Boris Yeltsin: First President of the Russian Federation

Yeltsin Speaking at Press Conference
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Boris Yeltsin (February 1, 1931 – April 23, 2007) was a Soviet Union politician who became the first president of the Russian Federation at the end of the Cold War. Yeltsin served two terms (July 1991 – December 1999) which were plagued by corruption, instability, and economic collapse, ultimately leading to his resignation. He was succeeded in office by Vladimir Putin.

Boris Yeltsin Fast Facts

  • Full Name: Boris Nikolayevich Yeltsin
  • Known For: First President of the Russian Federation
  • Born: February 1, 1931, in Butka, Russia
  • Died: April 23, 2007, in Moscow, Russia
  • Education: Ural State Technical University in Sverdlovsk, Russia
  • Key Accomplishments: Yeltsin won the first presidential election of the Russian Federation after the fall of the Soviet Union and the resignation of Gorbachev.
  • Spouse's Name: Naina Yeltsina (m. 1956)
  • Children's Names: Yelena and Tatyana

Early and Personal Life

Yeltsin was born in the Russian village of Butka in 1931. Only nine years after the establishment of the Soviet Union, Russia was undergoing a full transition to communism. Many members of Yeltsin’s family, including his father and grandfather, were imprisoned in gulags for being kulaks: wealthy peasants who hindered communism.

Later in his life, Yeltsin attended Ural State Technical University in Sverdlovsk, one of the best technical universities in the Soviet Union, where he studied construction. For much of his time at school, he remained uninvolved in politics.

After graduating in 1955, Yeltsin's degree enabled him to enter the workforce as a project foreman at Lower Iset Construction Directorate, also in Sverdlovsk. However, he refused the position and opted to start as a trainee with lower pay. He believed that starting at an entry level position and working his way up to leadership would earn him more respect. This method proved to be successful, and Yeltsin was quickly and consistently promoted. By 1962, he was chief of the directorate. Just a few years later, he began working for Sverdlovsk House-Building Combine and became its director in 1965.

Political Career

In 1960, the law that prohibited relatives of political prisoners to join the CPSU, Russia's communist party, was reversed. Yeltsin joined the CPSU's ranks that year. Though he stated on many occasions that he joined because he believed in the ideals of communism, he was also required to be a member of the party in order to be promoted to director of the Sverdlovsk House-Building Combine. As with his career, Yeltsin rose rapidly through the ranks of the Communist Party and ultimately became first secretary of the Sverdlovsk Oblast, a major region in the Soviet Union, in 1976.

His political career brought him to Russia’s capital city of Moscow after Mikhail Gorbachev became general secretary of the Soviet Union in 1985. Yeltsin became the head of the Central Committee of the CPSU’s construction and engineering department, then, a few months later, became the Central Committee secretary of construction and engineering. Finally, in December 1985, he was promoted yet again, becoming head of the Moscow branch of the communist party. This position also allowed him to become a member of the Politburo, the policy-making branch of the Communist Party.

On September 10th, 1987, Boris Yeltsin became the first-ever Politburo member to resign. That October during a meeting of the Central Committee, Yeltsin laid out six points from his resignation that no one had previously addressed, emphasizing the ways in which Gorbachev and previous general secretaries had failed. Yeltsin believed that the government was reforming too slowly as the economy had still not turned around, and was, in fact, getting worse in many regions.

After leaving the Politburo, he was elected to the Congress People’s Deputy representing Moscow, then to the Supreme Soviet of the Soviet Union, which were institutions within the government of the Soviet Union, not the Communist Party. After the fall of the Soviet Union and the resignation of Gorbachev, Yeltsin was elected as the first president of the Russian Federation on June 12, 1991.

First Term

In his first term, Yeltsin began to shift the Russian Federation to a market economy, defying the economic and social system that defined the Soviet Union during the decades prior. He lifted price controls and embraced capitalism. However, prices rose substantially and brought the new nation into an even deeper depression.

Later in his term, Yeltsin worked toward nuclear disarmament by signing the START II treaty with George H. W. Bush on January 3, 1993. The treaty stated that the Russian Federation would cut two-thirds of its nuclear weaponry. This treaty increased his unpopularity, with many Russians opposed to what appeared to be a concession of power.

In September 1993, Yeltsin decided to dissolve the existing parliament and give himself broader powers. This move was met with riots in early October, which Yeltsin quelled with an increased military presence. In December after the riots were quelled, the parliament approved a new constitution with greater powers for the president as well as laws which allowed freedom to own private property.

A year later in December 1994, Yeltsin sent groups into the town of Chechnya which had recently declared its independence from the Russian Federation. This invasion changed his portrayal in the West from a democratic savior to an imperialist.

For Yeltsin, 1995 was plagued with health issues, as he suffered heart attacks and other cardiovascular trouble. News stories about his alleged alcohol-dependency had been running for several years. Even with these issues and his declining popularity, Yeltsin declared his intention to run for a second term. On July 3, 1996, he won his second presidential election.

Second Term and Resignation

The first years of Yeltsin's second term were once again plagued with health issues as he faced multiple-bypass heart surgery, double pneumonia, and unstable blood pressure. The lower house of parliament brought impeachment proceedings against him for the conflict in Chechnya, an opposition which was largely led by the still-present communist party.

On December 31, 1999, Boris Yeltsin resigned on Russian television, stating, “Russia must enter the new millennium with new politicians, new faces, new intelligent, strong and energetic people. As for those of us who have been in power for many years, we must go.” He ended his resignation speech with the statement, “You deserve happiness and peace.”

Death and Legacy

After his resignation, Yeltsin stayed uninvolved in politics and continued to suffer heart-related health problems. He died of heart failure on April 23, 2007.

Yeltsin’s downfalls greatly define his legacy as the first president of the Russian Federation. He is remembered for a presidency rife with economic troubles, corruption, and instability. Yeltsin was favored as a politician, but largely disliked as president.

Sources

  • Colton, Timothy J. Yeltsin: a Life. Basic Books, 2011.
  • Minaev, Boris, and Svetlana Payne. Boris Yeltsin: the Decade That Shook the World. Glagoslav Publications, 2015.
  • “Timeline: Former Russian President Boris Yeltsin.” NPR, NPR, 23 Apr. 2007, www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=9774006.In-text CitationComments