Born: February 1, 1931
Butko, Siberia, Russia
Russian president, politician, and government official
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.