MOSCOW – Boris Yeltsin, who kicked the props out from under the tottering Soviet empire and then struggled to build a nation from its wreckage, died Monday after seeing many of his democratic reforms rolled back. The former Russian president was 76.
Larger than life during his tenure, Yeltsin shrank from public view following his retirement on New Year’s Eve 1999, and in recent years has rarely given interviews. But the big, bumptious politician with the soft pink features and wave of white hair could be seen again Monday in file footage on Russian television.
President Vladimir Putin spoke to the nation four hours after the announcement of Yeltsin’s death to praise briefly Russia’s first freely elected president as a man “thanks to whom a whole new epoch has started.”
“New democratic Russia was born, a free state open to the world; a state in which power truly belongs to the people,” Putin said.
Yeltsin will be buried Wednesday in Moscow’s historic Novodevichy cemetery, the resting place of such diverse figures as writer Anton Chekhov and former Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev. Putin postponed his annual state of the state address from Wednesday to Thursday in deference.
Yeltsin was, according to Andrew Kuchins of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, “a revolutionary leader at a revolutionary moment,” a reformer who battled the Communist Party from the inside, an exultant wrecker of the U.S.S.R.’s totalitarian regime.
But as president of Russia, he seemed too willing to use force, too tolerant of corruption, too eager to trust his gut – even when it led to disaster.
He stood on top of a tank during the 1991 coup attempt by Communist hard-liners like a big game hunter celebrating his kill, but two years later, he ordered tanks to shell upstart members of parliament. He broke up the old Soviet Union, but then invaded Chechnya when the region joined the rush for independence.
He abolished the old KGB, but then named a KGB veteran – Putin – as his heir apparent.
But what angered many Russians was how Yeltsin the crusader against Soviet corruption presided over a fire sale of state-owned industries to Kremlin insiders, a move which created a small cadre of Russian billionaires overnight.
Meanwhile, during his tenure, many ordinary Russian citizens saw their savings wiped out, their jobs evaporate, the society their parents and grandparents had created disintegrate.
“He was one of us,” said Galina Alexandrovna, a Moscow resident, recalling the heady days after the Soviet collapse. “When we elected him, we all shouted, ‘Hurrah for Boris Yeltsin,’ but then Russia started selling itself off and we the simple people didn’t like what was happening.”
Mikhail Gorbachev, the last Soviet president, eulogized Yeltsin – both a comrade and a nemesis – as one “on whose shoulders are both great deeds for the country and serious errors,” according to the news agency Interfax.
Perhaps frustrated by Russia’s stumbling out of the gate after the Soviet era, Yeltsin increasingly concentrated power in his own hands – and finally handed the president’s enormous powers over to Putin, whose loyalty impressed Yeltsin.
After Putin took power, he was careful to cultivate the image of the anti-Yeltsin.