The man who offered freedom to the Russians – that is how Vladimir Putin evaluated Boris Yeltin’s place in history, a view likely to be shared by many of the President’s fellow citizens. Yeltsin grew up in the Urals, the son of a peasant farmer. His father Nikolai served three years in a gulag, after being convicted of anti-Soviet agitation in 1934. But this did not turn the young Yeltsin away from the communist authorities. He joined the party in 1961 while working in state construction projects. An efficient and determined leader, he climbed steadily through the ranks of an apparatus the downfall of which he would eventually oversee.
Yeltsin was to choose a path that would see him one day hoisted onto a tank before the Russian Parliament in defiance of hardliners opposed to pro-democracy reforms. With President Mikhail Gorbachev held captive in his country residence, Yelstin, by now the first President of the Russian Federation, became the figurehead of resistance to the coup. When the plot collapsed after several days, it was Yelstin who emerged as the main force for change in Russia.
Two years later, and with the Soviet Union confined to history, tanks were again surrounding the Parliament. This time it was rebellious deputies who were mounting opposition to the sweeping tide of political and economic reforms. Their stand was shortlived and some 140 people were killed in the violence.
The break-up of the Soviet Union fuelled an independence movement in Chechnya. The President ordered a massive military crackdown. The two years of war that followed left around 40,000 people dead. The Russian army withdrew leaving a Chechnya ripe for future conflict. What was perceived as a military debacle added to discontent over a stagnant economy. Yeltsin’s popularity was in terminal decline and his cause was not helped by apparently drunken antics on the international stage.
However, faced with the alternative of communist challenger Gennady Zyuganov, the Russian people opted to give Yeltsin another chance and he was re-elected in 1996. His second mandate offered little to encourage those who voted for him. Not least because of his mounting health problems. He underwent quadruple heart bypass surgery in the same year and was confined to hospital for months.
Concerns about his wellbeing remained for the rest of his career. Toward the end Yelstin was increasingly isolated, deserted by liberals and touched by financial scandals over the sell-off of state assets. Rightly or wrongly, many blamed him for the collapse of the Russian economy and the subsequent slump of the rubble. On New Years Eve 1999 Yeltsin’s political career came to an end. He announced his resignation and nominated the then Prime Minister Vladimir Putin as acting President.