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Excerpts from the JRL E-Mail Community :: Founded and Edited by David Johnson

Democratic hero or drunken buffoon?

Boris Yeltsin and George H. W. BushRussia is putting out the flags for Boris Yeltsin today to mark the 80th anniversary of his birth. With President Dmitry Medvedev unveiling a monument to his predecessor in Yekaterinburg and a large-scale photo-exhibition in Moscow chronicling Russia's faltering steps away from Communism in the 1990s, the country's first president is firmly back on the agenda.

But his controversial career spanned highs and lows as he went from Communist apparatchik to world leader ­ and saw his reputation crash land in Ireland after failing to attend a meeting with PM Albert Reynolds at Shannon airport.

Making history ­ and demolishing it

Early in his political career Yeltsin was responsible for demolishing the Ipatiev House in Sverdlovsk (now Yekaterinburg) and replacing the site of the Tsar's execution with a government building. He later insisted this was under orders from the Kremlin and was ultimately rewarded by being put in charge of Moscow in 1985.

There he began agitating for faster reforms under Gorbachev and perestroika and despite his dismissal from the Moscow job in 1987 he went on to become president of the Russian Soviet Federal Socialist Republic in 1991.

Saving the White House

Barely a month after taking up that post, Yeltsin faced political crisis as communist hardliners staged a coup. In a single defining image, he stop on the turret of a tank outside Moscow's White House to defy the August 1991 putsch, cementing him as a standard bearer for democracy.

It was a decisive moment in his personal battle for control with Gorbachev, and paved the way for Yeltsin's historic meeting with his counterparts from Ukraine and Belarus which dissolved the USSR.

Shelling the White House

As Russia's first post-Soviet president, Yeltsin's honeymoon period was brief. And when matters came to a head in the 1993 constitutional crisis tanks circled the White House once again.

But this time Yeltsin the valiant defender became Yeltsin the assailant, ordering his rebellious parliament to be shelled into submission in October as thousands took to the streets to protest against economic collapse.

Shock therapy

The protests were sparked by Yeltsin's determination to transform Russia into a capitalist state overnight, replacing the lumbering Soviet model with an unfettered free market.

Following advice from the IMF and the World Bank, he and deputy Yegor Gaidar imposed a "shock therapy" package of radical reform.

But a cocktail of tax and welfare cuts, allied to reductions in subsidies to industries which had been state-owned for decades, prompted hyperinflation, wiped out personal savings and precipitated an economic downturn which some economists rated as worse than the Great Depression of the 1930s.

Later in his presidency, in 1998, Russia defaulted on its debts prompting the rouble to collapse.


Trouble at home was joined by trouble in the North Caucasus, with Yeltsin launching a full-scale military onslaught to suppress Chechen nationalists.

In 1994 the army was sent in to regain control of the region, and after two years of devastating conflict a peace agreement gave a shattered Chechnya greater autonomy but stopped short of full independence.

However the tensions in the region have continued to smoulder, and the final days of Yeltsin's presidency were marked by terrorist attacks in Moscow.

Drunken disorder

Rumours about Yeltsin's drink problems circulated early in his career during his first clashes with Gorbachev in the 80s.

But it was his failure to leave his plane for a scheduled meeting with Irish PM Albert Reynolds in 1993 which shocked the world.

The Irish delegation was left waiting on the tarmac at Shannon airport as it became clear that Yeltsin would be unable to attend the planned session, and while officially Yeltsin was declared as too ill rumours persisted that he was simply too drunk.

Beating the band

In 1994, after lunching with Germany's Helmut Kohl, Yeltsin took charge of a police orchestra which was serenading the VIPs.

Snatching the baton from the conductor, he pretended to lead the performance while blowing kisses at the crowd.

Launching Putin

Uniquely among Russian leaders, Yeltsin resigned from office and effected a smooth handover of power ­ to the then little-known Vladimir Putin.

The president's surprise departure from office on Dec. 31 1999 saw Putin step up to become acting president before winning the election in March 2000.

Putin, who was a little-known figure outside of St. Petersburg prior to his rapid rise to the post of Prime Minister in Aug. 1999.

But once in the corridors of power he went on to become the top figure of the subsequent decade, serving as president until 2008 and returning to his current post of prime minister following the end of that term.

Anyone for tennis?

Aside from politics, Yeltsin was an enthusiastic fan of tennis ­ and under his guidance the sport blossomed in Russia.

Tennis had been frowned upon as individualistic by the Communists, but the emergence of Anna Kournikova transformed perceptions of Russian sportswomen.

And in his retirement from politics Yeltsin remained a passionate follower of Russia's aces, dancing with glee alongside the Davis Cup winning teams of 2002 and 2006.

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