President led Russia out of the Soviet era

Magnetic leader's popularity eroded amid corruption, wars in Chechnya

Boris N. Yeltsin 1931-2007

April 24, 2007|By Will Englund | Will Englund,Sun Foreign Reporter

MOSCOW — CLARIFICATION

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.

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