President led Russia out of the Soviet era

The Baltimore Sun


The April 24 obituary of Boris Yeltsin carried a Moscow dateline and identified the writer as a Sun foreign reporter. The writer, Will Englund, was a Sun Moscow correspondent who reported on Yeltsin, and who is now on the newspaper's editorial board.

MOSCOW -- Boris N. Yeltsin, the Russian leader who broke the Soviet Union and the system it had created, died yesterday in Moscow of complications from chronic heart problems. He was 76.

Mr. Yeltsin was magnetic and fearless, a tough provincial brawler who was a classic Russian type and was recognized as such by the Russians.

He was cast out by the Communist Party as a renegade in the 1980s, but in 1991 history gave him a chance to bring down the tottering house that Vladimir I. Lenin had built, and he did so impulsively and with great relish. As president, he drew his strength from a deep well of popular support, a well he returned to in times of crisis again and again, until it finally went dry.

He was neither an intellectual nor a committed democrat, but he made common cause with intellectuals and democrats because they offered an alternative to the Soviet system he had come to despise.

"It was a very important historical moment," said Andrei Piontkovsky of the Center for Strategic Studies in Moscow. "Without Yeltsin, the democratic movement would have been just a group of intellectuals talking around the kitchen table."

Having vanquished the demons of the Soviet past, Mr. Yeltsin presided over Russia's descent into corruption and lawlessness, and by the time he left office on New Year's Eve 1999, he had fired on his own parliament, begun two disastrous wars in Chechnya and presented the presidency to Vladimir V. Putin, who could hardly be more different.

Mr. Yeltsin embodied the very idea of Russianness. He could be reckless, hard-headed and unpredictable. He was unquestionably courageous, unquestioningly loyal to his cronies. Like many Russians, he drank to celebrate life's better moments, his intake inevitably bordering on self-destruction. He shared the national genius for pulling back from the brink a step away from catastrophe.

"He is contradictory, as Russia is contradictory," Mr. Piontkovsky said. "He proved to be the right man at the right time. But he over-lived that time, and he became the wrong man."

Unlike any other Russians of his generation - especially unlike his great nemesis, Mikhail S. Gorbachev - Mr. Yeltsin strode across the stage. He was a large man with a big voice. Villagers and city dwellers alike detected something honest in him.

He attracted astonishing amounts of scorn and vituperation from his enemies, who recognized that he was a force to be reckoned with. He came back from levels of humiliation and defeat that no other man in Russian history has surmounted.

He was ruthless in his determination to tear down the rotting system that had humiliated him.

"The roots of the old totalitarian system are still there," he said in 1991. "We need to pull them out."

Boris Nikolaevich Yeltsin was born Feb. 1, 1931, in the village of Butka, in the Ural Mountain province of Sverdlovsk. He was christened in a wooden church by a drunken priest who almost let him drown in the baptismal tub before his mother, Klavdia, snatched him out.

"The priest was not particularly worried," Yeltsin wrote in his autobiography. "He said, 'Well, if he can survive such an ordeal, it means he's a good tough lad ... and I name him Boris.'"

Beset by poor harvests and the famines induced by dictator Josef Stalin to force farmers to join collective farms, the province was the scene of violent and desperate peasant uprisings.

'We lived in poverty'

"Almost every day there were shootouts, murders and robberies," Mr. Yeltsin wrote. "We lived in poverty, in a small house with one cow. We had a horse, but it died, so there was nothing to plow with."

In 1935, after the cow died, too, the Yeltsin family hitched themselves to their cart and walked 20 miles to the nearest railroad station. Mr. Yeltsin's father, Nikolai, got a job at a potash plant, and for the next decade they lived in a single room in "temporary" workers barracks, with no plumbing and barely any heat.

At school Boris Yeltsin was the ringleader. His nose was broken when someone hit him with the shaft of a cart during a fight. He tried to take apart a stolen hand grenade and lost two fingers when it exploded.

At Urals Polytechnical Institute, he devoted nearly all of his energies to volleyball, playing six hours a day. He slept with a volleyball on his pillow, and eventually joined the Sverdlovsk city team.

When he left the institute he got a bricklaying job. He became a foreman, then chief engineer. It was only after Mr. Yeltsin turned 30 that he joined the Communist Party, evidently to keep his career from reaching a dead end.

His rise was rapid. In 1976, he was named Sverdlovsk's first secretary. At 44 he was the youngest man to hold such a post in the Soviet Union.

He was energetic and accessible, but the job was not one in which a hard-driving athlete and former bricklayer could learn to be a politician. He had no need to exercise any powers of persuasion, much less get used to working out deals. He gave the orders, and they got followed.

"Whether I was chairing a meeting, running my office or delivering a report to the plenum - everything that one did was expressed in terms of pressure, threats and coercion," he wrote later.

In 1985, Mr. Gorbachev was installed as the Soviet leader, and he brought Mr. Yeltsin to Moscow as head of the party's construction department. A year later Mr. Yeltsin became party leader for Moscow, and shortly after that joined the Politburo.

He rode city buses and held court in a public bath, wrapped in a towel. Muscovites discovered to their delight that he was a man who would listen when they poured out their frustrations and who made showboating attacks on corruption in the city.

Mr. Yeltsin was perhaps the most vigorous supporter of Mr. Gorbachev's program of glasnost and perestroika (openness and rebuilding). It didn't make him popular among the party barons, who weren't about to go quietly. They resisted what they felt to be Mr. Yeltsin's demagogy and did everything they could to undermine him

Finally, Mr. Gorbachev decided that Mr. Yeltsin was more trouble than he was worth, and relations between them worsened. In October 1987, at the end of a meeting of the party's central committee, Mr. Yeltsin declared that the party leadership was not allowing perestroika to proceed fast enough. Mr. Gorbachev's program, he implied, consisted of little more than empty words.

"My heart was pounding and seemed ready to burst through my rib cage," Mr. Yeltsin wrote. "I knew what would happen next. I would be slaughtered, in an organized, methodical manner, and the job would be done almost with pleasure and enjoyment."

He was right. Member after member, friend and foe, stood up to denounce him. Mr. Gorbachev was especially furious. Mr. Yeltsin was cast out into oblivion. And the Soviet tradition was clear: There was to be no return to prominence, no second chance.

Mr. Yeltsin's despair became a deep anger at the people who had ruined him - especially Mr. Gorbachev - and against the system they upheld.

"Even now, when so much time has passed, a rusty nail is still lodged in my heart, and I have not pulled it out," he wrote later. "It protrudes and bleeds."

In 1989, the Kremlin decided to hold a quasi-open parliamentary election. Mr. Yeltsin outmaneuvered the party, got his name on the list of candidates and won with 89 percent of the vote. A year later he was elected chairman of the Russian Federation parliament, even though Mr. Gorbachev had appealed to members to reject him.

By then it seemed that perestroika had faltered. In January 1991, Soviet troops fired on demonstrators in Vilnius, Lithuania, killing 13. It seemed that a major crackdown was imminent.

That night, Mr. Yeltsin flew to Tallinn, the capital of nearby Estonia, to show his solidarity. It took no little courage to do so. Jack Matlock, then U.S. ambassador in Moscow, wrote that Mr. Yeltsin's public repudiation of the violence in Lithuania made it impossible for Mr. Gorbachev to allow the crackdown to proceed.

Yet throughout the spring of 1991, tension remained close to the boiling point. Russia, the largest of the 15 Soviet republics, embarked on the popular election of a president for the first time in its 1,000-year history. Mr. Yeltsin won easily, with 60 percent of the vote.

"Great Russia is rising from her knees," he said at his inauguration on July 10. "We must, without fail, turn it into a flourishing, democratic and peace-loving state based on the rule of law."

Mr. Yeltsin had emerged as a powerful and wildly popular counter to the Soviet government. On Aug. 19, party conservatives staged a coup ostensibly directed at Mr. Gorbachev, who was confined to a summer house in the Crimea, but prompted by fears of what Mr. Yeltsin might do with the people supporting him.

Even though the plotters included the ministers of defense and internal affairs and the head of the KGB, competence was not their strong suit. Mr. Yeltsin was not arrested, and he made his way to the White House, the headquarters of the Russian government. Tanks arrived and took up positions around the building. Mr. Yeltsin went out to meet them. Impulsively, audaciously, he climbed on top of one of the tanks and called on Russians to resist the attempted coup.

The tanks turned their guns around, to face outward. Hundreds of thousands of Muscovites set up camp on the grounds of the building. They stayed for three tense days in the cold and drizzle, and in the smoke from dozens of campfires, never sure when an attack might come. Mr. Yeltsin was defiant. He rallied a nation and won.

The leaders of the coup had accomplished what they had set out to prevent: Boris Yeltsin had become the most powerful man in Russia.

He had arrived in Moscow in an era of gray functionaries, but when Russia needed an old-fashioned man of action, he had been ready.

A one-time dissident, Vladimir Bukovsky, remembered the first time he saw Mr. Yeltsin on television: "I could not believe my eyes. For looking straight into the camera was a typical Bolshevik, a Bolshevik straight out of central casting. Stubborn, overbearing, self-assured, honest, irresistible, a human engine without brakes. Where did they find this man?"

Mr. Yeltsin was a Bolshevik to his bones, except for zest for finding a way out of communism.

In December 1991, Mr. Yeltsin met with his counterparts from Ukraine and Belarus at a hunting lodge, and within two days they had agreed to dismantle the Soviet Union.

The nation that Lenin had founded in 1917 in blood unraveled in the dark final days of December 1991 in one of the great anticlimaxes of history. Mr. Gorbachev went quietly. The hammer and sickle over the Kremlin was lowered, and the old white, blue and red tricolor of the czars was restored.

In January, Mr. Yeltsin's government went to work, freeing food prices from government control and subsidy. The results were astonishing. In January, shelves had been bare, and long, hopeless lines had been everywhere, static and hunkered down. In February, the shelves were full.

Where there was a profit to be had, human instincts kicked in, and enterprising people found a way to get things to the market. But millions were impoverished as prices soared. Large flea markets formed on street corners as people tried to sell what little they had - saw blades, glassware, linen, homemade jams - to make ends meet.

In that lay the roots of the conflict that dogged Mr. Yeltsin for the rest of his tenure. Parliament had a large contingent of factory managers in it who were becoming disenchanted with the government and its handling of the economy.

The struggle for power never let up. For a time, Mr. Yeltsin could trump his opponents with appeals to the people, who didn't care for the burgeoning crime and corruption but feared that their fragile democratic experiment would be doomed if the apparatchiks got their revenge.

In the fall of 1993, parliament went into open rebellion. After a weeks-long standoff, Russian tanks once again encircled the White House, but this time they opened fire. Mr. Yeltsin prevailed, but at terrible cost. Fresh waves of cynicism washed over Russia, and violence seemed to beget more violence.

Wars in Chechnya

In 1994, Mr. Yeltsin began the first of two protracted wars in the breakaway republic of Chechnya.

In 1996, hoping to revive his flagging popularity and win re-election, his minders struck a deal with a handful of emerging business oligarchs. Essentially, the government gave away factories and other enterprises at bargain-basement prices; the oligarchs used their control of prominent newspapers and television networks to support Mr. Yeltsin's candidacy. It got him another term, but it sullied the democratic process and the "free" market system.

The Kremlin, in his second term, was given over to Byzantine intrigues, especially as his health continued to fail. A second Chechen war began in 1999, and it propelled to the prime minister's post a colorless and barely known Mr. Putin.

On Dec. 31 Mr. Yeltsin announced his resignation, anointing Mr. Putin as his successor. He retired, untroubled by prosecutors and scorned by the fellow Russians from whom he had derived such strength and support at the crucial hour.

Yesterday, Mr. Putin declared April 25 a day of mourning for Mr. Yeltsin. His body will lie in state tomorrow at Moscow's Christ the Savior Cathedral. He will be buried at Novodevichye cemetery.

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