Boris Nikolayevich Yeltsin was the president of Russia from 1991 to 1999. He came to power with high hopes and promise. He clinged to power despite poor health and attacks by his enemies put oversaw Russia's decline into economic despair, rampant corruption and war.

Gorbachev is credited with starting the process which ended in the collapse of the Soviet Union and leading the break from Communism. Yeltsin is credited with finishing the job and ushering in era of democracy in which he was not afraid to resort to violence and dictatorial decrees to hold in to it. Yeltsin is also credited with introducing market economics and the principals for a civil society and parliamentary politics but criticized for not doing as much as he could with them. Like Gorbachev, Yeltsin is lionized more in the West for his achievements than in his own country.

A Yeltsin aide told The New Yorker, “Yeltsin’s was an era of revolution, and he was a revolutioner who set out to destroy the ancien regime.” In nine years as president of Russia, Yeltsin oversaw a chaotic transformation that ended the dominance of communism and brought irregular reforms in the economic, political, and social realms. Although the constitution of 1993 made the executive the dominant branch of government, Yeltsin struggled with the legislative branch over many issues. Economic reform was undermined by corruption and public suspicion as Russia nominally moved toward a free-market system. Judicial reform was piecemeal and ineffective. Relations with the West, which began the 1990s in close concert, soured somewhat over issues such as expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, Russia’s ongoing conflicts with the Republic of Chechnya, and Russia’s opposition to the United States-led war in Iraq in 2003. [Source: Library of Congress, October 2006 **]

Books: “Yeltsin: A Revolutionary Life” by Leon Aron (St. Martin's 2001). Autobiographies “Against the Grain” by Boris Yeltsin (Times Books, 1990) “The Struggle for Russia” by Boris Yeltsin (Times Books, 1994), and “Midnight Diaries” by Boris Yeltsin (PublicAffairs 2000). . Yeltsin offers an account of his forcible dissolution of the legislature in October 1993 and other Russian political events in The Struggle for Russia .

Yeltsin's Early Life

Yeltsin was born to peasant parents in Butka, a village of 5,000, 130 miles east of Yekarterinburg (Sverdlovsk) in the Ural-Siberian region of Russia in 1931 within a few weeks of Gorbachev. According to his autobiography, Yeltsin was baptized by a drunk priest who dropped him in the font and let him stay there for a long time, struggling to get air until his parents persuaded the priest to fish him out. "The boy's a fighter [ borets in Russian]," the priest said. "We'll call him Boris." Yeltsin's father was taken from his farm during the forced collectivization under Stalin and shot. [Source: David Remnick, the New Yorker, March 11, 1996]

According to “Yeltsin 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. [Source: <*>]

“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. <*>

Yeltsin received a degree in construction engineering at Ural Polytechnic Institute in Sverdlovsk in 1956. He worked for several years as a construction foreman. At his first construction project he climbed a towering crane during fierce storm and brought the crane under control at a risk to his own life. Yeltsin later became head of the Yekarterinburg house-building organization.

Yeltsin's Character and Suicide Attempts

Yeltsin was known for his bone-crushing handshakes and rambling speeches, bombastic pronouncements and drinking binges. Gorbachev called him "an immoral, cynical, power-hungry neo-Bolshevik." One of Yeltsin's top aids said, "Power is his ideology, his friend, his concubine...[Yeltsin] does not have and never had any ideology, any democratic convictions."

Yeltsin was notorious for arbitrarily changing his mind and waiting months to make a decision. In October 1995, he announced that he was firing his foreign minister and announced the following day that he had changed his mind. One of his favorite pastimes was hunting. A few weeks before having quintuple bypass surgery in November 1996 Yeltsin bagged 40 ducks and a wild boar on a hunting trip. According to a Yeltsin aid he “downed an a 200-kilogram adult boar with the first shot.” He was accompanied by German Chancellor Helmut Kohl.

According to his wife, Yeltsin liked to set the table and do the dishes. His favorite food was pelemeni (Siberian dumplings). Herring with potatoes was another Yeltsin favorite. He also liked sushi. Gorbachev said that Yeltsin “drank to attract women....Women couldn’t keep their hands out of his pants.”

Yeltsin reportedly liked being called Tsar Boris by his aides in private. In his autobiography Yeltsin said that he suffered from depression and insomnia. He wrote: "I would sleep three or four hours a night and then the thoughts would come creeping back. Everything about me was burnt out, everything within me was burnt out.

One of Yeltsin's favorite drinking buddies was his bodyguard Alexander Korzhakov. After being fired Korzhakov wrote a book, Boris Yeltsin: From Dawn to Dusk, in which he accused the Russian leader of being a suicidal drunken buffoon who was unfit to govern and liked to bang spoons on the heads of visiting dignitaries.

According to Korzhakov, Yeltsin tried to commit suicide twice. In his book he recounted how he found Yeltsin in 1990 on a cot wet and drunk in a police station, claiming the KGB had tried to drown him. Two years later Korzhakov said Yeltsin tried to commit suicide by locking himself in a sauna.

See Yeltsin’s Erratic Behavior and Gaffs under YELTSIN’S DECLINING HEALTH AND INFLUENCE.

Yeltsin's Wife and Family

Yeltsin married Naina Yelsina at a young age. She was born into a family of peasants and also trained as a construction engineer. They met at Ural Polytechnic Institute in Sverdlovsk. Describing their first meeting, Yeltsin wrote: "I fell in love with her then, tenderhearted and good, for the rest of my life. She accepted me the way I was, stubborn and prickly." [Source: David Remnick, the New Yorker, March 11, 1996]

Naina Yeltsin often traveled with her husband and appeared with him at official dinners and ribbon-cutting ceremonies. One of her pet projects was setting up a dental clinic for children with modern drills and painkillers. Regarded as energetic and down to earth, she didn't like being in the limelight but was willing to stand up and defend her husband and family is she felt they were unfairly criticized. When Boris was in the hospital, she gave health updates and defended his policies.

The Yeltsins and had two daughters: Elena born in 1957 and Tatyana born in 1959. Elana later became a construction engineer. Tatyana (called Tanya by her family) graduated from Moscow State University with a degree in mathematics and became a computer technician in charge of tracking missiles at Salyut space center. She married twice and had a son she named Boris who was educated at a fancy boarding school in Britain.

Describing an incident in which his wife fell ill and he had to carry his infant daughter by train to her grandmother's, Yeltsin wrote: "At night when she grew hungry, the horror began Tanya cried and screamed and balled her little fists...Well, to make a long story short, I opened my shirt and let her touch her lips to my own chest, and she suddenly stopped crying. Everyone chuckled. The women on the train laughed almost until they cried. 'See, he fooled her,' they said. Perhaps it was the warmth of my skin; whatever, she settled down and finally fell asleep."

During Yeltsin's early political career, Naina raised the family and worked at the Institute of Waterways in Sverdlovsk. She is considered warm and unassuming. She dresses modestly and wears little jewelry and like to figure things out.

Yeltsin's Early Political Career

Yeltsin initially worked as an engineer in the construction industry in Sverdlovsk and later began a career in the Communist Party, eventually becoming first secretary of the party in Sverdlovsk. Yeltsin joined the Communist Party in 1961 at age thirty, relatively late for a man with political dreams. He spent three decades in the Communist Party. From 1968 through the mid 1980s he worked for the party in Sverdlovsk, where he earned a reputation as a both a party apparatchnik and a reformer.

Yeltsin became head of the Sverdlivsk regional party in 1976. He was popular. He endeared himself by driving a tram with ordinary people and regularly visiting factories. Yeltsin first made a name for himself in 1977, when he ordered the demolition of the Ipayev House, where the murder of tsar Nicholas II and his family took place in 1918.

When Gorbachev became the leader of the Soviet Union, Yeltsin was a regional party secretary in the Urals. Gorbachev, who was trying to build a base of support for himself in the Central Committee and initiate reforms, brought Yeltsin to Moscow in 1985 after consulting his closest Communist party allies Nikolai Ryzhkov and Yegor Ligachev. The idea was that Yeltsin would help initiate the glasnost reforms.

Gorbachev later told the New Yorker, " "I remember when I was first told about Yeltsin, I had my doubts. It talked about it with Ryzhkov, and he said, 'Don't take him, you'll be in trouble with him.' You see he really knew Yeltsin from the Urals. But then the process sort of started. Ligcheve was in charge of personnel and he said, 'Let me head own and check it out...He went and called me a few days later and said, 'Yeltsin is O.K. He's what we need. He's our man.” [Source: David Remnick, the New Yorker, March 11, 1996]

Rise and Fall and Rise of Yeltsin under Gorbachev

Shortly after arriving in Moscow Yeltsin was promoted to first secretary of the Moscow City Party Committee. In 1986, he joined the Politburo and drew attention in a way no other Russian politician had before, by relying on populism and criticizing government privilege and corruption. He fired dozens of officials to get his name in the papers and rode on the Metro with the press in tow and waited in lines with his wife to show ordinary Russians that he was one of them.

"When Yeltsin worked as First Secretary," Gorbachev said, "I had a suspicion that he was about breaking things over his knee. I spoke to him about this...He began to sense he could use his populism. He would take a little tram or he'd go 'shopping' for food or meet the press...I supported his meetings, his openness. But he was so full of hurt feelings...Then he'd go off and say, 'The Politburo is so old, filled with mastodons who should be fired.'"

Yeltsin and Gorbachev were born within weeks of each other in 1931. In the early years of perestroika, Yeltsin was one of Gorbachev's biggest supporters. But later both men failed to support each other even though the often shared the same democratic goals. The fallout between Yeltsin and Gorbachev began in earnest in 1987 when Yeltsin criticized Gorbachev for listening too much to his wife after criticizing the slow pace of reform. Gorbachev got revenge by having Yeltsin thrown out of the Communist Party.

In November 1987, Yeltsin was deserted by his supporters and ousted as Moscow Communist Party boss by Gorbachev and the Communist Party, a humiliation that caused him to collapse with chest pains and be rushed to a hospital. He never lived it down and was anxious for revenge. By 1989, Yeltsin was sharply condemning Gorbachev and the Communist leadership. He was banned from state television but a station in Leningrad dared to show him. People in Moscow bought special antennaes to hear what he had to say. Describing Yeltsin in 1989, Bill Keller wrote in the New York Times, in “the morning, Boris N. Yeltsin, the terror of the Communist establishment and now the flagman for a faction of 'left-radicals,' circulates among the early arrivals, slapping backs and exchanging confidence."

In March 1989 elections, Yeltsin ran for Parliament and received a what some said was a world record majority (5,118,745 out of 5,722,937 votes) in his Moscow constituency. His closest rival got 392,633 votes. Yeltsin became Chairman of the Parliament. In July 1990, Yeltsin surprised everyone by reigning from the Communist Party and walking out of Congress.

Rise of Yeltsin as a Russian Leader

In 1990 Yeltsin became chairman of the parliament of the Russian Republic, which occupied four fifths of the Soviet Union and was home to half the Soviet population. Over time his power and popularity rose and he openly criticized and challenged Gorbachev. Yeltsin also raised the idea that change was impossible within the existing system and for real change to take place the old system had to be discarded and a new one put in its place. In 1990 Yeltsin resigned from the Communist Party and the reform-minded Russian parliament proclaimed the sovereignty of the Russian Republic. On June 11, 1991, Yeltsin became Russia's first democratically elected president.

In July 1990, Gorbachev finally acceded to the founding of the Russian Communist Party, which became a bastion of Russian nationalist conservatism and opposition to Gorbachev. The party failed to gain control of the Russian Republic's legislative bodies, however. Instead, it faced formidable competition in the Russian Congress of People's Deputies, which by that time was dominated by Yeltsin. Yeltsin's May 1990 election as chairman of the Russian Supreme Soviet had made him the de facto president of the Russian Republic, just as Gorbachev's election as chairman of the Supreme Soviet of the Soviet Union had made him de facto president of the country in 1989. [Source: Library of Congress, July 1996 *]

Yeltsin's new position enabled him to pose a serious challenge to Gorbachev. On June 11, 1990, Russia issued its declaration of sovereignty, the first republic to do so after the Baltic states. This move challenged Soviet jurisdiction over the very heart of the union. By the end of November, another nine republics had followed Russia's lead. The last instance of cooperation between Yeltsin and Gorbachev in this period was their effort in the fall of 1990 to draft a common economic policy. However, Gorbachev's desire to protect the favored position of the military-industrial establishment caused the effort to founder and the two men's relationship to deteriorate rapidly. *

As the leader of the most populous and richest union republic, Yeltsin became the champion of all the republics' rights against control from the center. However, he did not advocate the breakup of the Soviet Union. Yeltsin originally hoped for the creation of a new federation anchored by bilateral and multilateral treaties between and among the union republics, with Russia as the preeminent member. When Soviet forces cracked down on the Baltic states in January 1991, Yeltsin went to Estonia in a show of support for the Baltics, signing agreements with the Baltic states that recognized their borders and promising assistance in the event of an attack on them from the Soviet center. *

Yeltsin and Events After the Coup is Announced

When Yeltsin heard about the coup attempt he raced to the "White House" (Parliament Building) and resisted by holing himself up there. The only problem was that nobody knew what was going on. During the early stages of coup attempt there were reportedly more people waiting in line at McDonalds than defending Yeltsin's White House.

To get word out Yeltsin sent a fax to the office of Konstantin Borovoy—an entrepreneur and Duma member—and brokers photocopied leaflets and spread them around the city. Soon crowds were gathering around the Parliament building and erecting barricades. To help keep them there Borovoy ordered two truckloads of sausages and Pizza Hut sent over carloads of pizzas. By the time the KGB came to seize the Xerox machine from Borovoy's office they had taken to a safe place. Borovoy later became a millionaire. [Source: Mike Edwards, National Geographic, March 1993]

Polls taken at the time found that 62 percent of Muscovites supported Yeltsin and only 4 percent supported the coup plotters. Eventually more that 50,000 people surrounded the White House in a show of support for Yeltsin. Some of the supporters were armed. They prepared themselves for an assault.

Yeltsin Stands on a Tank

In a climatic move, still on August 19, Yeltsin climbed on tank to rally civilians to resist oncoming troops and tanks that were coming to reclaim the White House. He declared the coup was illegal and the coup leaders were criminals.

Yeltsin climbed Tesyolkin’s tank. Recalling the event Tesyolkin told the Los Angeles Times, "All of a sudden, there was a roar from the stairs—'Yeltsin! Yeltsin! Yeltsin!' And there was Yeltsin, coming down the stairs. He came up to us, climbed up, showed no fear. He deserves credit for that...For all he knew he could have climbed up on the tank and been fired upon. His bulletproof vest couldn't have saved him, and he had nothing else. What he did was brave."

Yeltsin later wrote, "I greeted the commanders of the tank which I was standing on and talked with his soldiers. From their faces, from the expression in their eyes, I could see they would not shoot us." Tesyolkin didn't see it that way. He recalled, Yeltsin "asked me, 'Have you come to kill Yeltsin?'...I replied,' no.'" He said his tank had no ammunition, no orders to shoot Yeltsin. He didn't even like Yeltsin, he said.

Tesyolkin said, "When I heard a little of what he said I began to make sense of the situation. I began to think about it a little...This could have turned serious. But no one could attack their own people. I know I couldn't, and couldn't order my subordinates to." After jumping down from the tank, Yeltsin told the crowd to move back and allow the tanks to pull away. The crowded moved as Tesyolkin and his unit took up the position on the bridge as they had been ordered to do.

Military Supports Yeltsin

The turning point of the coup came when a tank company led by Sergei Yevdokimov, a 36-year-old major, arrived on the scene and switched sides and ordered his tanks to turn around and defend Yeltsin and his supporters rather than attack them.

Yevdokimov was in charge a 10-ten tank company stationed outside the White House. He hadn't heard Yeltsin's speeches. He lined up his tanks around the White House and waited for orders. This around noon. None came. While he was waiting he was given a copy of Yeltsin's speech.

Yevdokimov later told Los Angeles Times, "When we got the photocopies and started talking to people, I began to understand basically what was happening—who was right, who was wrong." In the afternoon Yevdokimov met with one of Yeltsin's aids. Yevdokimov said he was on Yeltsin's side and agreed to place his tanks around the White House. His tanks also had no ammunition. "At a minimum I thought I'd be thrown out of the army," he told the Los Angeles Times. "maybe they’d put me in jail. I was worried only for my family. But Stalin’s time were already long past."

Yevdokimov's tanks stayed through the night and the next day. Protesters formed human chains around the White House. Barricades were set up. Even the KGB seemed unwilling to do anything. On the evening of August 20th, Yevdokimov's commander showed up. He ordered Yevdokimov to move but don't press the issue, apparently taking a wait and see position. Yevdokimov spent the night sleeping in a car. Yevdokimov told the Los Angeles Times, "The military began to improvise as soon as it was clear that something was going wrong." After the coup was over, the military said it had supported Yeltsin. Two days later Yevdokimov said his commander told him. "If they ask, say I was the one who ordered the tanks to stand around the White House."

Yeltsin Takes Power from Gorbachev

After the coup Yeltsin became the defacto leader of the Soviet Union. Yeltsin had the support of the people and Gorbachev didn't. Gorbachev needed Yeltsin's support just to get back to Moscow. Hosking told the Los Angeles Times, Yeltsin "was the legitimate Russian leader in a way no Russian leader had never been before and in away Gorbachev was not because Gorbachev wasn't elected."

After superceding Gorbachev, Yeltsin appeared to take great pleasure in slighting and humiliating him. He said Gorbachev had the habit of "babbling on and on about socialism." After taking over the dacha occupied by the Gorbachev's, Yeltsin's wife commented, "Who in the world needs that many bathrooms, TV sets and servants?" Perhaps his most contemptuous act was interrupting Gorbachev while he was giving an important speech. Yeltsin approached at the podium and stopped Gorbachev in mid-speech and scolded him, making it clear that he not Gorbachev was in charge. When Gorbachev was asked about these slights, he said, Yeltsin always wanted to “hang noodles on my ears" (ridicule him).

Sergei Stankevich, a Duma deputy told the New Yorker, "After August 1991. Yeltsin sensed triumph but couldn’t resist temptation to humiliate Gorbachev. It was such a horrible scene. The first thing he did was manipulate Gorbachev so he was completely humbled and stripped of power. But Gorbachev would not accept his new role, and Yeltsin moved to get rid of him entirely."

One of Yeltsin's reason's for letting the Soviet Union break up is that with it gone, there was no one more powerful in Russia than the president of Russia, his job. Many believe Yeltsin had no intention of ruining the Soviet Union and he had no clear picture of what he wanted Russia to be. He was instead motivated by his antipathy of Gorbachev. Mark von Hagen, a historian at Columbia University, told the Los Angeles Times, "I think it was a kind of personal hatred that motivated Yeltsin to dismantle the Soviet Union more than any real broad political vision of what should happen next.”

Gorbachev regarded Yeltsin as unprincipled, opportunist and crass and blamed him for throwing him out of office and usurping the democratic revolution that Gorbachev believes he started. "It is already well-known and proven that for him the most important thing is winning power, that he doesn't give a damn about Russia, about reform, and all the rest," Gorbachev said of Yeltsin. "There's no point in being bitter. I know what his nature his. I don’t get bitter. I just observe." Gorbachev later accused Yeltsin of creating “unchecked decentralization” and “regional feudalism” rather than democracy.

Yeltsin and the Collapse of the Soviet Union

After adopting a degree of sovereignty, The Russian republic had elections in June 1991. Boris Yeltsin won and was sworn as president on July 10, 1991 as Russia's first president. After the failed coup attempt in August 1991, Yeltsin transferred the assets of the Soviet Union to Russia, took control of the central broadcasting company and key economic ministries and agencies. In November he banned the CPSU and the Russian Communist Party. In mid December he kicked the Soviet government out of the Kremlin.

In the late 1980s, Yeltsin's appeals for political reform gained him the enmity of the communist hierarchy, including Gorbachev, but he won the support of a Russian public whose self-expression had been liberated by Gorbachev's own policy of glasnost (literally, public voicing). In that period, the atmosphere of Russia, especially its main cities, Moscow and Leningrad, was one of expectation that significant political changes finally would occur after the sclerotic decades of the Brezhnev regime (1964-82). [Source: Glenn E. Curtis, Library of Congress, July 1996 *]

One of Yeltsin's reason's for letting the Soviet Union break up is that with it gone, there was no one more powerful in Russia than the president of Russia, his job. Many believe Yeltsin had no intention of ruining the Soviet Union and he had no clear picture of what he wanted Russia to be. He was instead motivated by his antipathy of Gorbachev. Mark von Hagen, a historian at Columbia University, told the Los Angeles Times, "I think it was a kind of personal hatred that motivated Yeltsin to dismantle the Soviet Union more than any real broad political vision of what should happen next.”

The fate of the Soviet Union was worked out at meeting that began on December 7, 1991 at Belovezskaya Pushcha, a hunting lodge in the Vezha forest near Brest in Belarus, a few miles from the Polish border. There, Yeltsin, and the leader of Belarus, Stanislav Shushkevich, the leader of the Ukraine, Leonid Kravchuk, and the other Soviet republic leaders met to discuss the end of the Soviet Union. [Source: David Remnick, New Yorker, March 11, 1996]

Yeltsin's Drunkenness, Vanity at the Meeting That Broke Up the Soviet Union

At the meeting at Belovezskaya Pushcha Yeltsin reportedly was so drunk that he spent much of the time slumped over at his desk, occasionally raising his head to mumble, "What you say is right," and then nodded off again. When the meeting was over he had to be helped from the room.

One reliable eyewitness told the New Yorker, "Yeltsin was so drunk he fell out of his chair just at the moment that Shushkevich opened the door and let in Gennady Burbulis, Andrei Kozyrev, and the other aides. Everyone began to come into the room and found this spectacular scene of Shuchkevick and Kravchuk dragging this enormous body to the couch. The Russian delegation took it all very calmly. They took him to the next room to let him sleep. Finally, Ktabchik took his chair and assumed the responsibility of chairman." [Source: David Remnick, New Yorker, March 11, 1996]

On the way to another meeting, this one at a dacha outside of Moscow, Yeltsin's limousine wound up behind those of the leaders of the other Soviet republics. "My security people sprang forward in alarm," Yeltsin later wrote, “made an incredible U-turn, digging up the Novo-Ogaryovo lawn in the process, and finally put the car back at the head of the line—Russia first! Off course, boys will be boys. the manager of Novo-Ogaryovo was furious and threatened to fine us for the ruined patch of grass, later, he backed off for some reason."

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, U.S. government, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated May 2016

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