Boris Nikolaevich Yeltsin (born 1931), who became president of Russia in 1991, was one of the most complex and enigmatic political leaders of his time. A long-time Communist Party leader in Sverdlovsk (Ekaterinburg) and later Moscow, he was an important leader in the reform 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.
Boris Nikolaevich Yeltsin was born into a Russian working-class family on February 1, 1931, in the small Siberian village of Butko. Yeltsin lived and worked in Siberia for most of his life. His early life, like that of most of his countrymen in the 1930s and 1940s, was marked by hardship, and as the oldest child Boris had numerous responsibilities at home. Only a month older than Mikhail Sergeevich Gorbachev, their lives and careers have many similarities and some differences. Both men came from rural worker and peasant families (Gorbachev lived in the village of Privolnoe in the Stavropol district) and succeeded in a society that paid lip service to workers and peasants but in reality was run by an elitist bureaucracy that disdained provincials.
A strong-willed child, Boris twice stood up to the educational system. At his elementary school graduation he criticized his homeroom teacher's abusive and arbitrary behavior, resulting in his expulsion. 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 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 in the repressive climate of the Stalin period but help explain the mature Yeltsin. In July 1990 he walked to the podium at the 28th Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) and submitted his resignation.
Trained as an engineer, Yeltsin graduated from the Ural Polytechnic Institute. He married his wife Naina at a young age; 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 went to a career in the Communist Party, eventually becoming first secretary of the party in Sverdlovsk. Yeltsin joined the CPSU at age 30, relatively late for a man with political aspirations.
A Party Leader in Moscow
In 1985 Mikhail S. Gorbachev, the new general secretary of the 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 18 months that followed were a time of achievement and frustration, culminating in his dismissal as a Candidate member of the Politburo and first secretary of the Moscow Party ("the Yeltsin affair").
Yeltsin did not like Moscow at first and criticized the privileges of the city's political elite as extravagant compared with life in Sverdlovsk. In a letter to Gorbachev, written in late summer 1987, Yeltsin asked to be relieved of his responsibilities in the Politburo. Initially he did not receive a response, but a disagreement on policy issues led to the confrontation in the Central Committee in October 1987. 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 his resignation from the Politburo was accepted. 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.
As a political leader in Sverdlovsk and Moscow, Yeltsin was described as both a populist and an autocrat in his management style. At times preemptory in his action and approach, he often traveled to work on public transportation and mingled with ordinary people, unusual behavior among the Soviet elite, accustomed to travel in curtained limousines.
In the late 1980s, after Yeltsin criticized perestroika, his personal relationship with Gorbachev deteriorated. Publicly Gorbachev was reticent, but from 1987 to 1991 Yeltsin faced opposition at every step as he attempted to rebuild his political career. In the 1989 elections for the newly created Congress of People's Deputies (the new parliament), Yeltsin ran for a seat in Moscow against the nominee of the Communist Party, who managed the prestigious ZIL automobile factory. Yeltsin surprised the party by receiving 90 percent of the vote and, with great difficulty, was subsequently elected by the deputies to the smaller, more important, parliamentary body, the Supreme Soviet. Gorbachev was elected (chairman) president of the U.S.S.R. by the new parliament.
During 1989-1990 Yeltsin's populist views made him a folk hero in Moscow, where crowds chanting "Yeltsin, Yeltsin" were a frequent sight. In the Supreme Soviet he served on the steering committee of the interregional coalition of deputies with Andrei Sakharov. Yeltsin was also elected to the Russian parliament, which in May 1990 selected him as chairman (president) of the Russian Republic.
Yeltsin and Gorbachev never again achieved a sustained close working relationship, although at times they cooperated during the last 18 months of the Soviet Union. At the CPSU's 28th Congress in 1990 Yeltsin and other reformers within the party supported Gorbachev's leadership against the conservatives, led by Y.K. Ligachev. Although the Congress favored the conservatives, Ligachev was forced into retirement. Yeltsin had the last word when, late in the Congress, he publicly resigned from the party.
In June 1991 the Russian Republic held its first popularly contested election for president, and Yeltsin defeated six opponents to win the presidency. As president he declared the Russian Republic autonomous of the U.S.S.R. and offered to cooperate with the Baltic Republics, which were seeking freedom from the U.S.S.R. Such movements contributed to Gorbachev's decision to negotiate with the 15 Soviet republics to discuss ways to enhance their self government. The result was a draft treaty scheduled for signing in late August 1991.
President of the Republic of Russia
Yeltsin as president of the Russian Republic (RSFSR) and Gorbachev as president of the U.S.S.R. agreed to cooperate on economic reform, a reversal of their estrangement since 1987. However, on August 19, 1991, eight conservative party and government leaders perpetrated a coup against the vacationing Gorbachev. Yeltsin led the dramatic struggle on the ramparts of the Russian parliament (the "White House") in Moscow that defeated the coup and secured Gorbachev's return to Moscow.
In the aftermath of Gorbachev's rescue, Yeltsin consolidated his own power. Arguing the complicity of some of their leaders in the coup, 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. The draft treaty of the republics was never signed. 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 U.S.S.R. 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, there was no more U.S.S.R. 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. This was a political comeback unprecedented in Soviet history.
Yeltsin began a new chapter in 1992 as president of independent Russia. He undertook an ambitious program of economic reform known as "shock therapy," which accelerated the pace of privatization and allowed prices to float as a strategy to move quickly toward a market economy. The results were mixed. Privatization progressed but at the price of skyrocketing inflation and currency devaluation without increased production. Yeltsin's policies were frequently challenged during 1992, culminating in a major showdown with the Russian parliament in December 1992. Acting Prime Minister Yegor Gaidar, an advocate of shock therapy, was forced out, although within a year he returned to Yeltsin's cabinet. Viktor Chernomyrdin, a compromise candidate, became prime minister. Yeltsin's relationship with the parliament further deteriorated in 1993, and some of his 1991 political allies on the ramparts of the White House led the parliamentary opposition. Yeltsin dissolved parliament in September 1993, a sit-in ensued, and in early October 1993, a confrontation occurred, resulting in hundreds of deaths and injuries as well as considerable damage to the White House and other Moscow landmarks. The sit-in was eventually routed.
Yeltsin survived the political crisis, but his prestige and reputation suffered. The democratic Yeltsin who protested in the streets of Moscow in the late 1980s was forgotten, and a dictatorial image of Yeltsin emerged. In December 1993 Yeltsin suffered a further setback in the parliamentary elections, which he had called. Prominent reformers ran in rival parties, thus weakening their overall impact. The radical right, led by Vladimir Zhirinovsky, and the neo-Communists consequently made a better showing in the elections than they might have done if reformers had been united.
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. More importantly, after the 1996 elections it became clear that he had deceived the Russian people about his health. In fact, he had suffered a heart attack prior to elections, and was not well. In The Nation Daniel Singer wrote, "The Russians would not have voted for Yeltsin had they known he was such an invalid. Only extraordinarily tight government control over television enabled the stage managers to conceal his heart attack." Although he continued as president, there was much speculation within the international and Russian community as to who his successor would be. In May 1997 World Press Review observed, "Considering that most recent Russian leaders have been sickly, it is odd that the Russian constitution seems to presuppose a vigorous leader." The problem left many more than a little uneasy.
Despite his poor health, Yeltsin met with President Clinton in Helsinki in March 1997. Among the important issues addressed, Yeltsin approved a new Russian role in NATO, despite his opposition to NATO expansion. In essence, President Clinton assured the Russians a seat on NATO councils, stating they would "have a voice, not a veto." But it was clear that Yeltsin expected a right to override actions Russia found unacceptable. In exchange for this new position within NATO, Yeltsin implied the Russians would cease their opposition to NATO expansion.
In his new term, Yeltsin continued to face domestic problems in 1997. The Russian financial picture continued to grow grim: the gross national product fell another 6 percent in 1996, industrial production was off even more, and even the life expectancy dropped drastically, by 6 years. Of the 1997 Russian financial picture, Singer pointed out, "Barter, debt-swapping and hidden financial transactions are replacing normal exchange. Fiscal fraud has reached epidemic proportions." Indeed, in 1997, employees frequently waited as long as three months for payment. Despite such a grim financial picture, President Yeltsin was a resilient politician with keen political insights who rebounded from defeat after defeat.
Further Reading on Boris Nikolaevich Yeltsin
A number of books treat Yeltsin the politician and the man. Considerable insights can be gained from his two autobiographies—Against the Grain, written as a diary about his political life, with flashbacks into his early life and career; and The Struggle for Russia (1994), in which he describes his role in both attempted coups, and profiles friends and adversaries in Russia and abroad. Other biographers include John Morrison, whose Boris Yeltsin (1991) portrays Yeltsin the politician in the context of Soviet politics. His relationship with Gorbachev and the "Yeltsin affair" are described in Seweryn Bialer's Inside Gorbachev's Russia (1989). The preclude to Yeltsin's rule is described by Robert Daniels in The End of the Communist Revolution (1993). An excellent article on Yeltsin and Russia can be found in The Nation (March 31, 1997).