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, â€˜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. The second Russian president always appears sober, where Yeltsin often was not; Putin is decisive where Yeltsin waffled, firing Cabinet after Cabinet. And Putin appears calculating where Yeltsin could be spontaneous, to the point of being impulsive. Yeltsin's greatest moments, in fact, came during fitful flashes of inspiration and surges of energy. From atop the tank, he led resistance to the attempted coup against Gorbachev in August 1991, and spearheaded the peaceful end of the Soviet state on Dec. 25 of that year. Ill with heart problems, and facing possible defeat by a Communist challenger in his 1996 re-election bid, Yeltsin somehow sprinted through the final weeks of the campaign. The challenge transformed the shaky convalescent into a spry, dancing candidate. When he boogied onstage with two miniskirted women during that campaign, some Russians laughed, while others rolled their eyes. His career, in fact, was often punctuated by bizarre behavior that the public chalked up to drinking. Red-faced pranks, missed appointments, and inarticulate and contradictory public comments were blamed by aides on jet lag, medication or illness. Yeltsin was not one to apologize. "A man must live like a great, bright flame and burn as brightly as he can," Yeltsin has been quoted as saying. "In the end, he burns out. But this is better than a mean, little flame." Boris Nikolayevich Yeltsin was born Feb. 1, 1931, into a peasant family in the Sverdlovsk region of the Ural Mountains. When he was 3, his father was imprisoned in dictator Josef Stalin's purges for allegedly owning property before the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution. As a mischievous child, he lost his thumb and index finger while playing with a stolen grenade. Yeltsin was, by his own account, a garrulous, scrappy boy who loved pranks and sports, and was quick to fight. And from the start, he bucked authority. He was expelled from elementary school for criticizing a teacher at a school assembly. Brash and ambitious, he rose through the ranks of the Communist Party. But he chafed against the party's iron discipline and turned into one of its most determined foes. After he helped bring down the old regime, Yeltsin couldn't be bothered with the tricky matter of governing and was quick to blame subordinates for Russia's multiplying problems. "He brought about the fairly peaceful collapse of the Soviet Union, the dismantling of the Communist Party," Kuchins said. "Then he inherited a large hairball of a job that he wasn't well suited to do on a day-to-day basis." He seemed to be a democrat by instinct, in a nation that had never known democracy. But as the years passed, he increasingly concentrated power in his own hands. And when there was trouble, he frequently resorted to force to quell dissent - claiming only that only harsh measures could keep the country together. He sent tanks and troops in October 1993 to flush armed hard-liners out of a hostile parliament after violence in the streets of Moscow. And in December 1994, Yeltsin launched the first of two of Russia's wars against separatists in the southern republic of Chechnya - conflicts that would turn the Chechen capital of Grozny into a wasteland and cost the lives of tens of thousands. Yeltsin sometimes seemed overwhelmed by his responsibilities. Former Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin said Yeltsin's health never recovered from the stress of trying to steer Russia through some of its darkest hours. "Yeltsin headed the country during the most difficult time and it could not but affect the health of even such a strong man," said Chernomyrdin, now ambassador to Ukraine. Admirers contend that it was the trauma of the U.S.S.R.'s death throes, not Yeltsin's leadership, that brought Russia to the brink. "If not for the strong will of Boris Nikolayevich, we cannot rule out that after Gorbachev, Russia could have plunged - for many, many years or even decades - into civil war," said Vyacheslav Kostikov, a former press secretary. In the final years of his presidency, Yeltsin was dogged by health problems and often seemed out of touch. He retreated regularly to his country residence outside Moscow for weeks at a time. Yet Yeltsin's debut as president was stunning. He laid the foundation for what many hoped would later become a modern democracy - guaranteeing the rights to free speech, private property, multiparty elections, and opening the borders to trade and travel. Though full of bluster, he revealed more of his personal life and private doubts than any previous Russian leader. "The debilitating bouts of depression, the grave second thoughts, the insomnia and headaches in the middle of the night, the tears and despair ... the hurt from people close to me who did not support me at the last minute, who didn't hold up, who deceived me - I have had to bear all of this," he wrote in his 1994 memoir, "The Struggle for Russia." Yeltsin pushed through free-market reforms, creating a private sector and allowing foreign investment. In foreign policy, he assured independence for Russia's Soviet-era satellites, oversaw troop and arms reductions, and warmly embraced Western leaders. Throughout his nearly decade-long leadership, he remained Russia's strongest bulwark against Communism. "What set him apart was that he very often defeated his opponents, but he never trampled on them," said Grigory Yavlinsky, the head of Russia's liberal Yabloko party, which under Putin has been marginalized. "He would knock an opponent off his horse, but never destroy him. In his time there were many shortcomings and even crimes, but ... there was never any physical removal of political opponents in Russia, and that was his personal contribution." But there was another Yeltsin. He was hesitant to act against rampant crime and epic corruption - beginning in his own administration - as both sapped public faith and crippled the young democracy. Millions were impoverished when wages and pensions went unpaid for months. In the course of the Yeltsin era, per capita income fell by a staggering 75 percent, and the nation's population fell by more than 2 million. Vodka consumption soared. Yeltsin was a master of Kremlin intrigues, firing the entire government four times in 1998 and 1999. The economy sank into a deep recession in summer 1998, but Yeltsin rarely commented on the troubles and never offered a plan to combat them. While he seemed to lurch from policy to policy, he seemed steadfast in his determination to hold onto power. He easily faced down an impeachment attempt by the Communist-dominated lower chamber of parliament in May 1999. In foreign affairs, he struggled to preserve a role for Russia, which for centuries had defined itself as one of the great world powers. But he also struggled to preserve a role for the former superpower to offset U.S. global clout, and in 1999, he sent Russian troops to Kosovo - ahead of NATO peacekeepers - to show that Moscow would not be elbowed out of European affairs. He wrangled with the West over NATO expansion and Russia's close relations with Iran and Iraq. But as Russia's political and economic might withered, Yeltsin had little to offer other nations. In recent years, Yeltsin seldom discussed his legacy. He criticized Putin only rarely - once, in 2000, for a decision to revive the old Soviet anthem, and again in 2004, when Putin said he would end the direct election of governors. In both cases, Yeltsin's one-time protege dismantled some of his mentor's reforms. Boris Nemtsov, a leader of the liberal Union of Right Forces, noted that Yeltsin "loved freedom" and in the end protected the free press and Russia's multiparty democracy. "All these achievements are now being destroyed, and I would say destroyed cruelly and mercilessly," he told Echo Moskvy radio. "I think the best way to remember Yeltsin would be if we return freedom to our country." Just last year, though, Yeltsin defended his choice of Putin, telling the newsweekly Itogi that without a "strong hand," Russia would have disintegrated. Yeltsin is survived by his wife, Naina, two daughters and several grandchildren. (AP) Associated Press writers Jim Heintz, Mike Eckel and Steve Gutterman in Moscow and Natasha Lisova in Kiev, Ukraine, contributed to this report. AP-CS-04-23-07 1713EDT
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