Boris Yeltsin, the first president of Russia, was sworn in on July 10, 1991. His presidency was defined by both successes and disastrous failures, but Yeltsin would ultimately be remembered as the man who helped to bring democracy to Russia.
Boris Yeltsin was born Feb. 1, 1931, in Butka, then part of Soviet Russia. He joined the Communist Party in 1961, quickly becoming a leading critic of the government during perestroika, led by then General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev. A vocal proponent of faster and more comprehensive reforms, Yeltsin was rising through the ranks of the Communist Party. By the final days of the Cold War, he had become a prominent political figure.
In 1990, Yeltsin was elected as the chairman of the Russian Supreme Soviet, the highest legislative body in the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic (RSFSR), which was then a constituent republic of the Soviet Union. In this role, Yeltsin actively pursued greater autonomy for the RSFSR and worked to diminish the influence of the Communist Party. He engaged in a power struggle with Gorbachev, as Yeltsin’s push for greater sovereignty clashed with Gorbachev’s vision of a reformed but unified Soviet Union.
The events of Aug. 19, 1991, marked a significant turning point for Yeltsin and the Soviet Union. Gorbachev was detained by KGB agents as a group of top hardline military officials desperately tried to seize control and save the falling union. Despite his contentious relationship with Gorbachev, Yeltsin stood firmly against the coup. He climbed onto a tank outside the Russian White House in Moscow, where he gave a speech to rally the people to defend democratic principles.
The coup ultimately failed, and Yeltsin emerged as a national hero and a political star. Gorbachev’s authority was severely weakened. By the end of 1991, the Soviet Union ceased to exist, and Yeltsin became president of the newly established Russian Federation.
As president, Yeltsin implemented a series of economic reforms that led to the privatization of state-owned businesses and the creation of a market economy. He also introduced democratic reforms, including free elections and a free press. His reforms were met with mixed results. The economy initially declined, plunging the newborn country into poverty, corruption and anarchy. The situation deteriorated when Yeltsin declared war against Chechnya in 1994. By 1996, Russia was on the brink of collapse.
Yeltsin’s tenure was marked by economic challenges, political controversies and social upheaval. Today, while some Russians believe that he was a great reformer, others deem him a humiliation, as he often appeared drunk on camera. During the 1995 press conference, an inebriated Yeltsin called the American press “a disaster,” sending President Bill Clinton doubled over laughing. His excessive drinking has led to more inappropriate, if not utterly humiliating, behaviors on camera, such as frequently stumbling and falling over.
Yeltsin’s presidency ended in 1999 when he resigned abruptly on Christmas Eve, announcing Vladimir Putin as his successor, whom he believed would continue to lead Russia to the path of democracy. After telling Putin to “take care of Russia,” Yeltsin left the Kremlin in a car.
Despite his flaws, Yeltsin remains a significant figure in Russian history. He was a courageous and determined leader who helped to shape the course of Russia’s future.
Edited by: Steven London & James Sutton