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date: 21 November 2017

Yeltsin, Boris Nikolayevich

Who's Who in the Twentieth Century

Yeltsin, Boris Nikolayevich (1931–2007) 

Russian statesman and president of the Russian Federation (1991–99).

Born in Sverdlovsk in the Urals, he worked in the construction industry before becoming a full-time worker for the Communist Party in 1968. He became first secretary of the Sverdlovsk District Central Committee in 1976 and subsequently a deputy to the Supreme Soviet. In 1985 he acquired a national reputation when he was appointed first secretary of the Moscow City Party Committee as one of the new generation of liberal reformers introduced after Gorbachov became general secretary. Flamboyant and radical, Yeltsin soon clashed with other senior figures and became a political embarrassment to Gorbachov, who forced his resignation in 1987. Nevertheless, he built up a big following in the Russian SSR and in 1990 won elections for the Russian presidency, despite Gorbachov's attempt to block his candidacy. Subsequently, Gorbachov attempted to establish a working relationship with Yeltsin, his most serious rival for power, but Yeltsin continued to demand freedom from interference by the Kremlin in Russia's affairs. When reactionary elements staged a coup in 1991, Yeltsin showed great personal courage in rallying opposition to the new leaders and obliged them to stand down. Gorbachov was reinstated as president of the Soviet Union, but was forced to compromise with Yeltsin, who emerged with new stature. Yeltsin subsequently seized all Communist Party assets in Russia for the state. On the break-up of the Soviet Union at the end of 1991 he became president of independent Russia.

In contrast to his forceful conduct earlier in his career, Yeltsin as president seemed at the mercy of recurrent economic and political crises, not to mention his own capricious temperament. From the start he was faced with a communist-dominated assembly, which blocked the radical free-market reforms that he attempted to push through in 1991–92. Having obtained support for these policies in a referendum (1993), Yeltsin attempted to break the constitutional deadlock by closing down parliament, which remained defiant: the crisis was only resolved when Yeltsin ordered the military to storm the parliament buildings. Yeltsin then proposed a new constitution, which greatly increased his own powers: this won the support of a narrow majority in a further referendum (December 1993). However, subsequent elections saw the communists consolidate their hold on parliament, forcing Yeltsin to seek support from right-wing nationalists. In 1994, when the small Muslim republic of Chechnya declared independence from Moscow, Yeltsin responded by ordering a military invasion. The result was a fiasco: despite wholesale destruction, the Russians proved unable to defeat the rebels and were obliged to withdraw in 1996–97. This episode brought severe criticism from western countries.

The impression that Yeltsin was no longer fully in control of events was strengthened by a series of embarrassing public appearances, in which he appeared strangely confused. However, western governments and a majority of Russians continued to support Yeltsin for lack of a credible alternative: despite serious health problems (he suffered two heart attacks in 1995), he stood successfully for re-election in 1996. Yeltsin showed his unpredictable side again in March 1998, when he sacked the entire government and appointed a little-known prime minister. Five months later, as Russia faced its gravest financial crisis since the end of communism, he removed the entire government once again – an action he repeated twice in 1999. On the last day of that year he resigned unexpectedly and was succeeded by his prime minister, Vladimir Putin.

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