(1931–2007) Russian president
Boris Yeltsin was the first president of Russia following the collapse of the communist Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR). Yeltsin struggled against the vestiges of the former regime and the chaos following its collapse to introduce a stable, democratic system.
Yeltsin was born in the region of Sverdlovsk in 1931. He studied construction at the Ural Polytechnic Institute, graduating in 1955. Yeltsin served in the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) from 1961 to 1990. He first became a party administrator in 1969 and continued to develop contacts within the Soviet system.
Yeltsin rose to the top of the CPSU during the 1980s through connections with General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev, the de facto leader of the country, and other reformers. Gorbachev appointed Yeltsin to the Politburo. Yeltsin portrayed himself as a reformer and people’s champion despite his lavish lifestyle. His initiatives became popular. However, Yeltsin repeatedly shuffled and fired staff members and underwent criticism by hard-line Communists. Soon Gorbachev also began to criticize Yeltsin. In 1987 Gorbachev removed Yeltsin from his highranking party positions. Yeltsin became a harsh critic of Gorbachev and advocated a slow pace of reform, which became a hallmark of his later policies. This was an effort to counter Gorbachev’s favoring of a decentralization of power to create hurried reform. In response, Yeltsin was demoted. He vented in the Congress of People’s Deputies, a parliamentary body established by Gorbachev. Yeltsin’s detractors attempted to undermine his integrity, accusing him of being heavily intoxicated in public.
Growing dissatisfaction with the Soviet system made men who opposed it, such as Yeltsin, popular. In 1989 Yeltsin ascended to the Congress of People’s Deputies as delegate from the Moscow district and gained a seat on the Supreme Soviet. In 1990 Yeltsin became chairman of the Supreme Soviet of the Russian Soviet Federated Socialist Republic (RSFSR). In June 1990 the Congress of People’s Deputies of the RSFSR adopted a declaration of sovereignty. Soon after, Yeltsin resigned from the CPSU. During the 1991 democratic presidential elections, Yeltsin won 57 percent of the vote. In August 1991 hard-line Communists launched a coup against Gorbachev, who was held in the Crimea. Yeltsin returned to his presidential office in Moscow, which was surrounded by troops, to deal with the coup. From a tank turret, Yeltsin made a rousing speech that rallied the troops to defect in the face of mass popular demonstrations. The leaders of the coup were dispersed; Yeltsin emerged a national hero.
Gorbachev returned to power with diminished authority. Throughout 1991 the Russian government continued to take over the Soviet Union government. In November, Yeltsin banned the CPSU in the RSFSR. In December, Yeltsin met with the presidents of Ukraine and Belarus to discuss the Soviet Union’s dissolution and its replacement with a voluntary Commonwealth of Independent States. On December 24 the Russian federation took the Soviet Union’s place in the United Nations. The next day, Gorbachev declared that the Soviet Union would cease to exist.
Despite the Soviet system’s collapse, its vestiges remained. The Supreme Soviet contained many opposed to Yeltsin’s policies, and local elites collaborated with criminal organizations. Yeltsin bypassed the Supreme Soviet and deliberated policy with his own inner circle. Throughout 1992 Yeltsin attempted to implement economic reforms by decree and declined to hold new elections. In January, Yeltsin removed state control over the prices of most goods, thereby reintroducing a capitalist system and stabilizing currency. The administrative elite of the Soviet era retained control of factories, shops, offices, and farms. Consequently they retarded implementation of Yeltsin’s reforms. Lobbyist groups pressured Yeltsin, who granted a concession continuing governmental subsidies and guarantees that the denationalization of companies would not hinder directors’ and workers’ immediate interests. To appease his detractors, Yeltsin appointed their candidates to some key positions. In the face of skyrocketing inflation Yeltsin fired his premier and replaced him with Viktor Chernomyrdin, who introduced limits on profit rates for several goods.
Popular disenchantment with Yeltsin increased, and the country descended into crisis. Many farmers went unpaid for deliveries to state purchasing agents, and industrial production declined. Crime continued to grow. Several Russian republics rebelled. Yeltsin reasserted central authority, enacting a no-tolerance policy toward separatist movements to maintain the Russian state’s integrity during the implementation of reforms.
Yeltsin maneuvered around cabinet members appointed to appease the opposition. He had inherited a constitution enabling the Congress of People’s Deputies to intervene in any organ’s jurisdiction. Former Communist elites in positions of power were concerned with securing their dominance and engaged in a power struggle with Yeltsin. In April 1993 Congress unsuccessfully attempted Yeltsin’s impeachment. In response, Yeltsin held a national referendum concerning popular trust in his socioeconomic policies. The results encouraged Yeltsin, who dissolved the Russian parliament in September. Some of Yeltsin’s detractors barricaded themselves in the parliament building; Yeltsin ordered the seizure of the building and their forced removal and arrest. Yeltsin briefly declared a state of emergency. In December new elections were held under limited censorship, and Yeltsin initiated a new constitution increasing presidential authority. Yeltsin reappointed his favored cabinet and quickly implemented reforms. He continued to position his supporters as provincial governors. Russia’s inability to establish a stable multiparty system gave Yeltsin freedom to maneuver. In late 1993 remaining price controls were lifted, and privatization continued. By 1994, however, Yeltsin realized that economic reform was happening too fast, and conditions were improving unevenly throughout the country.
Yeltsin’s politics verged on opportunism. Following the nationalists’ success in the 1993 elections, Yeltsin pursued nationalist policies. Following the Communists’ success in 1995, Yeltsin adopted Communist policies. In December 1994 Yeltsin ordered Russian troops into the breakaway republic of Ichkeria. His military campaigns were unsuccessful and unpopular, damaging his political reputation and his image as protector of Russia’s integrity. In 1995 Yeltsin suffered a heart attack. In 1996 he narrowly won the presidency in the face of a Communist resurgence resulting from disillusionment with democracy. Yeltsin became increasingly unstable, and his alcohol consumption mounted. He resumed his economic reforms and reduced the budget deficit. However, Yeltsin did little to curb the corrupt practices carried out by his administration. That same year Yeltsin announced Russia’s default on its debts; financial markets panicked; and Russia’s currency collapsed. In 1999 Yeltsin again fired his entire cabinet. His approval rating plummeting, Yeltsin resigned as president in favor of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.
See also Soviet Union, dissolution of the.