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Yeltsin, Catalyst for Russian Change, Dead at 76

Russian President Boris Yeltsin (left) reads a statement from atop an armored personnel carrier in Moscow in August 1991, as he urged the Russian people to resist a hard-line takeover of the central government.
Russian President Boris Yeltsin (left) reads a statement from atop an armored personnel carrier in Moscow in August 1991, as he urged the Russian people to resist a hard-line takeover of the central government.

Former Russian President Boris Yeltsin, who became the country's first democratically elected leader and oversaw the dismantling of the Soviet Union, is dead at the age of 76.

No additional information was given by Kremlin spokesman Alexander Smirnov, who confirmed Yeltsin's death. The Interfax news agency cited an unidentified medical source as saying he had died of heart failure.

Yeltsin, a larger than life figure, leaves behind a mixed legacy. He was a bold reformer who steered the fledgling democracy through its early, turbulent years, and also an unpredictable leader, prone to strange behavior. His critics claim he was a man who was ultimately unable to accomplish his goals. Most Russians will probably remember Yeltsin as the leader who presided over their country's steep decline.

"He had this controversy, this contradiction in him," said biographer Lilia Shevtsova. "He belonged to the past and at the same time he symbolized the future. And of course he was torn between these two alternatives and that's why he was so good at dismantling the Soviet system, so bad at building a new system."

Some images of Boris Yeltsin remain etched in our minds. In August 1991, for example, a vigorous Yeltsin leaps onto a tank after a coup attempt by communist hardliners. Yeltsin tells the cheering crowd that he had been fielding calls from around the world, congratulating Russians for taking a stand for democracy.

Within a few years, though, the world would come to see a different Yeltsin. His drunken bouts became evident, including an incident when he picked up a baton and started conducting a band during a trip to Germany.

Then there were the repeated trips to the hospital, where Yeltsin recovered from heart bypass surgery, pneumonia or, as the Kremlin often claimed, "a simple cold."

One constant in Yeltsin 's life was his keen sense of political drama. He knew how to grab headlines. It was fitting then that he chose the last day of 1999 to tell the world he was quitting politics.

"I am leaving. I'm stepping down before my time," Yeltsin said. "I understand that I have to do this. Russia must enter the new millennium with new politicians, new faces and intelligent, strong and energetic people. Those of us who have been in power for many years must go."

By the time he made this speech, Yeltsin looked much like the old, stiff Soviet leaders of the past. He had trouble speaking and walking. His family and close advisers were accused of taking kickbacks, and he was blamed for allowing a small group of influential oligarchs to rob the country.

Yeltsin built up vast powers, which he handed over to Vladimir Putin in exchange for guarantees that he would never be prosecuted, said Shevtsova.

"He began as a terminator of the Soviet system, he began as a grave digger," said Shevtsova. "But how did he finish? He ended being a helpless, inadequate, pathetic old man, hostage of the close Kremlin entourage and of his own family — a kind of a puppet on the string... a very dramatic and tragic personality."

Yeltsin, a construction boss from the central region of Sverdlovsk, spent much of his early career rising through the ranks of the Communist Party. He moved to Moscow in 1985, but soon fell out with then Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. Yeltsin lost his party rank and went on to enter parliament on a populist platform.

He took the presidency in 1991. By 1993, Yeltsin 's political battle with parliament turned violent. When lawmakers barricaded themselves in parliament, refusing Yeltsin 's attempts to disband the Soviet era body, Yeltsin ordered in the tanks. The White House, as the parliament building was called, was blackened by fire. Scores of protesters died in the violence.

Later, Yeltsin sent troops to quell a separatist movement in Chechnya. The defense minister had predicted a quick victory. But what Yeltsin got instead was a two-year war that Moscow lost. Tens of thousands were killed. Russian troops returned to Chechnya in 1999, just before Yeltsin left office.

In an interview about his memoirs, Yeltsin called Chechnya his biggest mistake. "Of course nobody can lift the burden of responsibility for Chechnya from me," Yeltsin said. "That responsibility, the grief of so many mothers and fathers can't be lifted from my shoulders."

Mindful of his legacy, Yeltsin often tried to highlight his successes, saying he put Russia on a path toward democracy and helped Russia maintain its place in the world. But as he left office, Yeltsin also acknowledged his failures.

"I want to ask your forgiveness for the fact that our dreams didn't come true," Yeltsin said as his presidency came to a close. "Things that seemed simple turned out to be excruciatingly difficult. Forgive me for the fact that I did not live up to the hopes of many, that we could move forward in one fell swoop from a grey, totalitarian, and stagnant past to a bright, rich and civilized future. I myself believed we could."

After retirement, Yeltsin quickly faded from the scene, secluded in his government mansion outside Moscow. Some of his accomplishments also faded fast. The free press he proudly promoted was muzzled, for example, as the Kremlin asserted control over independent television stations.

And without a new legal framework firmly in place it has been easier for Yeltsin's appointed successor, current President Vladimir Putin, to reassert control over the country's resources and civil society.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.