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Boris N. Yeltsin, the father of Russian democracy, dies at age 76

Former Russian president Boris Yeltsin in Tokyo on April 1, 2003.
Former Russian president Boris Yeltsin in Tokyo on April 1, 2003. (Chiaki Tsukumo/AFP/Getty Images)

Former president Boris N. Yeltsin, who presided over the dismantling of the Soviet Union and led Russia on its stormy post-communist odyssey, died yesterday at 76, the Kremlin announced. The Interfax news agency said he died from heart failure at a Moscow hospital.

The Kremlin announced that a day of national mourning and the funeral for Mr. Yeltsin will take place on Wednesday.

Mr. Yeltsin, who was Russia's first freely elected leader, profoundly changed the political and economic landscape of the world's largest nation during his tenure of just under nine years. Expansive and unpredictable, he had a flair for the dramatic and a talent for keeping both allies and enemies off balance.

In a single stroke of political genius and courage, he stood on a tank outside the Russian parliament building in August 1991 and faced down the might of the Soviet police state. It was Mr. Yeltsin's single greatest moment, changing the course of history and symbolizing his legendary talent for winning political battles.

But Mr. Yeltsin's achievements were offset by the great failures of his presidency.

While he turned the country that symbolized totalitarian rule in the 20th century toward democracy and free markets, Mr. Yeltsin was unable, or unwilling, to prevent the looting of state industry as it shifted into private hands.

He will also be remembered as the man who led Russia's army into its disastrous campaign to defeat rebels in Chechnya in 1994, and thus as the Kremlin leader responsible for the most deaths of his countrymen since Josef Stalin's Great Terror of the 1930s.

Mikhail Gorbachev, the last Soviet president, summed up the complexity of Yeltsin's legacy shortly after the death was announced. He referred to Yeltsin as one "on whose shoulders are both great deeds for the country and serious errors," according to Interfax.

"Life dictated that our fates crossed,'' Gorbachev said. "Together in important posts, we had to solve problems linked with the changes that were occurring in the country, democratic changes. We were able to do a lot, but we had serious differences.''

Born in 1931 in the Urals region of Sverdlovsk, Mr. Yeltsin became an engineer in the construction trade. In 1961, at the height of Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev's anti-Stalinist political thaw, Mr. Yeltsin became a member of the Communist Party and rose quickly through the ranks. By 1976, Mr. Yeltsin headed the Sverdlovsk regional branch of the Communist Party, a position similar to governor in the United States. There, he gained the reputation of a reformer, which eventually caught the attention in 1985 of Gorbachev, then the newly appointed Soviet leader.

With Gorbachev as his mentor, Yeltsin rose to the post of first secretary of Moscow's Communist Party organization, a job that included membership in the Politburo, the Soviet Union's de facto ruling body. It was as a Politburo member in 1987 that Mr. Yeltsin, spurred by Gorbachev's calls for perestroika (restructuring) and glasnost (openess), began a vocal campaign against corruption and abuse of privilege among party elites.

Party hard-liners quickly moved to oust Mr. Yeltsin from the Politburo and have him removed to an obscure job running construction in Sverdlovsk. That should have been the end of Mr. Yeltsin's career. But in the first of what would be many comebacks, Mr. Yeltsin was soon back in the capital, elected in a landslide a member of the first Soviet parliament in which voters were allowed to choose among candidates.

There, the increasingly popular Mr. Yeltsin began a two-year campaign that saw him quit the Communist Party and eventually rise to become Gorbachev's main rival as the democratically elected leader of the Russian republic within the Soviet Union.

The attempt of hard-line Communists to oust Gorbachev in August 1991 gave Mr. Yeltsin the chance he was waiting for; within a few months after he stood on the tank, Gorbachev was ousted from power and Mr. Yeltsin took office in the Kremlin.

At first, the West was slow to take to Mr. Yeltsin, whose reputation as a heavy drinker and penchant for breaches of protocol contrasted with the urbane, staid Gorbachev. But from 1992 on, Mr. Yeltsin enjoyed unprecedented support in the West for a Kremlin chief, despite moves that would have brought harsh protests during the Cold War.

Two years after his famous stand against a hard-line coup attempt in August 1991, tanks again rumbled to the Russian parliament building in October 1993, this time under Mr. Yeltsin's orders to drive out lawmakers who refused to obey his illegal order to disband.

Over 140 people died in the street fighting that ensued. Mr. Yeltsin emerged triumphant, but democracy in Russia was never the same.

The following year, in 1994, Mr. Yeltsin sent his army into Chechnya, a campaign that resulted in tens of thousands of deaths. A defeated and humiliated Russian army withdrew at the end of 1996, and Russian troops resumed fighting in the breakaway region in fall 1999.

When his presidency was threatened again, by a Communist challenger in 1996 presidential elections, and by heart disease, Western leaders voiced strong support for Mr. Yeltsin and backed it with billions of dollars of economic aid for his government. They were led by President Clinton, who once compared Mr. Yeltsin's efforts in Chechnya to what Abraham Lincoln did for the United States during the Civil War.

From Clinton and the West's point of view, Mr. Yeltsin represented the best chance Russia had for a democratic future. Indeed, under his leadership, Russia pursued membership or partnership with the clubs that the West had created during the Cold War with the intent of isolating Moscow: NATO, the European Union, and the Group of Seven industrial powers. And Mr. Yeltsin pursued close personal relationships with Western leaders, especially Clinton, whom he always referred to as "My Friend Bill."

At the same time, Mr. Yeltsin frequently peppered his speeches with references to Russia's need to reclaim its role as a great nation, and sent his lieutenants on missions in Iraq, the Balkans, and elsewhere that often confounded US efforts. Western observers often dismissed these episodes as part of Yeltsin's need to pay lip service to latent Russian nationalism rather than a sign of inconsistent ideology.

Insiders familiar with Mr. Yeltsin's autocratic leadership style knew that ideology had little to do with it.

"Power is his ideology, his friend, his concubine, his mistress, his passion," former Kremlin spokesman Vyacheslav Kostikov said in 1997. "Everything that goes beyond that, beyond the struggle for power, concerns him much less."

That is one explanation for the failure of Mr. Yeltsin's reforms. Another is that he took little interest in the day-to-day management of his own initiatives.

"Yeltsin is a good revolutionary, but a bad leader," Sergei Markov, a prominent Moscow political analyst, once said of Yeltsin. "He knows how to fight, but he doesn't know how to manage his victories."

A third plausible reason for the disappointments of the Yeltsin presidency is the tragic talent Mr. Yeltsin displayed for planting the seeds of his own destruction.

In 1991, wooing the support of Russian regional leaders, he told them to "grab as much sovereignty as you can swallow." These words later came back to haunt Mr. Yeltsin in Chechnya.

His admitted love for alcohol, which once helped solidify the man-of-the-people image that carried him to power, most likely caused some of the erratic public behavior that aroused shame in his countrymen, and probably contributed to his numerous health woes.

A man who once criticized the doddering Kremlin political elite was widely ridiculed in his laters years in office for a halting walk, a puffy, pasty complexion, and a slurred way of speaking that led to rumors of heart troubles, stroke, Alzheimer's disease, or a combination of the three.

But even as Mr. Yeltsin's political weakness brought louder and bolder calls for his removal, no one dared try to dislodge him from the Kremlin by force.

The mercurial Mr. Yeltsin even stunned Russians with his exit. On Dec. 31, 1999, he announced his resignation more than three months before his second term expired. He named Vladimir Putin -- his last prime minister and a former KGB agent -- as his successor.

This report includes material from a Globe article on Jan. 1, 2000, that looked at Boris Yeltsin's legacy. David Filipov was Moscow bureau chief for Globe from 1996 to 2004. Material from the Associated Press was also included in this report.