Former President Boris Yeltsin, who hastened the collapse of the Soviet Union by scrambling atop a tank to rally opposition against a hard-line coup and later pushed Russia to embrace democracy and a market economy, died Monday at age 76.
He died of heart failure at the Central Clinical Hospital, news agencies quoted Sergei Mironov, head of the presidential administration’s medical center, as saying.
The first freely elected leader of Russia, Yeltsin was initially admired abroad for his defiance of the monolithic Communist system. But many Russians will remember him mostly for presiding over the steep decline of their nation.
Mikhail Gorbachev, the last Soviet president, summed up Yeltsin’s complex legacy Monday by referring to him as one “on whose shoulders are both great deeds for the country and serious errors.”
The Kremlin said the funeral would be Wednesday, a day of national mourning, and that Yeltsin would be buried at Moscow’s Novodevichy Cemetery, where many of Russia’s most prominent figures are interred.
“Thanks to Boris Yeltsin’s will and direct initiative, a new constitution was adopted which proclaimed human rights as the supreme value,” said President Vladimir Putin, who was Yeltsin’s handpicked successor. He said his former mentor “gave people a chance to freely express their thoughts, freely elect authorities.”
U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates called Yeltsin “an important figure in Russian history.”
“No Americans, at least, will forget seeing him standing on the tank outside the White House (the Russian parliament building) resisting the coup attempt,” Gates said while visiting Moscow.
Yeltsin rocketed to popularity in the Communist era on pledges to fight corruption, but he proved unable or unwilling to prevent the looting of state industry as it moved into private hands during his nine years in power.
Yeltsin steadfastly defended freedom of the press, but was a master at manipulating the media. Putin has proven far more popular even as he has tightened Kremlin control.
His career was punctuated by bizarre behavior that the public chalked up to alcohol. Red-faced pranks, missed appointments, and inarticulate and contradictory public comments were blamed by aides on jet lag, medication or illness.
Bursts of activity
Yeltsin’s greatest moments came in bursts.
After Communist hard-liners tried to overthrow Gorbachev and roll back democratic reforms in 1991 by sending armor into the streets, Yeltsin climbed atop a tank to rally resistance. He spearheaded the peaceful end of the Soviet state by the end of the year.
Ill with heart problems and facing possible defeat by a Communist challenger in 1996, Yeltsin marshaled his energy to win re-election. The challenge transformed the shaky convalescent into the spry, dancing candidate.
But Yeltsin was an inconsistent reformer who never took much interest in the mundane tasks of government and he blamed subordinates for Russia’s many problems. He damaged his democratic credentials by using force to solve political disputes, although he said it was necessary to hold the country together.
Boris Nikolayevich Yeltsin was born Feb. 1, 1931, into a peasant family in the Ural Mountains’ Sverdlovsk region. When he was 3, his father was imprisoned in dictator Josef Stalin’s purges but later released.
A mischievous child, Yeltsin lost his thumb and index finger while playing with a grenade. He was expelled from elementary school for criticizing a teacher at an assembly.
Yeltsin joined the Communist Party at age 30 after a brief career in construction in the city of Sverdlovsk, now called Yekaterinburg. He became the region’s party boss in 1976.
Recruited by Gorbachev
In 1985, Gorbachev brought Yeltsin to Moscow, where he shook up the city’s party hierarchy. The strapping, silver-haired Yeltsin cut a popular figure, using buses instead of a limousine, standing in long lines in stores and loudly demanding why managers stashed away food instead of selling it to ordinary customers.
For many Russians, he had the unpolished charm of a “muzhik” — a tough peasant with common sense and a fondness for vodka.
A bitter rivalry grew between him and the more cautious Gorbachev. When Yeltsin criticized Gorbachev at a party meeting in 1987, the Soviet leader fired him, and he reportedly was hospitalized with heart problems.
He stormed back to power in 1989, winning a parliament seat in the first real election in 70 years. The following year, Yeltsin quit the party.
Yeltsin won Russia’s first popular presidential election in a landslide in June 1991. Russia still was part of the Soviet Union, but the central government had started ceding power to the 15 republics.
Kremlin hard-liners trying to stop that process launched the failed coup in August, putting Gorbachev under house arrest, but Yeltsin led protests by the democratic opposition in Moscow and the putsch fell apart.
Yeltsin banned the Communist Party and confiscated its vast property. He and the leaders of Ukraine and Belarus formed the Commonwealth of Independent States in December 1991, declaring the Soviet Union extinct. Gorbachev resigned within the month.
As president, Yeltsin guaranteed free speech, private property and multiparty elections, and opened the borders to trade and travel.
He quickly launched economic reforms that freed prices, created a private sector and allowed foreign investment, but inflation skyrocketed and production plummeted. Millions were impoverished when wages and pensions went unpaid for months. He later said he regretted believing “that we could overcome everything in one spurt.”
Tensions with the Soviet-era parliament climaxed in fall 1993 when Yeltsin disbanded it. An armed standoff and street riots followed, and he turned tanks against the parliament building. Scores of people were killed.
Yeltsin later pushed through a constitution that guaranteed a strong presidency, but he also dumped key reformers from his Cabinet, alienating democratic forces.
In December 1994, Yeltsin launched a war against separatists in the southern republic of Chechnya. Tens of thousands of people were killed, and a humiliated Russian army withdrew at the end of 1996 — only to return there in 1999.
Quick to fire Cabinet
He fired the entire government four times in 1998 and 1999. The economy sank into a deep recession in 1998, but he easily faced down an impeachment attempt by the Communist-dominated lower chamber of parliament in 1999.
In foreign policy, he assured independence for Russia’s Soviet-era satellites, oversaw troop and arms reductions, and developed warm relations with Western leaders.
But he also struggled to preserve a role for the former superpower to offset U.S. global clout, and in 1999, he sent Russian troops to Kosovo — ahead of NATO peacekeepers — to show that Moscow would not be elbowed out of European affairs.
He was hospitalized with heart disease in 1995 and was deeply unpopular ahead of presidential elections in June 1996. He rallied by manipulating the media and enlisting the aid of the so-called oligarchs who had enriched themselves on the spoils of the Soviet economy.
Yeltsin won, but the campaign took a heavy physical toll, and doctors later said he had suffered another heart attack. He underwent quintuple bypass surgery in November 1996. He also had back problems, and seemed increasingly shaky — both physically and mentally — in his final years in office.
On Dec. 31, 1999, he stunned everyone by announcing his resignation more than three months before his second term expired. He named Putin — his last prime minister and a former KGB agent — as acting president to give him an incumbent’s advantage.
He is survived by his wife, Naina, two daughters and several grandchildren. Funeral plans were not announced.