Boris Yeltsin, the former president of Russia who once stood atop a tank in Moscow and spoke defiantly against a conservative coup, has died, according to a Kremlin spokesperson. He was 76.
Yeltsin, a former communist who renounced his party membership, consolidated his power on a platform of populist and capitalist reform. He helped engineer the final collapse of the Soviet Union and pushed Russia to embrace democracy and a market economy.
However, a series of health, political, economic and management crises undermined his popularity, and in a surprise announcement he resigned from office on Dec. 31, 1999.
"Russia must enter the new millennium with new politicians, new faces, new intelligent, strong and energetic people," he said in his resignation speech. "Seeing with… hope and belief … a new generation of politicians, I understood that I had done the main job of my life. Russia will never return to the past. Russia will now always be moving forward. I must not stand in its way, in the way of the natural progress of history."
Yeltsin was born Boris Nikolayevich Yeltsin on Feb. 1, 1931, in the village of Butka in Siberia. He graduated in 1955 from Urals Polytechnical Institute with a major in civil construction engineering. He married Naina Iosifovna Girina, his college sweetheart, in 1956, and they soon had two daughters -- Yalena and Tatyana.
Yeltsin joined the Communist Party in 1961. In 1968, he began working for the party in Sverdlovsk and became chief of the local committee's construction department. He was first secretary of the local committee by 1976, a member of the Communist Party's Central Committee by 1981, head of the Moscow city committee by 1985, and a non-voting member of the Soviet Politburo by 1986.
In 1987, Yeltsin resigned from the Communist Party Central Committee, publicly criticized Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and Gorbachev's wife, and was demoted to deputy minister for construction.
However, Yeltsin's public criticism of the slow pace of reform under Gorbachev helped fuel his popularity, and he won overwhelming backing from voters in 1989 in the first multiple candidate parliamentary elections in Soviet history. In May 1990, the Soviet Parliament chose Yeltsin as president of the Soviet Union's Russian republic, and he won the presidency of Russia in June 1991 in the republic's first contested election for the post.
Yeltsin had quit the Communist Party acrimoniously in 1990, and one of the enduring moments in his political career came when he climbed atop a tank in front of the Russian White House in 1991 and called on the Russian people to resist hard-line coup-plotters and return the more reform-minded Gorbachev to power.
By the end of 1991, the Soviet Union dissolved, leaving Yeltsin as the top official in Russia. However, Yeltsin's years as president were turbulent ones for Russia, and when he left office just before 2000, many Russians said they were glad to see him go.
During his first term, Yeltsin faced a struggling economy, the unpopular war he started in the breakaway republic of Chechnya, and a restive population increasingly unhappy with him and nostalgic for the glory days of the Soviet Union.
Nevertheless, he emerged from seclusion in the Kremlin, fired a slew of unpopular advisers and beat off Communist rival Gennady Zyuganov in an energetic re-election campaign.