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Last Updated: Monday, 23 April 2007, 14:01 GMT 15:01 UK
Obituary: Boris Yeltsin

Boris Yeltsin ushered in democracy in Russia

Boris Yeltsin will be indelibly linked to the creation of democracy in Russia. By facing down the tanks outside the Russian Parliament, he showed that popular opinion could conquer authoritarianism.

Such personal courage and high principle earned him national acclaim and international attention. And it broke the stranglehold of Communism, the ideology that nurtured him and first brought him to national power.

But his time in power enabled a "Wild West" form of capitalism under which a small group of businessmen swiftly acquired huge fortunes.

Streetwise leader

Born to a peasant family in the Ural mountains in 1931, Boris Nikolayevich Yeltsin advanced through the Communist Party hierarchy.

He became party secretary in Sverdlovsk, a secret city heavily involved in defence manufacturing.

In 1985, Mikhail Gorbachev summoned Mr Yeltsin to take charge of Moscow and shake the corruption out of its moribund party structure.

Yeltsin made Gorbachev read out the list of coup leaders
Yeltsin humiliated Gorbachev after the coup attempt
Presenting himself as a streetwise leader rather than a remote bureaucrat, Yeltsin's reforming zeal infuriated the old guard.

Attacked, eventually, even by Mr Gorbachev, he left the Politburo in 1988 and, within two years, the Communist Party.

As the party outcast, Mr Yeltsin remained popular. In 1991, he emerged as the first elected President of Russia, a titular post dependent on the existence of the Soviet Union.

Fall of the Soviet Union

In August of that year, hard-line conservatives attempted a coup. Mr Yeltsin rallied the liberals and restored Gorbachev to office. Nonetheless, he used the coup to discredit both Gorbachev and the plotters.

He banned the Communist Party, still the keystone of Soviet power. By the end of the year the Soviet Union had fallen apart. Boris Yeltsin was now president of an independent Russia.

Russian parliament burning
Parliament burned as Yeltsin confronted hardliners
Within two years the Russian parliament was again under siege, but this time the tanks were ordered in by President Yeltsin.

Calling new elections, he tried to clear away his opponents. They resisted, barricaded themselves inside parliament and attempted to take over state television.

When troops loyal to Mr Yeltsin blasted the parliament building, the rebels surrendered, but the new parliament was to prove nearly as truculent as its predecessor.

Need for western investment

The ultra-nationalists were a major new force in the parliament and they sniped at the president's government and political programme.

With the collapse of the old order came economic liberalisation. But this meant stock markets and rampant inflation, amazing wealth for a few, misery for many and a severe psychological shock for a country accustomed to state direction.

Yeltsin with Bill Clinton
Yeltsin received Bill Clinton's backing
On the world stage, Mr Yeltsin wanted Russia to be respected as a world power, but he also needed western investment.

Above all, the United States decided he was the best hope to stabilise his country and provided steadfast support.

Slowly the economy was coming right. New markets opened up popular products at affordable prices. But Mr Yeltsin's once mighty popularity had been eroded.

Social vacuum

By 1994, Russia was mired in blood and confusion. Its security forces botched an attempt to put down a rebellion in the wayward southern republic of Chechnya.

Indiscriminate fighting laid populated areas to waste and killed many civilians. Liberal Russians said it was inhumane; nationalists called it ineffective.

Crime and corruption in Russia became endemic, with contract killings almost an everyday occurrence.

Yeltsin grimacing
Yeltsin was prone to eccentric and sometimes drunken behaviour
Into this social vacuum stepped the newly-revived Communist Party promising a seductive cocktail of old certainties and new vigour.

But as presidential elections approached in 1996, Boris Yeltsin began an astonishing political resurrection. He invited the Chechen rebels into the Kremlin to end the war. He mounted an energetic campaign. Above all, he appeared healthy and commanding.

The result of the election was a triumph for Mr Yeltsin. His changes had created winners as well as losers, and a majority of voters rejected a return to the Communist past.

Disabled emperor

In November 1996, Yeltsin underwent a successful quintuple heart bypass operation in the Central Clinical Hospital in Moscow. Two months later, he was taken ill again with a serious bout of pneumonia.

He would never be fully fit again. For the rest of his life his health was unstable, forcing him to disappear from view for weeks at a time.

Vladimir Putin
Yeltsin chose Vladimir Putin as his successor
Now, as a disabled emperor, his court became a swirl of intrigue and conspiracy as factions fought for the succession.

President Yeltsin had always been an impulsive and unpredictable politician, but a rapid series of government changes caused many to ask whether his legendary political instincts had deserted him.

Yeltsin sacked one prime minister in 1998 - one after a disastrous financial collapse - and another two in 1999.

Vladimir Putin, a former spy chief who took over the premiership in August 1999 and the Russian presidency four months later, soon unleashed the Russian army on Chechnya once more.

Thousands were killed and made homeless as the army sought to avenge what it saw as the humiliating defeat of 1996, and to restore Moscow's rule over the breakaway republic.

Once again, the outside world was shocked by the ferocity of the Russian offensive.

Chechnya aside, one of the most remarkable features of Mr Yeltsin's rule is how generally peaceful it remained.

He carried his country through a turbulent transformation with far less bloodshed than many had feared, and the new Russia is his legacy.

Vladimir Putin pays tribute to Boris Yeltsin

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