Boris Yeltsin, who has died aged 76, was the most controversial figure in recent Russian history, provoking even stronger emotions in his compatriots than Mikhail Gorbachev, the man he replaced in the Kremlin.
While Gorbachev presided over the decline of the Communist party and the end of the Soviet empire in eastern Europe, it was Yeltsin, Russia's first elected president, who buried the Soviet Union itself. For that he earned euphoric admiration from some of his fellow-citizens and raging hatred from others.
Yeltsin's second outstanding claim to fame was his decision to launch Russia towards market reforms via the route known as "shock therapy", again covering himself with an avalanche of praise and fury.
Then, in October 1993, in a bizarre episode for an emerging democracy, he ordered tanks to assault the seat of the Russian parliament in the climax of an 18-month struggle with elected deputies.
Finally, just over a year later, he ordered Russian troops, most of them conscripts, to try to put down a rebellion in Chechnya that has remained a key issue ever since. The rash move sent more Russian citizens to their deaths than the 10-year-war, which the Soviet Union waged in Afghanistan till 1989.
Any of these actions would have ensured Yeltsin a place in the catalogue of strong Russian leaders from Ivan the Terrible onwards. The four together create an extraordinary record for a man who was virtually unknown in Russia, let alone abroad, until the age of 56.
Yeltsin's name is indelibly linked with Russia's faltering experience in trying to create democracy in a country which had known centuries of authoritarianism. He was given strong support by western governments who feared a return to communist rule but confused personality with process. They frequently overlooked Yeltsin's mistakes and encouraged him to bring in a constitution that concentrated massive power in the presidency rather than achieving a reliable system of checks and balances. But western support did at least prevent backsliding, and in spite of hints that he might cancel the presidential elections of 1996, when opinion polls suggested he would lose massively, or indeed the parliamentary elections of 1999, Yeltsin reluctantly honoured the system.
Yeltsin was born to a peasant family in the village of Butko in the Urals. When the family's only cow died, Yeltsin's father moved to Perm to work as a labourer on a building site. The family of five lived in one room of a communal hut for 10 years. Undistinguished at school, Yeltsin worked as a construction engineer for 14 years until he joined the Communist party's city committee in Sverdlovsk (the former Yekaterinburg) as a full-time official.
The party ladder was the only path to upward mobility available to an ambitious, but not outstanding, young man. The intellectually brilliant could aspire to a scientific career and membership of the Academy of Sciences, where party membership was advisable but by no means essential. For the less talented, the Communist party was the best avenue to advancement.
In the rough-and-ready postwar environment of the industrial Urals that were earmarked for rapid development by Moscow's planners, Yeltsin's skills and energy helped him advance. He became the first secretary of the Sverdlovsk party in 1976. In the monolithic system of Communist party rule, being head of a regional branch was equivalent to being a kind of colonial administrator. The Communist party was almost a military structure. Regional bosses took orders from the men above, and passed them on to the lower echelons. There was no need to negotiate with competing power structures or political leaders with different views, since there were none. The extent of a regional party secretary's room for manoeuvre was to lobby the central authorities for extra funds for his area, to build new factories, roads, or schools. A party secretary showed his worth by his efficiency in getting things done.
Yeltsin was a loyal servant of the centre. When he was ordered in 1977 by the Politburo to demolish the house where the last tsar, Nicholas II, and his family were murdered in July 1918, he complied readily. The house was becoming a focal point for low-key demonstrations and Moscow wanted it removed.
After Gorbachev came to power in March 1985 and started his perestroika reforms, Yeltsin was invited to join the Politburo as a non-voting member. His dynamism made him seem a good man. He was put in charge of running Moscow. Although he launched himself into the new job with energy and created a populist image with well-publicised trips on buses and trams, he began to lose patience when he ran into opposition from entrenched bureaucrats. By the summer of 1987 he was anxious to move. At a spectacular session of the Central Committee in October, which was meant to concentrate exclusively on Gorbachev's draft speech celebrating the 70th anniversary of the Revolution, Yeltsin criticised Gorbachev and announced he would resign from the Politburo. His action started a rift between the two men that was never healed.
The immediate crisis was hushed up, but after the anniversary celebrations Yeltsin was summoned to a meeting of the Moscow branch of the party where he was sacked as city leader. But instead of being removed from the scene altogether, as would have happened under earlier Soviet leaders, Yeltsin was given a second chance. Gorbachev made him deputy minister in charge of construction. The job was a demotion, but Gorbachev wanted to present himself as a leader with a softer and more consensual style of government than his predecessors. In the past top men who fell out of favour had lost everything.
As preparations developed in 1989 for the country's first contested elections for more than 60 years, Yeltsin - down but far from out - saw the opportunity for a comeback. Projecting himself as a martyr, and making strong criticism of perestroika's failure to improve people's standard of living, Yeltsin won a landslide victory to the Congress of People's Deputies.
In the new parliament he joined the radical wing of perestroika's critics. A year later he was elected to the new Russian parliament, making it clear he hoped to become its chairman. He probably did not yet see the job as a base from which to oust Gorbachev altogether, but he clearly wanted to reduce the Soviet leader's power. As the drive for independence developed in the Baltics, the notion of "sovereignty" - even for the other republics that did not want to leave the Soviet Union - became attractive. Yeltsin argued for a new treaty to transform the Soviet Union, not to abolish it.
By mid-1990 the Communist party's monolithic rule was being openly challenged. The party had agreed to change the constitution to allow for other parties to emerge, but Gorbachev's efforts to remove the conservatives from influence in the Communist party were meeting growing resistance. Yeltsin decided to abandon the party completely. At its congress in July 1990 he stunned fellow delegates by announcing his resignation and walking out of the hall.
During the crisis over the Baltic republics' moves towards independence, when Soviet forces seized the television headquarters in Lithuania in January 1991 in support of a mysterious Committee of National Salvation that wanted to overthrow the elected government, Yeltsin rushed to the area to show solidarity with the independence movements. He called on Soviet troops not to obey illegal orders. It was a bold move that undoubtedly helped to split the Soviet establishment and prevent the coup attempts going further. Gorbachev, meanwhile, kept silent for 10 days, apparently unwilling to confront the hardliners in the KGB and the military.
The Lithuanian crisis led many radicals to conclude that Gorbachev himself had become an obstacle to change. Yeltsin took the same view, calling publicly for Gorbachev's resignation in February 1991. Meanwhile, he strengthened his own power base by persuading a majority of deputies in the Russian parliament to amend the constitution and establish an executive presidency for Russia, to be chosen by direct national ballot. Yeltsin went on to win the election handsomely. He now had an alternative power base from which to challenge Gorbachev, as well as the legitimacy of victory in national elections - a position that Gorbachev never achieved.
The hardliners, led by the head of the KGB, the defence minister, and the interior minister, took Gorbachev hostage while he was on holiday in the Crimea two months later. They set up an emergency junta to run the country with the aim of reversing the reforms, reimposing central rule, and halting the republics' drive to independence.
As elected president of Russia, Yeltsin was in an unparalleled position to oppose them. With energy and flair he led the resistance, calling on ordinary people to defend the White House, the seat of the Russian parliament. The image of him standing on a tank and inviting the army to break from the coup was the high point of his career. The army split, with the officers of the units on the streets of Moscow crucially throwing their weight behind the elected Russian president rather than an unconstitutional junta.
The failed coup exposed the political bankruptcy of the Communist party, which did nothing to rally support for Gorbachev, its leader, held hostage in the Crimea. Fear of the hardliners alarmed those republics that wanted looser control from Moscow, or outright independence. Taking advantage of the vacuum of power in Soviet institutions, Yeltsin started his own economic reforms in Russia. Increasingly he ignored Soviet law, as he decreed the suspension of the Russian Communist party and withheld Russian taxes from the central budget. In December he met the leaders of Byelorussia and Ukraine at a hunting lodge in a forest near the Polish border, where they formally announced the Soviet Union was dead. Gorbachev accepted he was finished, and resigned on December 25.
Yeltsin was now the supreme master of Russia. He agreed to plans by his radical economic advisers for an end to price subsidies in an effort to spur the economy towards the market. "Everyone will find life harder for approximately six months, then prices will fall," he told parliament.
It was an unfortunate prediction, as inflation rose in 1992 by 2,000%. Millions of Russians saw their savings wiped out. Others found themselves forced to reduce their diet because of high prices of food. For the next two years the botched economic reform became a battleground between Yeltsin and the parliament. A majority of MPS had given the president special powers in October 1991 to bring in a reform, but when they saw the results, their support flagged.
By character and instinct, and with his long background as a party apparatchik, Yeltsin was never a man disposed to compromise or negotiation. He tried to outflank the parliament by demanding a renewal of his special powers and holding a referendum calling for early parliamentary elections. He won the referendum in April 1993 but not by a big enough vote to make it binding. He then sought to change the constitution unilaterally to give the president the power to dissolve parliament. Most MPs, meanwhile, had turned against the president. The battle lines were hardening on both sides.
In September 1993 Yeltsin's patience ran out. He ordered the dissolution of parliament and sacked his vice-president, Alexander Rutskoi, even though he had no constitutional right to do either. Scores of MPs decided to stay in the building and resist eviction. There were strange ironies in that Yeltsin was now the man putting pressure on the same building and the same MPs that he had been defending only two years earlier during the 1991 coup.
Ten days after the siege started a pro-parliamentary demonstration broke through police lines several hundred yards away from the building. Inexplicably, the main police cordon round the White House was lifted as the marchers approached. In the excitement of apparent "liberation" Rutskoi and Ruslan Khasbulatov, the leader of parliament, urged their supporters to seize the mayor's office, the main state television station, and the Kremlin. A number of armed paramilitaries, representing extreme nationalist and pro-Soviet revanchists, had camped round the White House to help to "defend" it. Many of them stormed the mayor's office and moved on towards the television station. The police held them away from the TV headquarters, and according to Pavel Grachev, the defence minister, the threat only lasted 10 minutes.
Yeltsin nevertheless decided to order an assault on the White House. The army commanders hesitated for several hours, but on the morning of October 4 the decision was taken to bring tanks to the building. Firing went on all day, and Rutskoi and Khasbulatov were arrested and imprisoned. It appeared that Yeltsin had achieved what he had wanted. Parliament was closed. The army had stayed loyal. The president was free to rewrite the constitution.
But the seeds of disappointment were already there. The assault on parliament shocked most Russians and when elections were held for a new parliament and to endorse the new constitution two months later Yeltsin was rebuffed. The Central Election Commission, whose chairman was a Yeltsin appointee, declared the constitution had passed but there were strong suspicions that they were fudging the figures. In the parliamentary poll Yeltsin's strongest supporters, the block known as Russia's Choice, won barely 15 per cent of the vote. An extreme nationalist party, led by Vladimir Zhirinovsky, which strongly criticised the economic reform programme, came first with 23 per cent. The communists made a strong comeback.
Worse was to come for Yeltsin. In almost its first act, the new parliament passed an amnesty for the October detainees, releasing Rutskoi and Khasbulatov from prison. Six months after dissolving the previous parliament, Yeltsin found himself no stronger politically than before. It was the first reverse he had suffered since his expulsion from the Politburo in 1987. It seemed that his luck had run out.
The setback appeared to affect Yeltsin's morale. He frequently disappeared from Moscow for unexplained reasons. His health was known to be poor and he drank heavily, but no official bulletins were published. The weakness of the president exacerbated the tensions within his administration, as different groups battled for influence. The economy was nominally under the control of Viktor Chernomyrdin, the prime minister, but pro-western monetarists like Anatoly Chubais, the privatisation minister, tried to steer it in a different direction by playing on Yeltsin's wish to be well-perceived in Washington. Meanwhile, the real influence over Yeltsin was his old tennis partner and the head of his bodyguard, Alexander Korzhakov.
Korzhakov allied with Pavel Grachev, the defence minister, to convince Yeltsin to launch a military attack on the separatist Chechen leader, Zhokar Dudayev, in December 1994. The move caused a major rift with the liberals in Yeltsin's camp, many of whom resigned or publicly denounced the president. Yeltsin's only support came from the maverick nationalist, Vladimir Zhirinovsky.
The futility of the attack and its ham-fisted implementation, as Russian tanks and artillery pulverised villages, killing hundreds of civilians and turning thousands of others into refugees, caused a new decline in Yeltsin's morale as well as his public support. For much of 1995 the president appeared not to be in control of the country. The December 1995 parliamentary elections dealt him a new blow. Viktor Chernomyrdin's party, the only one identified clearly with Yeltsin, won less than ten per cent of the vote. It looked as though Yeltsin's presidency was going to end in disaster.
Yet even at this late hour Yeltsin showed he could fight his way out of depression. Emboldened by his advisers, who feared their own demise if their boss's regime came to an end, Yeltsin decided to run for re-election. By now the main opposition was no longer the ultra-nationalists like Zhirinovsky. The baton had been picked up by the communists, who won the largest share of votes in the December 1995 elections.
The communists had made themselves leaders of the "patriotic popular block", an eclectic combination that favoured a greater role for the government in running the economy and a foreign policy less sympathetic to Western views. The block's main electoral strength was widespread opposition to Yeltsin's market reforms and anger over the non-payment of wages in hundreds of firms, whether they had been privatised or not.
The Kremlin turned the communists' strength to its own advantage. The government already controlled the two state-owned television channels. By using the intellectuals' fear that a communist comeback was knocking at the door, Yeltsin's advisers persuaded the third television channel, the privately owned NTV, to join their camp. This monopoly of the main broadcasting media became the decisive factor in Yeltsin's victorious election campaign.
Instead of having a referendum on five years of Yeltsin's rule, his advisers managed to turn the election into a referendum on the abuses and atrocities of the communist past. When Yeltsin had been elected president in 1991, the two national TV channels were divided. One supported him. One opposed him. The fact that five years later, voters were subjected to a less open democratic process was a sad reflection on Yeltsin's failure to build on the foundations that Gorbachev had left for him.
Yeltsin had suffered a heart attack between the two rounds of the 1996 election. The controlled media and Yeltsin's press spokesmen concealed the fact. With victory secure, the truth of his health problems could no longer be concealed. Yeltsin virtually dropped out of action until he was given a quintuple heart bypass operation in November 1996. His major achievement was to accept the peace plan for Chechnya negotiated by Alexander Lebed, one of his defeated rivals for the presidency, who briefly served as secretary of the security council.
The basis of Yeltsin's second-term government was a group of multimillionaire businessmen who had done well out of privatisation. These were the oligarchs, whose activities are still a key facto in Russian politics. Then they called the shots and ran the main media, although inevitably rivalries developed amongst them. Alexander Korzhakov, who had been Yeltsin's main drinking companion and adviser for several years was embroiled in the factional struggles and broke with the president. Yeltsin's excessive drinking on foreign trips became an increasing embarrassment both for Russians and his western hosts.
Power in the Kremlin revolved around what Russian analysts called the "family". Most prominent was Yeltsin's younger daughter, Tatyana Dyachenko, who was the only person considered able to talk to the president frankly. Others included Boris Berezovsky, the billionaire businessman now in London exile, and Anatoly Chubais, still a key economic adviser under Putin. Yeltsin had a succession of different chiefs of staff and press secretaries but relied heavily on the "family". He took the final decisions himself, which explained the capriciousness of his moves in 1998 and 1999 when he sacked and appointed five prime ministers in thirteen months. There seemed no point in some of the moves, except that the president was jealous of anyone stealing his limelight.
In spite of Yeltsin's erratic behaviour, western governments continued to support him on the grounds that he was leading a process of economic "reform". But the reform was highly flawed. Income inequalities grew. Homelessness and poverty increased as the government failed to pay pensions or the wages of workers in the state sector. Manufacturing output continued to slump. Financial crime and corruption flourished with impunity. The country became even more dependent on its raw material sector than it had been in the communist years while the consumers of its wealth became more concentrated on Moscow. This created the paradox of an affluent-looking capital city and increasingly desperate provinces.
In 1998 the economy for the first time began to register a mild upswing, but it was based largely on massive loans from the International Monetary Fund and a budget deficit financed by the sale of government bonds with absurdly high rates of interest. In the summer the bubble burst. The government defaulted on its loan repayments and the rouble lost three-quarters of its value. Yeltsin's legacy on the economic front looked in tatters. The fruits of privatisation had been hijacked by asset-strippers who sent their profits abroad rather than investing in Russia. Tens of thousands of small businesses had come to life in the decade since communism but living standards for Russians were precarious.
Facing new parliamentary elections in December 1999 and a presidential poll in 2000 (in which he could not go for a third term), Yeltsin and the "family" were desperate to find a way of ensuring that the succession should not pass out of their hands with the risk they could be charged with abuse of power. Thanks to an increase in the world price of oil, Russia's economy began to revive in 1999 but not enough to revive the president's popularity. Yevgeni Primakov, a former prime minister, seemed to have a strong chance of winning the presidency on an anti-corruption ticket with a centre-left programme. For the first time since 1991 there was a credible challenger who did not represent the Communist party.
Yeltsin's team felt they had to divert attention from their economic failures. A new issue had to be found. In August 1999 Yeltsin changed prime ministers again, appointing an unknown former KGB officer, Vladimir Putin, who promptly ordered the army into Chechnya after a small group of fundamentalists from Chechnya invaded the neighbouring republic of Dagestan. It seemed a bizarre and highly risky decision but the Kremlin's efforts were helped by a series of unexplained terrorist bombings in Moscow and other cities, which left around 400 Russians dead. The state-controlled TV stations manipulated popular anger against Chechens, limited news of Russian casualties on the battlefield, and, as it had done in 1996, denied the opposition fair coverage in the December elections. As a result a new party supporting Putin did unexpectedly well, gaining 23% of the vote to 13% for the party led by Primakov.
The first stage of Yeltsin's bold but unprincipled strategy had worked. With the opposition still reeling, he then took the second step. On December 31 1999 he resigned. Putin became acting president and in his first move granted Yeltsin amnesty and immunity from prosecution. With the advantage of incumbency and control over state TV, he entered the presidential election with a massive headstart. Primakov decided not to run. Within less than six months Yeltsin and his cronies had thus brilliantly ensured that power would remain in safe hands.
The manner of his departure from power fully confirmed the description of Yeltsin which had been given some years earlier by Pavel Voshchanov, his first press secretary. Voshchanov called him "a battering-ram". In the days when destruction was on the agenda he performed a powerful role, undermining the Communist party and defeating the August 1991 coup. In government, he was less impressive. He did not have the political skills to reconcile opposing views or search for consensus. He was not a dictator, but he was authoritarian. He accepted the broad rules of democracy, provided that he could manipulate them sufficiently to remain on top. He tolerated widespread corruption, and though he frequently sacked ministers, it was never because of their dishonesty or because of their ties to the new economic oligarchs. He left complex issues to his experts, preferring to remain above the battle while confining himself to shuffling and re-shuffling the ambitious men in his team.
In retirement he virtually disappeared from public view, not attempting to be an elder statesman or travelling on the international circuit. His health was fragile and he was apparently nervous of the image he would strike, once he was devoid of power.
Yeltsin presided over Russia's first decade of post-communism. The fact that it did not lead to a more stable form of democracy cannot be blamed on him alone, but he bears a large measure of responsibility for the disappointment. Russia needed a more sensitive and intelligent leader during the transition from the politics of one-party control and repression to the politics of negotiation and compromise. Yeltsin, unfortunately, was not the man. He is survived by his wife Naina and two daughters.
· Boris Nikolyaevich Yeltsin, politician, born February 1 1931; died April 23 2007