Boris Yeltsin Research Paper

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Boris Nikolaevich Yeltsin was the founding father of the post-Communist Russian state, and the man responsible for giving shape to contemporary Russian democracy. His life reflected the sufferings and achievements of the Soviet era, and also came to symbolize the chaos and confused aspirations of the capitalist democracy that came after. Yeltsin was born on February 1, 1931, in the village of Butka some 250 miles east of Yekaterinburg (called Sverdlovsk at the time). In that year the region was engulfed by Stalin’s savage struggle to force peasants off their individual plots and into collective farms. Yeltsin’s family was comparatively prosperous and therefore, as kulaks (rich peasants), were exiled to the east. With the countryside in chaos, in 1932 Yeltsin’s father, Nikolai Ignatevich, moved to work on a construction site in Kazan. Two years later Ignatevich was arrested as a “dekulakised kulak,” or someone allegedly retaining the kulak mentality, and sentenced to three years hard labor, a fact that Yeltsin kept secret until 1994. The family moved to Berezniki in the Perm region to work on the construction of a giant potassium processing plant. The hard conditions worsened following Russia’s entry into World War II in 1941, but the young Boris thrived at school, taking up numerous sports and excelling at volleyball.

In 1949 at the age of 18, Yeltsin became a student in the civil engineering department of the Urals Polytechnical Institute in Sverdlovsk, the city he made his home for the next 36 years. He divided his time between intense bouts of study and sporting activities, travelling the country as captain of the volleyball team. He met his future wife, Naina Girina from Orenburg, at this time. Yeltsin graduated in June 1955, and then gained practical experience on a building site. He was a hard but fair task master, imposing enormous demands on himself and fellow workers. In 1957, newly married, Yeltsin took charge of the construction of the Sverdlovsk Textile Kombinat, a major project that he completed on time. In 1959 Yeltsin joined the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU), but only in 1966 did he leave active civil engineering to head the Construction Department of the Regional Party Committee (Obkom, the acronym of the Oblast [Regional] Committee of the Communist Party). Yeltsin refused many of the perks that went with the job, but he was driven by his characteristic “obsessive ambition.”

In November 1976 Yeltsin made it to the top, becoming Obkom First Secretary over a region with a population of nearly five million, covering an area the size of England. He was an innovative and demanding leader, but never strayed from Party orthodoxy. At the Twenty-Sixth Party Congress in March 1981 Yeltsin was elected a member of the Central Committee (CC).

In March 1985 Mikhail Gorbachev came to power committed to reform. In April 1985 Gorbachev brought Yeltsin to Moscow as head of the CC’s Construction Department. In December of that year Yeltsin was appointed head of the Moscow Party Organization and with it, shortly afterwards, candidate membership of the Politburo, the Communist Party’s highest body. Yeltsin ran Moscow in a confrontational manner, firing those whom he considered resistant to change, but his talk of “social justice” and condemnation of elite privileges and corruption won him enormous popularity.

At the CC plenum of October 21, 1987, Yeltsin criticized the slowness of reforms and Gorbachev personally, and announced that he would resign from the Politburo. Facing a barrage of condemnation, Yeltsin was removed from leadership of the Moscow Party but was appointed head of the state construction agency, Gosstroi. Cast out of the political establishment, Yeltsin placed himself at the head of the anti-Soviet revolution. He skillfully exploited the new democratic opportunities, being elected by acclaim in March 1990 a deputy from Moscow to the new Russian Congress of People’s Deputies (CPD). On May 29th, he narrowly defeated orthodox contenders to become chair of the new Russian parliament. He sponsored Russia’s declaration of state sovereignty on June 12, 1990, signaling the end of the Soviet Union and of Gorbachev’s attempts to reform communism from within. Elected Russia’s first president on June 12, 1991, Yeltsin exploited his democratic legitimacy to defeat the attempted hard-line coup of August 18 to 21, 1991. A meeting of the presidents of Ukraine, Belarus, and Russia near Minsk on December 8, 1991, announced the disintegration of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. Russia was now independent, and Yeltsin its leader.

Yeltsin’s impetuous and determined character stamped the new state. Throughout his leadership he remained committed to market-oriented liberal, democratic, and Westernizing policies, although the way these policies were implemented was often at odds with the goal. In Yeltsin’s typical campaigning style, economic “shock therapy” was launched in January 1992, allowing the liberalization of prices. His failure to build consensus with parliament led to a breakdown in relations that ended with the forced dissolution in September and violence in October 1993.

The new constitution of December 12, 1993, provided for a strong presidency with weak oversight powers by parliament and the courts. Yeltsin used his powers to drive through market reforms, including a crash privatization program that allowed a few to become very rich (the so-called oligarchs), while the mass of the population became much poorer. Yeltsin’s decision to invade the breakaway republic of Chechnya in December 1994 caused untold suffering, and contravened several articles of the constitution. In federal relations, Yeltsin encouraged the development of segmented regionalism whereby regional leaders were able to enjoy an enormous devolution of authority as long as they remained loyal to him personally. Only by allying with the oligarchs was Yeltsin able to win a second term in 1996, but at the price of mortgaging the state to big business. The fall in oil prices precipitated the partial default of August 1998, provoked by the failure to collect enough taxes to service the growing budget deficit. On December 31, 1999, Yeltsin transferred power to his hand-picked successor, Vladimir Putin. He entered political retirement, offering critical support for the new president. Yeltsin left Russia a democratic, federal, market-oriented society, but all of these were deeply flawed in their operation. Yeltsin laid the foundations for a free society, but it would be up to his successors to build on what he had started.


  1. Aron, Leon. 2000. Yeltsin: A Revolutionary Life. New York: St. Martin’s Press.
  2. Breslauer, George W. 2002. Gorbachev and Yeltsin as Leaders. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.
  3. Medvedev, Roy. 2000. Post-Soviet Russia: A Journey Through the Yeltsin Era. Trans. and ed. George Shriver. New York: Columbia University Press.
  4. Morrison, John. 1991. Boris Yeltsin: From Bolshevik to Democrat. New York: Dutton.
  5. Shevtsova, Lilia. 1999. Yeltsin’s Russia: Myths and Reality. Washington, DC: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
  6. Yeltsin, Boris N. 1990. Against the Grain: An Autobiography. Trans. Michael Glenny. New York: Summit Books.
  7. Yeltsin, Boris N. 1994. The Struggle for Russia. Trans. Catherine A. Fitzpatrick. New York: Belka Publications Corp., Times Books.
  8. Yeltsin, Boris N. 2000. Midnight Diaries. Trans. Catherine A. Fitzpatrick. New York: PublicAffairs.

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