Boris Nikolayevich Yeltsin (February 1, 1931 - April 23, 2007) was the first President of the Russian Federation, serving from 1991 to 1999.
Yeltsin came to power on a wave of high expectations. On June 12th,1991 he was elected to be a president of the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic with 57% of the vote, becoming the first popularly elected president. However, Yeltsin never recovered his popularity after an economic and political crisis in Russia in the 1990s. The Yeltsin era was marked by widespread corruption, economic collapse, and enormous political and social problems. By the time he left the office, Yeltsin had an approval rating of two percent by some estimates.
Following the dissolution of the Soviet Union in December 1991, Yeltsin, vowing to transform Russia's socialist command economy into a free market economy, endorsed a program of price liberalization and privatization. As a result, a handful of people were able to enrich themselves while arguably stamping out competitors.
In August 1991, Yeltsin won international plaudits for casting himself as a democrat and defying the August coup attempt of 1991 by the members of Soviet government opposed to perestroika. He left office widely unpopular with the Russian population as an ineffectual and ailing autocrat. He either acted as his own prime minister (until June 1992) or appointed men of his choice, regardless of parliament. His confrontations with parliament climaxed in the October 1993 Russian constitutional crisis, when Yeltsin called up tanks to shell the Russian White House, blasting out his opponents in parliament. Later in 1993, Yeltsin imposed a new constitution with strong presidential powers, which was approved by referendum in December.
Boris Yeltsin was born in the village of Butka, Talitsky District of Sverdlovsk Oblast, Russia. His father, Nikolay Yeltsin, was convicted of anti-Soviet agitation in 1934 and sentenced to hard labor in Gulag for three years. Following his release, Nikolai remained unemployed for a short time and later worked in construction. Boris’s mother, Klavdiya Vasilyevna Yeltsina, worked as a tailor.
Yeltsin received his higher education at the Ural State Technical University in Sverdlovsk, majoring in construction, and graduated from it in 1955. The subject of his degree paper was "Television Tower".
From 1955 to 1957, Boris worked as a foreman with the building trust Uraltyazhtrubstroy and from 1957 to 1963 he worked in Sverdlovsk, and was promoted from construction site superintendent to chief of the Construction Directorate with the Yuzhgorstroy Trust. In 1963 he became chief engineer, and in 1965 head of the Sverdlovsk House-Building Combine, responsible for sewerage and technical plumbing. In 1975 Yeltsin became secretary of the regional committee in charge of the region's industrial development. In 1976 the Politburo of the CPSU promoted him to the post of the first secretary of the CPSU Committee of Sverdlovsk Oblast (effectively he became the head of one of the most important industrial regions in the USSR) and remained in this position till 1985.
Yeltsin was a member of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) from 1961 to July 1990, and began working in the Communist administration in 1968. He later commented on his communist views:
Boris Yeltsin and Bill Clinton 1999
"I sincerely believed in the ideals of justice propagated by the party, and just as sincerely joined the party, made a thorough study of the charter, the program and the classics, re-reading the works of Lenin, Marx and Engels."
In 1977 as party boss in Sverdlovsk, Yeltsin--on orders from Moscow--ordered the destruction of the Ipatiev House where the last Russian tsar had been killed by Bolshevik troops. The Ipatiev House was demolished in one night, July 27, 1977. Also during Yeltsin's stay in Sverdlovsk, a CPSU palace was built. During this time, Yeltsin developed connections with key people in the Soviet power structure.
He was appointed to the Politburo, and was also "Mayor" of Moscow (First Secretary of the CPSU Moscow City Committee) from December 24, 1985 to 1987. Boris was promoted to these high rank positions by Mikhail Gorbachev, who presumed that Yeltsin will be their man. Yeltsin was also given a country house (dacha) previously occupied by Gorbachev. During this period Yeltsin portrayed himself as a reformer and populist. His initiatives became popular among Moscow residents.
In 1987, after a confrontation with hardliner Yegor Ligachev and Mikhail Gorbachev about Gorbachev's wife, Raisa, meddling in affairs of the state, Yeltsin was sacked from his high ranked party positions. On October 21, 1987 at the plenary meeting of the Central Committee of the CPSU, Yeltsin, without prior approval from Gorbachev, lashed out at the Politburo. He expressed his discontent with both the slow pace of reform in society and the servility shown to the General Secretary, then asked to resign from the Politburo, adding that the City Committee would decide whether he should resign from the post of first secretary of the Moscow City Party Committee. In his reply, Gorbachev accused Yeltsin of "political immaturity" and "absolute irresponsibility", and at the plenary meeting of the Moscow City Party Committee proposed relieving Yeltsin of his post of first secretary. Nobody backed Yeltsin. Criticism of Yeltsin continued on November 11, 1987 at the meeting of the Moscow City Party Committee. After Yeltsin admitted that his speech had been a mistake, he was fired from the post of first secretary of the Moscow City Committee. Boris was demoted to the position of first deputy commissioner for the State Committee for Construction. After being fired, Yeltsin was hospitalized and later (confirmed by Nikolai Ryzhkov) attempted suicide. He was perturbed and humiliated but began plotting his revenge. His opportunity came with Gorbachev's establishment of the Congress of People's Deputies. He recovered, and started intensively criticizing Gorbachev, highlighting the slow pace of reform in the Soviet Union as his major argument.
Yeltsin's criticism of the Politburo and Gorbachev led to a smear campaign against him, in which examples of Yeltsin's awkward behavior were used against him. An article published in Pravda described him as being drunk at a lecture during his visit to the United States, an allegation which appeared to be confirmed by a TV account of his speech. However, popular dissatisfaction with the regime was very strong, and these attempts to smear Yeltsin only added to his popularity. In another incident, Yeltsin fell from a bridge. Commenting on this event, Yeltsin hinted that he was helped to fall from the bridge by the enemies of perestroika, but his opponents suggested that he was simply drunk.
In March 1989, Yeltsin was elected to the Congress of People's Deputies as the delegate from Moscow district and gained a seat on the Supreme Soviet.
On May 29, 1990, he was elected chairman of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet of the Russian SFSR (RSFSR), the post he held until July 10, 1991. He was supported by both democratic and conservative members of the Supreme Soviet, which sought power in the developing political situation in the country. A part of this power struggle was the opposition between power structures of the Soviet Union and the RSFSR. In an attempt to gain more power, on 12 June 1990, the Congress of People's Deputies of the RSFSR adopted a declaration of sovereignty and Yeltsin quit the CPSU in July 1990.
On 12 June 1991, Yeltsin won 57% of the popular vote in the democratic presidential elections for the Russian republic, defeating Gorbachev's preferred candidate, Nikolai Ryzhkov. In his election campaign, Yeltsin criticized the "dictatorship of the center", but did not suggest the introduction of a market economy. Instead, he said that he would put his head on the railroad tracks in the event of increased prices. Yeltsin took office on July 10.
On August 18, 1991, a coup against Gorbachev was launched by the government members who opposed perestroika. Gorbachev was held in Crimea while Yeltsin raced to the White House of Russia (residence of the Supreme Soviet of the RSFSR) in Moscow to defy the coup.
The White House was surrounded by the military but the troops defected in the face of mass popular demonstrations. Yeltsin responded to the coup by making a memorable speech from the turret of a tank. By August 21 most of the coup leaders had fled Moscow and Gorbachev was "rescued" from Crimea and then returned to Moscow. Yeltsin was subsequently hailed by his supporters around the world for rallying mass opposition to the coup.
Although restored to his position, Gorbachev's power was now fatally compromised. Neither union nor Russian power structures heeded his commands as support had swung over to Yeltsin. Through the fall of 1991, the Russian government took over the union government, ministry by ministry.
On November 6, 1991, Yeltsin issued a decree banning the Communist Party throughout the RSFSR.
In early December 1991, Ukraine voted for independence from the Soviet Union. A week later, on December 8, Yeltsin met with Ukrainian president Leonid Kravchuk and the leader of Belarus, Stanislav Shushkevich, in Belovezhskaya Pushcha, where three presidents announced the dissolution of the Soviet Union and that they would establish a voluntary Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) in its place. According to Mikhail Gorbachev, the president of the Soviet Union at that time, Yeltsin kept the plans of the Belovezhskaya meeting in strict secrecy and the main goal of the dissolution of the Soviet Union was to get rid of Gorbachev, who by that time had started to recover his position after the events in August. Mikhail Gorbachev has also accused Yeltsin of violating the people's will expressed in the referendum in which the majority voted to keep the Soviet Union.
On December 24, the Russian Federation took the Soviet Union's seat in the United Nations. The next day, President Gorbachev resigned and the Soviet Union ceased to exist, thereby ending the world's largest and most influential socialist state. Millions of ethnic Russians found themselves in the newly formed foreign countries.
Just days after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Boris Yeltsin resolved to embark on a program of radical economic reform, with the aim of restructuring Russia's economic system—converting the world's largest command economy into a free-market one. During early discussions of this transition, Yeltsin's advisers debated issues of speed and sequencing, with an apparent division between those favoring a rapid approach and those favoring a gradual or slower approach.
In late 1991 Yeltsin turned to the advice of Western economists, and Western institutions such as the IMF, the World Bank, and the U.S. Treasury Department, who had developed a standard policy recipe for transition economies in the late 1980s. This policy recipe came to be known as the "Washington Consensus" or "shock therapy," a combination of measures intended to liberalize prices and stabilize the state's budget. Such measures had been attempted in Poland, and advocates of "shock therapy" felt the same could be done in Russia. Some Russian policymakers were skeptical that this was the way to go.
On January 2 1992, Yeltsin, acting as his own prime minister, ordered the liberalization of foreign trade, prices, and currency. At the same time, Yeltsin followed a policy of 'macroeconomic stabilization,' a harsh austerity regime designed to control inflation. Under Yeltsin's stabilization program, interest rates were raised to extremely high levels to tighten money and restrict credit. To bring state spending and revenues into balance, Yeltsin raised new taxes heavily, cut back sharply on government subsidies to industry and construction, and made steep cuts to state welfare spending.
In early 1992, prices skyrocketed throughout Russia, and deep credit crunch shut down many industries and brought about a protracted depression. The reforms devastated the living standards of much of the population, especially the groups dependent on Soviet-era state subsidies and welfare entitlement programs. Through the 1990s, Russia's GDP fell by 50 percent, vast sectors of the economy wiped out, inequality and unemployment grew dramatically, while incomes fell. Hyperinflation, caused by the Central Bank of Russia's loose monetary policy, wiped out a lot of personal savings, and tens of millions of Russians were plunged into poverty.
Some economists argue that in the 90s Russia suffered an economic downturn more severe than the United States or Germany had undergone six decades earlier in the Great Depression. Russian commentators and even some Western economists, such as Marshall Goldman, widely blamed Yeltsin's Western-backed economic program for the country's disastrous economic performance in the 1990s. Many politicians began to quickly distance themselves from the program. In February 1992, Russia's vice president, Alexander Rutskoy denounced the Yeltsin program as "economic genocide." By 1993 conflict over the reform direction escalated between Yeltsin on the one side, and the opposition to radical economic reform in Russia's parliament on the other.
Also throughout 1992, Yeltsin wrestled with the Supreme Soviet and the Congress of People's Deputies for control over government, government policy, government banking and property. In the course of 1992, the speaker of the Russian Supreme Soviet, Ruslan Khasbulatov, came out in opposition to the reforms, despite claiming to support Yeltsin's overall goals. In December 1992, the 7th Congress of People's Deputies succeeded in turning down the Yeltsin-backed candidacy of Yegor Gaidar for the position of Russian prime minister. Eventually, on December 14, Viktor Chernomyrdin, seen as a compromise figure, was confirmed in the office.
The conflict escalated on 20 March 1993 when Yeltsin, in a televised address to the nation, announced that he was going to assume certain "special powers" in order to implement his program of reforms. In response, the hastily-called 9th Congress of People's Deputies attempted to remove Yeltsin from presidency through impeachment on 26 March 1993. Yeltsin's opponents gathered more than 600 votes for impeachment, but fell 72 votes short of the required two-thirds majority. On September 21st, 1993 Yeltsin announced in a televised address his decision to disband the Supreme Soviet and Congress of People's Deputies by decree.
In his address, Yeltsin declared his intent to rule by decree until the election of the new parliament and a referendum on a new constitution, triggering the constitutional crisis of October 1993. On the night after Yeltsin's televised address, the Supreme Soviet declared Yeltsin removed from presidency, by virtue of his breaching the constitution, and Vice-President Alexander Rutskoy was sworn in as the acting president.
Between September 21–24, Yeltsin was confronted by significant popular unrest, encouraging the defenders of the parliament. Moscow saw what amounted to a spontaneous mass uprising of anti-Yeltsin demonstrators numbering in the tens of thousands marching in the streets resolutely seeking to aid forces defending the parliament building. The demonstrators were protesting the new and terrible living conditions under Yeltsin. Since 1989 GDP had declined by a half. Corruption was rampant, violent crime was skyrocketing, medical services were collapsing, food and fuel were increasingly scarce and life expectancy was falling for all but a tiny handful of the population; moreover, Yeltsin was increasingly getting the blame.
By early October, Yeltsin had secured the support of Russia's army and ministry of interior forces. In a massive show of force, Yeltsin called up tanks to shell the Russian White House, Russia's parliament building, blasting out his opponents.
As Supreme Soviet was dissolved, in December 1993 were held elections to the newly established parliament, State Duma. Candidates identified with Yeltsin's economic policies were overwhelmed by a huge anti-Yeltsin vote, the bulk of which was divided between the Communist Party and ultra-nationalists. The referendum, however, held at the same time, approved the new constitution, which significantly expanded the powers of the president, giving Yeltsin a right to appoint the members of the government, to dismiss the prime minister and, in some cases, to dissolve the Duma.
Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Yeltsin promoted privatization as a way of spreading ownership of shares in former state enterprises as widely as possible to create political support for his economic reforms. In the West, privatization was viewed as the key to the transition from communism in Eastern Europe, ensuring a quick dismantling of the Soviet-era command economy to make way for 'free market reforms.' In the early 1990s, Anatoly Chubais, Yeltsin's deputy for economic policy, emerged as a leading advocate of privatization in Russia.
In late 1992, Yeltsin launched a program of free vouchers as a way to give mass privatization a jump-start. Under the program, all Russian citizens were issued vouchers, each with a nominal value of around 10,000 rubles, for purchase of shares of select state enterprises. Although each citizen initially received a voucher of equal face value, within months most of them converged in the hands of intermediaries who were ready to buy them for cash right away.
In 1995, as Yeltsin struggled to finance Russia's growing foreign debt and gain support from the Russian business elite for his bid in the spring 1996 presidential elections, the Russian president prepared for a new wave of privatization offering stock shares in some of Russia's most valuable state enterprises in exchange for bank loans. The program was promoted as a way of simultaneously speeding up privatization and ensuring the government a much-needed infusion of cash for its operating needs.
However, the deals were effectively giveaways of valuable state assets to a small group of tycoons in finance, industry, energy, telecommunications, and the media who came to be known as "oligarchs" in the mid-1990s. By summer 1996, substantial ownership shares over major firms were acquired at very low prices by a handful of people.
In July 1996, Yeltsin was re-elected as president with financial support from influential business oligarchs who owed their wealth to their connections with Yeltsin's administration. Despite only gaining 35% of the first round vote in the 1996 elections, Yeltsin defeated his communist rival Gennady Zyuganov with 54% in the runoff election. Later that year, Yeltsin underwent heart bypass surgery and remained in the hospital for months.
During Yeltsin's presidency, Russia received US$ 40 billion in funds from the IMF and other international lending organizations. However, his opponents allege that most of these funds were stolen by people from Yeltsin's circle and placed in foreign banks.
In 1998, a political and economic crisis emerged when Yeltsin's government defaulted on its debts, causing financial markets to panic and the ruble, to collapse in the 1998 financial crisis. During the 1999 Kosovo war, Yeltsin strongly opposed the NATO military campaign against Yugoslavia, and warned of possible Russian intervention if NATO deployed ground troops to Kosovo.
On August 9, 1999 Yeltsin fired his prime minister, Sergei Stepashin, and for the fourth time, fired his entire cabinet. In Stepashin's place he appointed Vladimir Putin, relatively unknown at that time, and announced his wish to see Putin as his successor.
On 31 December 1999, in a surprise announcement aired at 12:00 noon on Russian television and taped in the morning of the same day, Yeltsin said he had resigned and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin had taken over as acting president, with elections due to take place on 26 March 2000. Yeltsin asked for forgiveness for what he acknowledged were errors of his rule, and said Russia needed to enter the new century with new political leaders. Yeltsin said: "I want to beg forgiveness for your dreams that never came true. And also I would like to beg forgiveness not to have justified your hopes."
Boris Yeltsin died of congestive heart failure on April 23, 2007 at the age of 76. According to experts quoted by Komsomolskaya Pravda, the onset of Yeltsin's condition was due to his visit to Jordan between March 25 and April 2. He was buried in the Novodevichy Cemetery on April 25, 2007, following a period during which his body had lain in state in the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour in Moscow. Yeltsin is the first Russian statesman in 113 years to be buried in a church ceremony, after Emperor Alexander III.