Along with perestroika, Gorbachev also promoted a new spirit of openness, or glasnost, which meant more freedom of expression, including the right of Soviet citizens to criticize the Communist Party. Many Soviets interpreted these changes as a welcome shift toward freedom and democracy. But no one in the Soviet Union could have foreseen the far-reaching challenge to Communist Party rule brought on by a civil engineer from the Ural Mountains named Boris Yeltsin.
"A Little Bit of a Hooligan"
Boris Nikolayevich Yeltsin was born on February 1, 1931, at the beginning of a period of famine and brutal dictatorship under Joseph Stalin. Facing starvation, Yeltsin's peasant family moved from a collective farm to a construction site where his father worked as a laborer.
Yeltsin grew up in a tough neighborhood near Sverdlovsk, a major city about 1,000 miles east of Moscow. He was always getting into fights and trouble. In his own words, he was "a bit of a hooligan." At age 11, he stole a hand grenade from an army storehouse. When he tried to take the grenade apart, it exploded, and he lost the forefinger and thumb of his left hand.
Despite his reputation as a roughneck, Yeltsin earned high marks in school and excelled in several sports, especially volleyball. At his elementary-school graduation ceremony, he spoke out against a particularly cruel teacher. The school board then denied his promotion to secondary school. But he personally appealed his case to the local Communist Party committee and won the right to continue his education.
A Party Boss
After attending secondary school, Yeltsin studied civil engineering at the Urals Polytechnic Institute in Sverdlovsk. He did well in his studies and also played on the city's volleyball team. After graduating in 1955, he supervised many construction projects and became well-known as an efficient and hard-working manager. He found himself in frequent disagreement, however, with Communist Party bureaucrats known in the Soviet Union as "apparatchiks."
Yeltsin married Naya (Anastasia) Girina, a civil engineer whom he first met at the Polytechnic Institute. The Yeltsins became the parents of two daughters, Lena and Tanya.
Membership in the Communist Party was required for any significant advancement in Soviet society. Yelsin joined the Communist Party in 1961. By 1968, he was a full-time party official, and in 1976 he was appointed first secretary of the Sverdlovsk district. "In those days," he wrote in his autobiography, "a provincial first secretary of the party was a god, a czar—master of his province—and on virtually any issue the first secretary's opinion was final."
In this position, Yeltsin first met Gorbachev. Gorbachev was the Communist Party's first secretary at Stavropol in the Caucasus region, about 700 miles south of Moscow. When Gorbachev became the general secretary of the Communist Party (and leader of the Soviet Union) in 1985, he brought Yeltsin to Moscow to become head of state construction. Within a few months, again with Gorbachev's backing, Yeltsin was appointed chairman of the Moscow Committee of the Communist Party, a position akin to being mayor of the city. Gorbachev wanted him to clean up the corruption in Moscow's local government.
Yeltsin took his new assignment very seriously. He made unannounced visits to government-operated stores where he learned about skimming practices, bribery, and kickbacks. He discovered secret deliveries of top-quality meat and other goods to Communist Party officials. He observed long lines of ordinary customers who often ended up being overcharged for the few available items.
Yeltsin proceeded to fire hundreds of apparatchiks, Communist Party bureaucrats, who were participating in the widespread corruption. Yeltsin wanted to go further, but he said in his autobiography that Gorbachev disapproved. "Most of all," Yeltsin wrote, "[Gorbachev] was afraid of laying hands on the party's bureaucratic machine, that holy of holiest of our system."
In 1986, Yeltsin was appointed a non-voting member of the Communist Party Politburo, the real center of power in the Soviet Union. As a member of the Politburo, Yeltsin soon clashed with those trying to slow down Gorbachev's perestroika program. Yeltsin criticized the special privileges enjoyed by Communist Party officials. These privileges included special stores, exclusive medical facilities, and even dachas, country villas that were available only to the party elite.
To make his point, Yeltsin began riding city subways and buses rather than his chauffeured limousine. He went to neighborhood clinics for his medical needs and turned down a palatial dacha (once used by Gorbachev). Yeltsin's outspoken criticism of Communist Party corruption made him very popular with the people of Moscow.
The Break With Gorbachev
By the fall of 1987, Yeltsin had concluded that the leadership of the Communist Party was unwilling to make the radical changes necessary to make the country work. This included a much faster shift to a free-market economy unhindered by Communist Party apparatchiks. Yeltsin placed much of the blame for what he perceived as the shortcomings of perestroika on Gorbachev himself. According to Yeltsin, Gorbachev never worked out a systematic blueprint for his reform program. But the Soviet leader's main weakness, in Yeltsin's view, was a "fear of taking the decisive but difficult steps that are needed."
At a meeting of the Communist Party's Central Committee on October 21, 1987, Yeltsin announced his resignation from the Moscow Committee and the Politburo but not before once again blasting the party and its leadership. He was then forced to endure months of scathing attacks from Gorbachev and other party leaders. But Gorbachev finally reassigned Yeltsin as first deputy chairman of state construction (a demotion, but in Stalin's day he would have been shot).
Although Yeltsin was a "non-person" in the eyes of Communist Party leaders, the people of Moscow had not forgotten him. Early in 1989, Muscovites insisted that local party officials place Yeltsin's name on a list of candidates for election to the Congress of People's Deputies. The Congress was to be made up of representatives chosen by Soviet voters. It would be the first competitive elections since the Russian Revolution of 1917, when the Communist Party took control of the country. From the 2,250 deputies elected to the Congress, nearly 600 would be selected as members of the Supreme Soviet, the national legislature of the Soviet Union.
On March 26, 1989, Yeltsin won 89 percent of the vote in his Moscow district, defeating the handpicked candidate of the Communist Party (and of Gorbachev). When the Congress of Deputies met in May, party leaders blocked Yeltsin from becoming a member of the Supreme Soviet. But a reformist deputy gave up his seat in favor of Yeltsin. Later, the deputies, still largely controlled by the Communist Party, chose Gorbachev as president of the Supreme Soviet (in effect, president of the Soviet Union).
Yeltsin helped form a group of reformist deputies who demanded eliminating a provision in the Soviet constitution making the Communist Party the only legal political party in the country. Under this provision, Communist Party bosses would nominate all candidates for elected offices. The provision was removed in 1990 with Gorbachev's consent.
The First Elected Leader
In June 1990, Yeltsin was nominated for president of the legislature of the Russian republic, the largest and most important of the Soviet Union's 15 republics (comparable to states of the United States). Yeltsin won, but only barely, after a bitter fight between his supporters and Communist Party deputies backed by Gorbachev. A month later, Yeltsin resigned from the Communist Party.
As the new leader of the Russian republic, Yeltsin soon began to assert his independence from the national government and Gorbachev. Yeltsin claimed that Russian laws outranked those of the Soviet Union. He pressed for the legalization of privately owned property such as farmland. He argued for a 500-day transition to a free-market economy. Moreover, he charged that Gorbachev's central government was "incapable of managing the country's affairs."
During a TV interview in February 1991, Yeltsin shocked everyone by calling for Gorbachev's immediate resignation. Yeltsin accused Gorbachev of deceiving the people by failing to enact economic reforms and by taking on dictatorial powers. Gorbachev angrily responded that radicals like Yeltsin were leading the country "right up to civil war."
In March, Communist Party leaders demanded Yeltsin's dismissal as president of the Russian legislature. His supporters immediately appealed to the people of Moscow to protest this move in a mass demonstration. Gorbachev countered by asking the Moscow city council to ban the demonstration for the sake of public order. When the council refused, he ordered the Soviet Interior Ministry to take over the city's police power. More than 50,000 troops were ordered into Moscow to enforce the demonstration ban. In spite of the troops, over 100,000 Muscovites peacefully marched to support Yeltsin and to denounce Gorbachev.
Yeltsin beat back the attempt by the Communist Party to remove him from office. He then quickly asked the legislature to schedule an unprecedented special election allowing the people to vote directly for the president of the Russian republic.
Yeltsin faced five opponents for the presidency of Russia. Wherever he went in the sprawling republic, he met large, enthusiastic crowds of supporters. "I believe in the rebirth of Russia," he told them. In his speeches he used a new Russian political term: departizatsiya, which means "departification." This "departification" referred specifically to the Communist Party, which had enjoyed exclusive control in all matters of Soviet politics for so long.
By a 60-percent majority, the voters on election day made Yeltsin the first democratically elected leader in the 1,000-year history of Russia. On July 10, 1991, he was sworn in as the president of the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic. Gorbachev congratulated Yeltsin at a ceremony held in Moscow's Palace of Congresses. Yeltsin would now begin his push for greater Russian independence from the Soviet Union.
The Second Russian Revolution
After intense negotiations, Gorbachev, Yeltsin, and other republic leaders agreed to sign a Treaty of Union granting greater independence to the republics. On August 18, 1991, two days before the treaty was to be signed, apparatchiks opposing the decentralization proposed in the Treaty attempted a coup. Gorbachev, vacationing on the Black Sea, was placed under house arrest.
The apparatchiks had struck at the right moment. The command structure was still centralized: The Treaty of Union had not been signed yet. Gorbachev's popularity had dipped to an all-time low. And he was away from Moscow. A coup in 1964 had toppled Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev while he was vacationing.
The coup should have worked. The apparatchiks, led by senior officials of the Communist Party, KGB (secret police), and army officers, had the force of the traditional power structure behind them. To give the coup a pretence of legality, they enlisted Vice President Gennady Yanayev. Yanayev broadcasted that due to Gorbachev's poor health, Yanayev was taking over as interim president and declaring a state of emergency. Tanks rumbled through the streets of Moscow.
But the apparatchiks had failed to arrest Yeltsin. Yeltsin, standing atop a tank outside the Russian parliament (the White House), gave a speech condemning the coup. He called for a general strike and for civil disobedience. Thousands of people answered his call. They gathered around the White House to protect it from attack. When the order to attack came, the unbelievable happened. The officers refused to obey the order.The 1991 coup unraveled quickly after that. In total, the coup attempt lasted only 72 hours. But when Gorbachev returned to Moscow, he faced a vastly changed power structure. The republics were no longer seeking greater independence from the Soviet Union; they were now declaring their independence. Gorbachev could not appoint new apparatchiks to fill the positions of those involved in the coup: He had to appoint Yeltsin supporters. And he could no longer claim he could reform the Communist Party. Gorbachev announced his resignation from the party and ordered the Central Committee of the Communist Party to disband. Seventy-four years of Communist Party rule were over. The country had experienced a second Russian Revolution.
Russia: Approaching the Millenium
Yeltsin's 11 years of presidency were filled with staggering changes, some positive and others negative. In 1992, Yeltsin enacted dramatic and largely inflationary economic reforms. Yeltsin envisioned a program of military spending cuts, privitization, and free trade. In November 1992, however, Yeltsin appointed pro-inflationist Viktor Gerashchenko as Head of the Central Bank of Russia. Inflation devalued savings and wages of most Russians. Furthermore, low import and high domestic manufacturing taxes led to a nosedive in Russian production. Thus, Yeltsin's economic reforms became widely known as "shock without therapy."
In 1993, the Congress of People's Deputies of Russia tried to impeach Yeltsin and fell short by over 70 votes. Yeltsin soon disbanded the congress in violation of the constitution. Not long afterward, parliamentary opposition began supporting Vice President Alexander Rutskoi for president, and another military coup erupted. Before Yeltsin's supporters suppressed the coup, the White House was bombed and set on fire and several hundred Russians were killed. In December 1993, a new Russian constitution granting greater authority to the president was adopted.
In 1994, Russia's desperate economic situation worsened when the ruble lost one-fifth of its total value against the dollar on day that has come to be known as "Black Tuesday." After this day, one American dollar was equivalent to 3,926 rubles.
Russia's dire economic situation led to an increase in organized crime and unemployment. The GDP and standard of living fell drastically, leaving one-third of all Russians living below the official poverty line of $60 a month. Education, the police force, the military industry, and health care suffered the most, further perpetuating Russia's social problems.
In 1995, Yeltsin refused to put Russian troops in Bosnia under NATO command. Yeltsin and others feared the eastward expansion of NATO, because of its Cold War role of encirclement and military intimidation.
With the 1996 election approaching, Yeltsin suffered two major heart attacks. He looked weak and tired, and Russian voters became concerned that he was not sufficiently robust to meet the demands of his job. During his campaign, however, he tried to address some of Russia's economic anxieties. He increased student grants and signed a decree restoring the value of personal savings. In addition, numerous American political consultants used U.S.-style political polls and marketing techniques to influence the Russian voting public. Yeltsin narrowly won re-election before undergoing serious coronary bipass surgery.
Many Russians believed that Yeltsin would die soon after his surgery. But he survived and continued in his capacity as Russia's leader. In 1997, he completed an extensive overhaul of his cabinet. He also experienced a humiliating defeat in the Chechen war for independence, a war that had been raging since 1994.
On December 28, 1999, Yeltsin resigned, explaining that Russia needed a new political leader to lead it into a new century. For Yeltsin, this leader was his popular protegée Vladimir Putin. Yeltsin named Putin acting president. Soon thereafter, Putin was elected to his own term in a landslide election.
People disagree about Yeltsin's place in history. But all would agree that Boris Yeltsin led his country into a new epoch of Russian history.
For Discussion and Writing
- What is the difference between Russia and the Soviet Union?
- In what ways did Boris Yeltsin and Mikhail Gorbachev agree? How did they disagree?
- Mao Tse-tung (1893-1976), the Chinese Communist leader, wrote: "Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun." What does this mean? Do you agree? Would Boris Yeltsin agree?
For Further Information
Biographies of Boris Yeltsin:
CNN: Newsmaker Profile
CNN: Cold War Profile
His Life in Pictures
BBC: Boris Yelsin: Master of Surpise
Encarta: Boris Yeltsin
Timeline of Yeltsin's Career and Life
Facts on File: Boris Yeltsin
Encyclopedia.com: Boris Yeltsin
PBS web pages on Yeltsin
Guardian Unlimited: Special Report: Boris Yeltsin
Boris Yeltsin Enters the History Books From American Diplomacy.
Book reviews of Yeltsin's autobiography Midnight Diaries:
Russian Presidential Election—1996 Information about the candidates and election.
Russian News Sources
Selected Resources on Yeltsin Books and other resources. From Questia.
Open Directory Project: Yeltsin Many links.
A C T I V I T Y
What Makes A Free Election?
Russian citizens are beginning to experience democracy. Unquestionably, free elections are at the heart of any democratic political system. But what makes a free election? Assume that a Russian TV news reporter is visiting your class and has asked you this question. Form small groups. Each group should first discuss how one of the elements listed below contributes to a free election in a democracy. It should then report its conclusions to the Russian reporter who might be role-played by a student or your teacher (perhaps using a video camera).
Elements of a Free Election
- more than one political party
- a choice of candidates
- freedom of speech
- freedom of the press
- freedom of assembly
- television and radio