Boris Yeltsin was the first democratically elected president of Russia. He led the nation from 1991 to 1999, from repressive communism to crumbling capitalism. He was notable for his heavy drinking and unpredictability, but also for his good humour and charisma. Despite his shortcomings, Yeltsin was a leader chosen and supported by the Russian people.
Yeltsin unexpectedly resigned on New Year's Eve 1999 and transferred power to his prime minister, Vladimir Putin. Giving himself the title of First President, Yeltsin walked out of the limelight after nearly a decade in power, leaving the political affairs just like he wanted them.
It was a good move: The president had suffered from several health problems, his advisors had suffered from increasingly surprising statements, and the country was not in too good a condition, either. His market reform had plunged many Russians into desperate poverty. He was responsible for the bloody and humiliating war between the Russian army and separatists in Chechnya. Now that he is safely out of the way, however, he is remembered by Russians mostly as a great president and a symbol of freedom.
Yeltsin entered power in the same dramatic way that he left it. He was elected president of Russia in June 1991. In August the same year, remaining communists attempted a coup. With the rebels barricaded inside Russia's White House, Yeltsin delivered a public speech outside it, standing on top of a tank. Somehow the coup makers were persuaded that they had neither the popular support nor the power to succeed, and the conflict was resolved peacefully. In December that year, the USSR ceased to exist. Yeltsin had become leader of the world's third largest country.
The president already had a long history of pressing for changes. He was vocal in his criticism of Mikhail Gorbachev, whose reforms he found much too slow, and the communist system in general. When he was elected speaker of the Supreme Soviet in 1990, he quit the communist party, where he had been a member since 1961.
Boris Yeltsin was born in 1931 to a peasant family in a village called Butka in the Sverdlovsk region. He worked as a successful construction engineer before entering politics. He and his wife Naina have two daughters, Tatyana and Yekaterina, and several grandchildren.