Yeltsin, Pivotal Figure for New Russia, Dies at 76

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Boris Yeltsin, the Russian leader who defied Red Army tanks and helped bring about the end of the Soviet Union, has died at age 76. He served as the freely elected president of Russia for nine years.


From the studios of NPR West, this is DAY TO DAY. I'm Alex Chadwick.


And I'm Alex Cohen.

Coming up: from the campus of Virginia Tech, a solemn day of return. We'll hear from NPR's Noah Adams who's there.

CHADWICK: First, the life and death of Boris Yeltsin. The Kremlin says the former Russian leader has died. He was 76. Even in Russia, a land full of story and character, Boris Yeltsin seemed impossible, crude, cunning, charismatic and in the crucial moment, more courageous and capable than anyone.

President BORIS YELTSIN (Russian Federation): (Russian spoken)

CHADWICK: He was already president of Russia within the then Soviet Union in August of 1991, when communist military leaders sent army units to surround the Parliament. Crowds gathered suddenly, Yeltsin among them, and he climbed onto a tank.

President YELTSIN: (Through translator) I'm a fighter by character, and I began to fight the system.

CHADWICK: With the power of his person, with the hope he inspired among Russians, Boris Yeltsin turned aside the coup. Months later, he dissolved the Soviet Union, and Russia was Russian again.

NPR's Michele Kelemen covered the latter parts of Mr. Yeltsin's presidency. She's here with us now from Washington, D.C. Michele, what more do we know about the circumstances of Boris Yeltsin's death?

MICHELE KELEMEN: Well, there are reports that is was heart failure, and that's not surprising given his history of heart attacks and bypass surgeries that he's had over the years.

CHADWICK: And where has he been in recent years? Because we haven't seen him, have we?

KELEMEN: No, not really. I mean, you know, when Yeltsin left the public scene in that - such a dramatic way, it was New Year's Eve 1999. He said he was retiring, and after that he really left. I mean, he lived in a government dacha, which is a country house outside Moscow, and he rarely appeared in public.

CHADWICK: So, how do you think Russians are going to remember this guy? He came to power - he had been a sort of a deputy to Gorbachev, the Soviet reformer. Gorbachev kind of seemed to have almost a failure of personality in some way, and suddenly, Yeltsin is the guy.

KELEMEN: Well, they had a very rocky relationship. Gorbachev brought Yeltsin to Moscow to become the mayor of Moscow, and then they had a very tense relationship ever since then. I mean, Yeltsin was this very contradictory figure. He was viewed around the world as this Democrat by standing up to the coup, as you mentioned, in 1999, and dissolving the former Soviet Union.

He pushed for market reforms, and at least in the early years, there was quite a vibrant free press. But all those sort of free-wheeling days - if we can described it as that - feel very distant now. The economic reforms impoverished many Russians, made him very unpopular. So in many ways, Russians are going to see him as someone who destroyed things rather than building Russia up.

And as for his Democratic credentials, they really began to disappear after a constitutional crisis in 1993. Yeltsin ended it by calling in the tanks. He imposed a new constitution that had strong presidential powers, and the war in Chechnya was also a black mark on his record.

CHADWICK: And there were these constant references to his personal failings. He seemed to be a drunk in his latter days in office.

KELEMEN: He was very erratic. You might remember a time when he was trying to conduct an orchestra in Berlin, in Germany, and he was considered - believed to be drunk at that time. He didn't get off a plane once when he was visiting Ireland. I think many Americans are going to remember that sort of erratic behavior for sure.

CHADWICK: NPR's Michele Kelemen with us from Washington. Michele, thank you.

KELEMEN: You're welcome.

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