics and public life.
See also: august 1991 putsch; chechnya and the chechens; chubais, anatoly borisovich; dyachenko, tatiana borisovna; gaidar, yegor timurovich; gorbachev, mikhail sergeyevich; khasbulatov, ruslan imranovich; korzhakov, alexander vasilevich; october 1993 events; putin, vladimir vladimirovich; rutskoi, alexander vladimirovich
Shevtsova, Lilia. (1999). Yeltsin's Russia: Myths and Reality. Washington, DC: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
Yeltsin, Boris. (1990). Against the Grain. New York: Summit.
Yeltsin, Boris. (1994). The Struggle for Russia. New York: Random House.
Yeltsin, Boris. (2000). Midnight Diaries. New York: Public Affairs.
Ann E. Robertson
Boris Nikolaevich Yeltsin
Boris Nikolaevich Yeltsin
Boris Nikolaevich Yeltsin (born 1931), who became president of Russia in 1991, was one of the most complex and enigmatic political leaders of his time. A long-time Communist Party leader in Sverdlovsk (Ekaterinburg) and later Moscow, he was an important leader in the reform movements of the late 1980s and 1990s. Yeltsin was perceived at varying times as a folk hero, as a symbol of Russia's struggle to establish a democracy, and as a dictatorial figure.
Boris Nikolaevich Yeltsin was born into a Russian working-class family on February 1, 1931, in the small Siberian village of Butko. Yeltsin lived and worked in Siberia for most of his life. His early life, like that of most of his countrymen in the 1930s and 1940s, was marked by hardship, and as the oldest child Boris had numerous responsibilities at home. Only a month older than Mikhail Sergeevich Gorbachev, their lives and careers have many similarities and some differences. Both men came from rural worker and peasant families (Gorbachev lived in the village of Privolnoe in the Stavropol district) and succeeded in a society that paid lip service to workers and peasants but in reality was run by an elitist bureaucracy that disdained provincials.
A strong-willed child, Boris twice stood up to the educational system. At his elementary school graduation he criticized his homeroom teacher's abusive and arbitrary behavior, resulting in his expulsion. He appealed the decision and, after an investigation, the teacher was dismissed. During his last year in high school Yeltsin was stricken with typhoid fever and forced to study at home. Denied the right to take final examinations because he had not attended school, he appealed and won. His actions were extraordinary in the repressive climate of the Stalin period but help explain the mature Yeltsin. In July 1990 he walked to the podium at the 28th Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) and submitted his resignation.
Trained as an engineer, Yeltsin graduated from the Ural Polytechnic Institute. He married his wife Naina at a young age; they had two daughters. The family is believed to be closely knit.
Yeltsin initially worked as an engineer in the construction industry in Sverdlovsk, moved into management of the industry, and later went to a career in the Communist Party, eventually becoming first secretary of the party in Sverdlovsk. Yeltsin joined the CPSU at age 30, relatively late for a man with political aspirations.
A Party Leader in Moscow
In 1985 Mikhail S. Gorbachev, the new general secretary of the CPSU, brought Yeltsin to Moscow to serve as secretary for the construction industry. Within a year he was appointed head of the Communist Party of Moscow. The 18 months that followed were a time of achievement and frustration, culminating in his dismissal as a Candidate member of the Politburo and first secretary of the Moscow Party ("the Yeltsin affair").
Yeltsin did not like Moscow at first and criticized the privileges of the city's political elite as extravagant compared with life in Sverdlovsk. In a letter to Gorbachev, written in late summer 1987, Yeltsin asked to be relieved of his responsibilities in the Politburo. Initially he did not receive a response, but a disagreement on policy issues led to the confrontation in the Central Committee in October 1987. Yeltsin criticized the pace of the reforms known as perestroika and the behavior of some Politburo members. Yeltsin was removed as secretary of the Moscow party and his resignation from the Politburo was accepted. Yeltsin remained a party member, and Gorbachev appointed him a deputy minister in the construction industry, an area in which he had decades of experience.
As a political leader in Sverdlovsk and Moscow, Yeltsin was described as both a populist and an autocrat in his management style. At times preemptory in his action and approach, he often traveled to work on public transportation and mingled with ordinary people, unusual behavior among the Soviet elite, accustomed to travel in curtained limousines.
In the late 1980s, after Yeltsin criticized perestroika, his personal relationship with Gorbachev deteriorated. Publicly Gorbachev was reticent, but from 1987 to 1991 Yeltsin faced opposition at every step as he attempted to rebuild his political career. In the 1989 elections for the newly created Congress of People's Deputies (the new parliament), Yeltsin ran for a seat in Moscow against the nominee of the Communist Party, who managed the prestigious ZIL automobile factory. Yeltsin surprised the party by receiving 90 percent of the vote and, with great difficulty, was subsequently elected by the deputies to the smaller, more important, parliamentary body, the Supreme Soviet. Gorbachev was elected (chairman) president of the U.S.S.R. by the new parliament.
During 1989-1990 Yeltsin's populist views made him a folk hero in Moscow, where crowds chanting "Yeltsin, Yeltsin" were a frequent sight. In the Supreme Soviet he served on the steering committee of the interregional coalition of deputies with Andrei Sakharov. Yeltsin was also elected to the Russian parliament, which in May 1990 selected him as chairman (president) of the Russian Republic.
Yeltsin and Gorbachev never again achieved a sustained close working relationship, although at times they cooperated during the last 18 months of the Soviet Union. At the CPSU's 28th Congress in 1990 Yeltsin and other reformers within the party supported Gorbachev's leadership against the conservatives, led by Y.K. Ligachev. Although the Congress favored the conservatives, Ligachev was forced into retirement. Yeltsin had the last word when, late in the Congress, he publicly resigned from the party.
In June 1991 the Russian Republic held its first popularly contested election for president, and Yeltsin defeated six opponents to win the presidency. As president he declared the Russian Republic autonomous of the U.S.S.R. and offered to cooperate with the Baltic Republics, which were seeking freedom from the U.S.S.R. Such movements contributed to Gorbachev's decision to negotiate with the 15 Soviet republics to discuss ways to enhance their self government. The result was a draft treaty scheduled for signing in late August 1991.
President of the Republic of Russia
Yeltsin as president of the Russian Republic (RSFSR) and Gorbachev as president of the U.S.S.R. agreed to cooperate on economic reform, a reversal of their estrangement since 1987. However, on August 19, 1991, eight conservative party and government leaders perpetrated a coup against the vacationing Gorbachev. Yeltsin led the dramatic struggle on the ramparts of the Russian parliament (the "White House") in Moscow that defeated the coup and secured Gorbachev's return to Moscow.
In the aftermath of Gorbachev's rescue, Yeltsin consolidated his own power. Arguing the complicity of some of their leaders in the coup, Yeltsin led the movement to dissolve the Russian parliament and outlaw the Communist Party on Russian soil. These acts further weakened Gorbachev's power base. The draft treaty of the republics was never signed. In the fall of 1991 Yeltsin and other republic leaders declared the independence of their respective republics, and in December the presidents of Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus (Belorussia) formed the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), declaring they would no longer recognize the U.S.S.R. as of January 1, 1992. Eight other republics joined the CIS, while four republics became completely independent. Gorbachev resigned before year's end, and as of January 1, 1992, there was no more U.S.S.R. Yeltsin, who in 1987 had been dismissed from the Soviet leadership, became the head of post-Soviet Russia, the largest of the Soviet successor states. This was a political comeback unprecedented in Soviet history.
Yeltsin began a new chapter in 1992 as president of independent Russia. He undertook an ambitious program of economic reform known as "shock therapy," which accelerated the pace of privatization and allowed prices to float as a strategy to move quickly toward a market economy. The results were mixed. Privatization progressed but at the price of skyrocketing inflation and currency devaluation without increased production. Yeltsin's policies were frequently challenged during 1992, culminating in a major showdown with the Russian parliament in December 1992. Acting Prime Minister Yegor Gaidar, an advocate of shock therapy, was forced out, although within a year he returned to Yeltsin's cabinet. Viktor Chernomyrdin, a compromise candidate, became prime minister. Yeltsin's relationship with the parliament further deteriorated in 1993, and some of his 1991 political allies on the ramparts of the White House led the parliamentary opposition. Yeltsin dissolved parliament in September 1993, a sit-in ensued, and in early October 1993, a confrontation occurred, resulting in hundreds of deaths and injuries as well as considerable damage to the White House and other Moscow landmarks. The sit-in was eventually routed.
Yeltsin survived the political crisis, but his prestige and reputation suffered. The democratic Yeltsin who protested in the streets of Moscow in the late 1980s was forgotten, and a dictatorial image of Yeltsin emerged. In December 1993 Yeltsin suffered a further setback in the parliamentary elections, which he had called. Prominent reformers ran in rival parties, thus weakening their overall impact. The radical right, led by Vladimir Zhirinovsky, and the neo-Communists consequently made a better showing in the elections than they might have done if reformers had been united.
Yeltsin remained at the helm of Russian politics, but as a less heroic figure than the Yeltsin of 1991. Although reelected in 1996, Yeltsin's future was clouded by Russia's economic crisis and the failure of his reform program, combined with the bitter aftertaste of Yeltsin's confrontation with parliament. More importantly, after the 1996 elections it became clear that he had deceived the Russian people about his health. In fact, he had suffered a heart attack prior to elections, and was not well. In The Nation Daniel Singer wrote, "The Russians would not have voted for Yeltsin had they known he was such an invalid. Only extraordinarily tight government control over television enabled the stage managers to conceal his heart attack." Although he continued as president, there was much speculation within the international and Russian community as to who his successor would be. In May 1997 World Press Review observed, "Considering that most recent Russian leaders have been sickly, it is odd that the Russian constitution seems to presuppose a vigorous leader." The problem left many more than a little uneasy.
Despite his poor health, Yeltsin met with President Clinton in Helsinki in March 1997. Among the important issues addressed, Yeltsin approved a new Russian role in NATO, despite his opposition to NATO expansion. In essence, President Clinton assured the Russians a seat on NATO councils, stating they would "have a voice, not a veto." But it was clear that Yeltsin expected a right to override actions Russia found unacceptable. In exchange for this new position within NATO, Yeltsin implied the Russians would cease their opposition to NATO expansion.
In his new term, Yeltsin continued to face domestic problems in 1997. The Russian financial picture continued to grow grim: the gross national product fell another 6 percent in 1996, industrial production was off even more, and even the life expectancy dropped drastically, by 6 years. Of the 1997 Russian financial picture, Singer pointed out, "Barter, debt-swapping and hidden financial transactions are replacing normal exchange. Fiscal fraud has reached epidemic proportions." Indeed, in 1997, employees frequently waited as long as three months for payment. Despite such a grim financial picture, President Yeltsin was a resilient politician with keen political insights who rebounded from defeat after defeat.
A number of books treat Yeltsin the politician and the man. Considerable insights can be gained from his two autobiographies—Against the Grain, written as a diary about his political life, with flashbacks into his early life and career; and The Struggle for Russia (1994), in which he describes his role in both attempted coups, and profiles friends and adversaries in Russia and abroad. Other biographers include John Morrison, whose Boris Yeltsin (1991) portrays Yeltsin the politician in the context of Soviet politics. His relationship with Gorbachev and the "Yeltsin affair" are described in Seweryn Bialer's Inside Gorbachev's Russia (1989). The preclude to Yeltsin's rule is described by Robert Daniels in The End of the Communist Revolution (1993). An excellent article on Yeltsin and Russia can be found in The Nation (March 31, 1997). □
Boris Yeltsin, who became president of Russia in 1991, was one of the most complex political leaders of his time. A longtime Communist Party leader, he was an important leader in the reform (social improvement) movements of the late 1980s and 1990s. Yeltsin was perceived at varying times as a folk hero, as a symbol of Russia's struggle to establish a democracy, and as a dictatorial figure (an all-powerful ruler).
Boris Nikolaevich Yeltsin was born into a Russian working-class family on February 1, 1931, in the small Siberian village of Butko. His parents were Nikolai and Klavdia Yeltsin. He grew up with a younger brother, Mikhail, and a younger sister, Valya. The Yeltsin family lived in communal, or group, situations, first on a farm and later at a construction site where his father worked. His family was in close contact with many other families and their privacy was extremely limited. Yeltsin lived and worked in Siberia for most of his life. His early life, like most of his countrymen in the 1930s and 1940s, was marked by hardship, and as the oldest child Boris had numerous responsibilities at home.
A strong-willed child, Boris twice stood up to the educational system. At his elementary school graduation he criticized his homeroom teacher's abusive behavior, which resulted in him being kicked out of school. He appealed the decision and, after an investigation, the teacher was dismissed. During his last year in high school Yeltsin was stricken with typhoid fever, a terrible disease that causes fever and other symptoms and is easily spread, and forced to study at home. Denied the right to take final examinations because he had not attended school, he appealed and won. His actions were extraordinary considering this happened during the rule of Joseph Stalin (1879–1953), a period when the government had an intense stronghold on its citizens.
Trained as an engineer, Yeltsin graduated from the Ural Polytechnic Institute. He married his wife Naina at a young age and they had two daughters. The family is believed to be closely knit.
Yeltsin initially worked as an engineer in the construction industry in Sverdlovsk, moved into management of the industry, and later began a career in the Communist Party, eventually becoming first secretary of the party in Sverdlovsk. Yeltsin joined the Communist Party at age thirty, relatively late for a man with political dreams.
A party leader in Moscow
In 1985 Mikhail S. Gorbachev (1931–), the new general secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU), brought Yeltsin to Moscow to serve as secretary for the construction industry. Within a year he was appointed head of the Communist Party of Moscow. The eighteen months that followed were a time of achievement and frustration, ending in his dismissal as a candidate member of the Politburo (the top members of the Communist Party) and first secretary of the Moscow Party.
Yeltsin disliked Moscow at first and criticized the privileges of the city's political elite (highest social class). As a political leader, Yeltsin often traveled to work on public transportation and mingled with ordinary people, unusual behavior among the Soviet elite, who usually traveled in curtained limousines. Yeltsin criticized the pace of the reforms known as perestroika and the behavior of some Politburo members. Yeltsin was removed as secretary of the Moscow Party, and he resigned from the Politburo. Yeltsin remained a party member, and Gorbachev appointed him a deputy minister in the construction industry, an area in which he had decades of experience.
In the late 1980s, after Yeltsin criticized perestroika, his personal relationship with Gorbachev fell apart. In the 1989 elections Yeltsin surprised the party by receiving 90 percent of the vote and, with great difficulty, was elected to the small, but important, parliamentary (governing) body, the Supreme Soviet. Gorbachev was elected (chairman) president of the Soviet Union by the new parliament.
During 1989 and 1990 Yeltsin's views made him a folk hero in Moscow, where crowds chanting "Yeltsin, Yeltsin" were a frequent sight. Yeltsin was also elected to the Russian parliament, which in May 1990 selected him as chairman (president) of the Russian Republic. Later that year, Yeltsin formally resigned from the Communist Party.
President of the Republic of Russia
In June 1991 the Russian Republic held its first election for president, and Yeltsin defeated six opponents to win the presidency. As president he declared the Russian Republic independent of the Soviet Union.
Yeltsin as president of the Russian Republic (RSFSR) and Gorbachev as president of the Soviet Union agreed to cooperate on economic reform, a reversal since their relationship fell apart in 1987. However, on August 19, 1991, eight conservative party and government leaders led a coup (takeover) against the vacationing Gorbachev. Yeltsin led the dramatic opposition to the coup and secured Gorbachev's return to Moscow.
In the aftermath of Gorbachev's rescue, Yeltsin consolidated (unified) his own power. Yeltsin led the movement to dissolve the Russian parliament and outlaw the Communist Party on Russian soil. These acts further weakened Gorbachev's power base. In the fall of 1991 Yeltsin and other republic leaders declared the independence of their respective republics, and in December the presidents of Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus (Belorussia) formed the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), declaring they would no longer recognize the Soviet Union as of January 1, 1992. Eight other republics joined the CIS, while four republics became completely independent. Gorbachev resigned before year's end, and as of January 1, 1992, the Soviet Union no longer existed. Yeltsin, who in 1987 had been dismissed from the Soviet leadership, became the head of post-Soviet Russia, the largest of the Soviet successor states.
A new era
Yeltsin began a new chapter in 1992 as president of independent Russia. He undertook an ambitious program of economic reform with mixed results. Businesses were returned to the private sector but the economy began to crumble. Yeltsin's policies were frequently challenged during 1992, ending in a major showdown with the Russian parliament in December 1992. Yeltsin dissolved parliament in September 1993 and a sit-in (peaceful protest) began. In early October 1993, a confrontation occurred, resulting in hundreds of deaths and injuries as well as considerable damage to several Moscow landmarks. The sit-in was eventually stopped.
Yeltsin survived the political crisis, but his reputation suffered. The democratic Yeltsin who protested in the streets of Moscow in the late 1980s was forgotten and a dictatorial (harsh leadership by one) image of Yeltsin emerged. Yeltsin remained at the helm of Russian politics, but as a less heroic figure than the Yeltsin of 1991. Although reelected in 1996, Yeltsin's future was clouded by Russia's economic crisis and the failure of his reform program, combined with the bitter aftertaste of Yeltsin's confrontation with parliament.
After the 1996 elections it became clear that Yeltsin had deceived the Russian people about his health. In fact, he had suffered a heart attack prior to elections, and was not well. Although he continued as president, there was talk within the international and Russian community about who would take his place as president.
In 1997 Yeltsin continued to face domestic problems in his new term. The Russian financial picture continued to grow grim, industrial production slowed, and even Russian life expectancy dropped drastically, by six years. Indeed, in 1997, employees frequently waited as long as three months for payment.
Yeltsin had his political stability tested again in May of 1999 when a Communist-led attempt to impeach (to charge with misconduct) him failed. Yeltsin faced five charges—one of the most significant being the accusation that he started the war in Chechnya in 1994—but eventually the charges were dropped. Yeltsin continued to suffer from health problems during his second term, spending large amounts of time out of the public eye as a result. Despite his ill health, Yeltsin remained a dominate political force, dismissing four prime ministers during 1998 and 1999.
Citing the need for new leadership in Russia, Yeltsin suddenly resigned as president on December 31, 1999. Many believed that Yeltsin's declining popularity and failing health contributed to the decision that ended the leader's second term six months early. "I am stepping down ahead of term. I understand that I must do it and Russia must enter a new millennium with new politicians, with new faces, with new intelligent, strong, energetic people, and we who have been in power for many years must go," Yeltsin said during a public address on Russian national television.
Though Yeltsin received praise from then-President Bill Clinton (1946–), most Russians would likely disagree with the glowing review of the leader's eight years in office. Yeltsin's attempts to create a better economy were often crippled by corruption and incompetence, and he became increasingly disliked by the Russian people as a result. Yeltsin appointed Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin (1952–) as acting president until a March 2000 election. Putin, a former KGB (the Soviet Union secret police) officer and popular politician, served as both acting president and prime minister. Yeltsin planned to start a political foundation and travel Europe in his retirement.
In 2001 Yeltsin was given Russia's highest award known as "Order of Service to the Fatherland, First Degree." President Putin honored Yeltsin with this award for his part in changing the future of Russia by helping to end the Soviet Union.
For More Information
Aron, Leon. Yeltsin: A Revolutionary Life. New York: St. Martin's Press, 2000.
Ayer, Eleanor H. Boris Yeltsin: Man of the People. New York: Dillon Press, 1992.
Daniels, Robert. The End of the Communist Revolution. New York: Routledge, 1993.
Miller, Calvin Craig. Boris Yeltsin: First President of Russia. Greensboro, NC: Morgan Reynolds, 1994.
Morrison, John. Boris Yeltsin: From Bolshevik to Democrat. New York: Dutton, 1991.
Yeltsin, Boris. Against the Grain: An Autobiography. New York: Summit Books, 1990.
Yeltsin, Boris 1931–2007
Boris Nikolaevich Yeltsin was the founding father of the post-Communist Russian state, and the man responsible for giving shape to contemporary Russian democracy. His life reflected the sufferings and achievements of the Soviet era, and also came to symbolize the chaos and confused aspirations of the capitalist democracy that came after. Yeltsin was born on February 1, 1931, in the village of Butka some 250 miles east of Yekaterinburg (called Sverdlovsk at the time). In that year the region was engulfed by Stalin’s savage struggle to force peasants off their individual plots and into collective farms. Yeltsin’s family was comparatively prosperous and therefore, as kulaks (rich peasants), were exiled to the east. With the countryside in chaos, in 1932 Yeltsin’s father, Nikolai Ignatevich, moved to work on a construction site in Kazan. Two years later Ignatevich was arrested as a “dekulakised kulak,” or someone allegedly retaining the kulak mentality, and sentenced to three years hard labor, a fact that Yeltsin kept secret until 1994. The family moved to Berezniki in the Perm region to work on the construction of a giant potassium processing plant. The hard conditions worsened following Russia’s entry into World War II in 1941, but the young Boris thrived at school, taking up numerous sports and excelling at volleyball.
In 1949 at the age of 18, Yeltsin became a student in the civil engineering department of the Urals Polytechnical Institute in Sverdlovsk, the city he made his home for the next 36 years. He divided his time between intense bouts of study and sporting activities, travelling the country as captain of the volleyball team. He met his future wife, Naina Girina from Orenburg, at this time. Yeltsin graduated in June 1955, and then gained practical experience on a building site. He was a hard but fair task master, imposing enormous demands on himself and fellow workers. In 1957, newly married, Yeltsin took charge of the construction of the Sverdlovsk Textile Kombinat, a major project that he completed on time. In 1959 Yeltsin joined the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU), but only in 1966 did he leave active civil engineering to head the Construction Department of the Regional Party Committee (Obkom, the acronym of the Oblast [Regional] Committee of the Communist Party). Yeltsin refused many of the perks that went with the job, but he was driven by his characteristic “obsessive ambition.”
In November 1976 Yeltsin made it to the top, becoming Obkom First Secretary over a region with a population of nearly five million, covering an area the size of England. He was an innovative and demanding leader, but never strayed from Party orthodoxy. At the Twenty-Sixth Party Congress in March 1981 Yeltsin was elected a member of the Central Committee (CC).
In March 1985 Mikhail Gorbachev came to power committed to reform. In April 1985 Gorbachev brought Yeltsin to Moscow as head of the CC’s Construction Department. In December of that year Yeltsin was appointed head of the Moscow Party Organization and with it, shortly afterwards, candidate membership of the Politburo, the Communist Party’s highest body. Yeltsin ran Moscow in a confrontational manner, firing those whom he considered resistant to change, but his talk of “social justice” and condemnation of elite privileges and corruption won him enormous popularity.
At the CC plenum of October 21, 1987, Yeltsin criticized the slowness of reforms and Gorbachev personally, and announced that he would resign from the Politburo. Facing a barrage of condemnation, Yeltsin was removed from leadership of the Moscow Party but was appointed head of the state construction agency, Gosstroi. Cast out of the political establishment, Yeltsin placed himself at the head of the anti-Soviet revolution. He skillfully exploited the new democratic opportunities, being elected by acclaim in March 1990 a deputy from Moscow to the new Russian Congress of People’s Deputies (CPD). On May 29th, he narrowly defeated orthodox contenders to become chair of the new Russian parliament. He sponsored Russia’s declaration of state sovereignty on June 12, 1990, signaling the end of the Soviet Union and of Gorbachev’s attempts to reform communism from within. Elected Russia’s first president on June 12, 1991, Yeltsin exploited his democratic legitimacy to defeat the attempted hard-line coup of August 18 to 21, 1991. A meeting of the presidents of Ukraine, Belarus, and Russia near Minsk on December 8, 1991, announced the disintegration of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. Russia was now independent, and Yeltsin its leader.
Yeltsin’s impetuous and determined character stamped the new state. Throughout his leadership he remained committed to market-oriented liberal, democratic, and Westernizing policies, although the way these policies were implemented was often at odds with the goal. In Yeltsin’s typical campaigning style, economic “shock therapy” was launched in January 1992, allowing the liberalization of prices. His failure to build consensus with parliament led to a breakdown in relations that ended with the forced dissolution in September and violence in October 1993.
The new constitution of December 12, 1993, provided for a strong presidency with weak oversight powers by parliament and the courts. Yeltsin used his powers to drive through market reforms, including a crash privatization program that allowed a few to become very rich (the so-called oligarchs), while the mass of the population became much poorer. Yeltsin’s decision to invade the breakaway republic of Chechnya in December 1994 caused untold suffering, and contravened several articles of the constitution. In federal relations, Yeltsin encouraged the development of segmented regionalism whereby regional leaders were able to enjoy an enormous devolution of authority as long as they remained loyal to him personally. Only by allying with the oligarchs was Yeltsin able to win a second term in 1996, but at the price of mortgaging the state to big business. The fall in oil prices precipitated the partial default of August 1998, provoked by the failure to collect enough taxes to service the growing budget deficit. On December 31, 1999, Yeltsin transferred power to his hand-picked successor, Vladimir Putin. He entered political retirement, offering critical support for the new president. Yeltsin left Russia a democratic, federal, market-oriented society, but all of these were deeply flawed in their operation. Yeltsin laid the foundations for a free society, but it would be up to his successors to build on what he had started.
SEE ALSO Democracy; Democratization; Economies, Transitional; Gorbachev, Mikhail; Putin, Vladimir; Stalin, Joseph; Union of Soviet Socialist Republics
Aron, Leon. 2000. Yeltsin: A Revolutionary Life. New York: St.Martin’s Press.
Breslauer, George W. 2002. Gorbachev and Yeltsin as Leaders. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.
Morrison, John. 1991. Boris Yeltsin: From Bolshevik to Democrat. New York: Dutton.
Shevtsova, Lilia. 1999. Yeltsin’s Russia: Myths and Reality. Washington, DC: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
Yeltsin, Boris N. 1990. Against the Grain: An Autobiography. Trans. Michael Glenny. New York: Summit Books.
Yeltsin, Boris N. 1994. The Struggle for Russia. Trans. Catherine A. Fitzpatrick. New York: Belka Publications Corp., Times Books.
Yeltsin, Boris N. 2000. Midnight Diaries. Trans. Catherine A.Fitzpatrick. New York: PublicAffairs.
former president of russia1931–
Boris Nikolayevich Yeltsin was born on February 1, 1931, and raised in Sverdlovsk (Ekaterinburg) Oblast in the Ural Mountains. Trained as an engineer, Yeltsin rose through local construction and Communist Party posts to become first secretary of his region.
Yeltsin joined the team of young, reform-minded communists under Mikhail Gorbachev (b. 1931), moving to Moscow in 1985 as first secretary of the Moscow Party Committee and a candidate member of the Politburo. When he clashed with Gorbachev over the pace of reform, Gorbachev fired him in October 1987. But rather than sending him back to Siberia, Gorbachev allowed him to remain in Moscow as first deputy chair of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) Construction Committee.
Yeltsin and Gorbachev became bitter rivals for power. Yeltsin depicted himself as a populist who, unlike Gorbachev, wanted to place sovereignty with the people, not the Party. He was elected to the first USSR Congress of People's Deputies in 1989, where he was co-chair of the opposition Inter-Regional Group, and resigned from the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) in July 1990.
Yeltsin built a political base in Russia, the largest of the fifteen Soviet Union Republics. First, he was elected to the Russian Congress of People's Deputies in March 1990 and became chair of the Russian Supreme Soviet in May 1990. Then in June 1991, Yeltsin was popularly elected by popular vote to the new post of Russian president.
Yeltsin's finest hour came in August 1991. When hard-line communists tried to topple Gorbachev, Yeltsin jumped atop a tank and called on Russians to defend democracy. By the time the coup collapsed, Yeltsin had eclipsed Gorbachev as the most powerful political figure in the USSR. In December 1991, Yeltsin met with his counterparts from Belarus and Ukraine, and the three leaders declared an official end to the USSR.
Yeltsin now began the simultaneous tasks of establishing a new state, a market economy, and a new political system. The parliament, still dominated by communists, repeatedly challenged Yeltsin over their relative powers. Fed up with the dispute, Yeltsin dissolved the Supreme Soviet and eventually seized the building by force. Critics accused Yeltsin of turning from democrat to dictator.
Russia's division of powers was codified in a new constitution approved in December 1993. When parliaments under the new system blocked his policies, Yeltsin cut deals with regional governors and leading businessmen. Often ill or inebriated, Yeltsin frequently allowed a coterie of advisors and relatives to run the country.
Despite dismal approval ratings and a massive heart attack concealed from the public, Yeltsin won re-election in 1996. His campaign was bankrolled by the oligarchs—men who had become millionaires thanks to insider-privatization schemes and needed to protect their interests.
Yeltsin's last years in office were marked by his failing health, a declining economy, rising corruption, and frequent turnover in the office of prime minister. On New Year's Eve 1999, Yeltsin abruptly resigned, six months before his term ended. He retired quietly to his home, largely keeping out of politics and public life.
Shevtsova, Lilia. Yeltsin's Russia: Myths and Reality. Washington, DC: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 1999.
Yeltsin, Boris. The Struggle for Russia. New York: Random House, 1994.
Yeltsin, Boris. Midnight Diaries. New York: Public Affairs, 2000.
Ann E. Robertson