February 20, 2001

End of an Era

End of an Era

Boris Nikolayevich Yeltsin was born on February 1, 1931, in the little village of Butka, Talitsky district of Sverdlovsk oblast. Hailing from peasant stock, his father, Nikolai, was a laborer who served three years in Stalin's Gulag (1934 - 37) for, alleged, anti-Communist sentiments. Yeltsin's mother, Klavdiya, did sewing to make extra money for the family.

Boris YeltsinYeltsin grew up in a harsh environment and poverty. Always a strong and determined individual, he was once expelled from school for fighting with one of his teachers. When Yeltsin was 11 years old, Yeltsin lost his left thumb and forefinger when he attempted to take apart a grenade he and some friends had stolen from a warehouse. Yetlsin graduated from Pushkin High School in Perm region and continued on to college.

Yeltsin earned an engineering degree in civil construction, in 1955, from Kirov Polytechnic Institute. While attending the Institute, he met his future wife, Naina Girina. They have two daughters; Yelena, who was born in 1957 and Tatyana born in 1959. From 1955 to 1968, Yeltsin worked as a construction engineer.

Poster of the Communist Party of RussiaIn his youth, Yeltsin was considered a radical. He joined the Communist party in 1961, at age 30. This was during the years of Nikita Khrushchev's anti-Stalin reforms.Yelstin became the secretary of the Sverdlovsk oblast's Communist Party in 1968.

Yeltsin was on his way to a career in politics and served in the following offices:
1976 - 1985: member of the Presidium USSR Supreme Soviet and moved his family to Moscow.
1985 - 1987: First secretary, Moscow City Party Committee
1987 - 1989: First deputy chairman, State Construction Committee
1989: elected to the Congress of People’s Deputies
1990: Speaker of the Congress
1991: President, Russian Republic
1996: Elected to second term as President
1999: Resigned presidency on Dec. 31st. 1991

Yeltsin was very outspoken against President Gorbachev's reforms as being too slow. He led the resistance, during the coup of August, 1991, and reminded many of Lenin as he struck a pose atop a tank to deliver his speech to the crowds of people.

It was Mikhail Gorbachev who appointed Yeltsin as first secretary of the Moscow City Party Committee, in 1985. Yeltsin became an active and outspoken reformer, working diligently against the old guard of the party. He arrested corrupt officials, spoke out against the propaganda of state run television and advocated the abolishment of special perks reserved only for the select few. Presenting himself as a peoples' leader, Yeltsin traveled Moscow by public bus, would show up unexpectedly at factories and shops and promoted historic preservation.

Yeltsin soon gained enemies. Sentiment from the establishment, Gorbachev against him, was further fueled by Yeltsin's frustration with the slow and, in his opinion, overly cautious pace of Gorbachev's perestroika reforms. On October 21, 1987, Yeltsin surprised the party, and the nation, by resigning. This action brought a harsh and public reprimand from Gorbachev which lowered public opinion of the latter and the motives behind his reform efforts. The people saw Yelstin as embodying perestroika more so than Gorbachev. This sentiment led to a surprising outburst of public protest and riots. Silenced by the Soviet state run media, Yeltsin turned to the international press, who were more than glad to air his comments on the corruption of the Communist party.

Yeltsin left the Communist party in 1990 when he was elected speaker of the Supreme Soviet of the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic. He became the first elected president of the Russian Federation on June 12, 1991. Later that year, he spearheaded the formation of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS); December 8, 1991. This broke up the former Soviet Union into 15 independent states, including Russia.

The original goal of the CIS was to form a common defense system, currency and a free-trade zone. At the same time, each republic's borders and unique sovereignty were to be acknowledged and upheld. The CIS soon found that it was unable to control conflicts among its membership including the restoration of its numerous displaced people. By the end of 1993, each state had established its own military and most had created its own currencies.

Countless problems and unfulfilled expectations plagued Yeltsin as the first elected leader of the newly independent Russian democracy. His attempts at drastic reforms, which were to transform Russia into a prosperous market based economy, were met with public disapproval.

The Russian military was a mere shadow of its former self. Thus, the war in Chechnya (1994), which lasted longer than planned, resulted in high Russian casualties and an eventual retreat in 1997. Moscow and Washington were in opposition regarding the Bosnian civil war and, later, the crisis in Kosovo (1999). This strained the fragile, post Cold War relationship between Russia and the U.S. Yeltsin refused, in both incidences, to allow Russia troops to fall under NATO command. The Soviet era distrust, of the eastward expansion of NATO into former Soviet regions, is a sentiment shared by Yelstin and the people, alike.

Despite all, Yeltsin was re-elected to the presidency; after a run-off with Communist-nationalist, Gennady Zyuganov; in 1996. His health was failing due to stress and, according to popular opinion, heavy drinking. He had two heart attacks which led to quintuple heart bypass surgery in November of 1996. The operation was performed by renowned American surgeon, Dr. Michael DeBakey. This was followed by a bout with pneumonia, in January of 1997.

Yeltsin seemed to rally, ousting his top government officials a total of three times between March, 1998 and August, 1999. This led to the constitutionally mandated special Duma election on December 19, 1999. The formerly Communist dominated Duma now has a majority of seats held by the combined four centrist party members. The last year of Yeltsin's administration saw the signing of long awaited border accords with China and the merger between Russia and Belarus.

With characteristic flare for the dramatic and unexpected, President Boris Yeltsin, at age 68, resigned as president of the Russian Federation on December 31, 1999, roughly six months before the end of his term. Russia, plagued with political upheaval and ongoing economic crisis, has a new Duma, a new acting president and another election to prepare for.

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