April 23, 2007 — -- 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.
Yeltsin dropped out of public view for a time at the end of his successful re-election bid, one of many times that his shaky health intersected with his political career.
In 1987, after his dismissal from the Politburo, he was hospitalized with head and chest pains. In 1994, he suffered from a "cold" that kept him away from his offices for two weeks. He suffered heart attacks in 1995. In June 1996, when he disappeared for a week from the campaign trail, officials said he was under the weather but it later emerged that he had suffered another heart attack. In November 1996, he had quintuple bypass surgery.
There also were reports he was a heavy drinker, fueled by a series of missed appointments and last-minute cancellations with world leaders, and sometimes-erratic behavior. In his 2000 memoir, entitled "Midnight Diaries" in America and "The Presidential Marathon" in Russia, Yeltsin admitted he was drunk on numerous occasions, including when he grabbed a baton and conducted a military orchestra in Berlin in 1994. He wrote, "Fairly early on, I concluded that alcohol was the only means to quickly get rid of stress." He claimed that after years of sometimes heavy drinking he was by then limiting himself to a glass of wine a day on doctor's orders.
His health woes appeared to accelerate during his final years in office. In 1995, a spokesman said he had high blood pressure. In 1997, he was hospitalized for double pneumonia. In 1998, he checked into a sanitarium, reportedly because of a blood pressure problem. Later that year, he was hospitalized for pneumonia.
In January 1999, he was back in the hospital with an acute stomach ulcer, and in November 1999, he was rushed to the hospital when doctors treating his acute bronchitis feared he was developing pneumonia again. He was back in the hospital in January 2001 with what aides said was an acute viral infection.
Like his health, Yeltsin's grip on power grew shakier during his second term as Russian president. The country remained saddled with an industrial base apparently incapable of producing much and stubbornly resistant to reform.
In August 1998, Yeltsin emerged from seclusion with a whirlwind of activity, fired his longtime Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin and put youthful Western-style economist Sergei Kiriyenko in his place. Over 17 months, he would change prime ministers five times.
In August 1999, he settled on the little-known Vladimir Putin, who had been a spy during the Cold War. He had been head of the KGB's main successor service, the Federal Security Service, and secretary of the presidential Security Council, the powerful advisory body that coordinates the activities of Russia's armed forces, security agencies and police.
Finally, on the last day of 1999, Yeltsin gave the world one last shocker -- his resignation. He said it was time for new leaders to take over, and named Putin as his successor.
After stepping down, Yeltsin retired to a country estate, published a new volume of memoirs, and said he was adjusting to his departure from the limelight.
"For me, the year was not so difficult," Yeltsin said in a documentary aired in Russia a year after he left office, according to the Reuters news service. "I thought it would be more difficult. But what with the book, the various councils I gave, telephone calls, it went by, it went by… and then it had gone, and I almost didn't notice it."