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Boris Yeltsin 1931~2007

The rise of a rambunctious risk taker

Once a leader of the Communist Party in Moscow, Boris Yeltsin helped bring about the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 and presided over the new Russia until he resigned in 1999.

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(CNN) -- Boris Nikolayevich Yeltsin agitated for political reform throughout his public career. He lost battles but won his war for change, as the Soviet Union fell and democracies emerged.

Yeltsin challenged the accepted order of things from the outset, declaring in his 1990 autobiography, "Against the Grain," that he was "a little bit of a hooligan" as a child.

His risk-taking personality cost him two fingers on his left hand during World War II, when he was 11. A grenade he had stolen exploded as he tried to take it apart.

The same love of risk drove him in politics, also with explosive results.

"... Yeltsin did risk himself and his career in the service of moving Russia toward democracy, toward free markets, toward a different place in the world," historian Michael Beschloss noted in comments before Yeltsin's death.

Shaking up Moscow

Yeltsin joined the Communist Party in 1961, attracted by the reform efforts of Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev.

Yeltsin worked as a construction engineer and made his name in the party hierarchy as an energetic leader who got things done in his native Sverdlovsk.

He was tapped to work for the party on the national front in 1985 by Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, who advocated political and social reforms called "perestroika" (restructuring) and "glasnost" (openness).

Gorbachev gave his protégé visibility by making him head of Moscow's party, a job equivalent in power and prominence to mayor in the capital city.

Yeltsin became popular with the people by firing corrupt officials, freeing up the media and, not least, cutting through bureaucracy to get fresh fruits and vegetables into Moscow before they spoiled.

Yeltsin marches with supporters through the streets of Moscow after being elected to the national parliament in 1989.  

The disparity between the lives of the elite and the ordinary troubled him. He rode the subway and visited stores and factories to see conditions firsthand.

"As long as no one can build or buy his own dacha, as long as we continue to live in such relative poverty, I refuse to eat caviar followed by sturgeon," he wrote in "Against the Grain."

But his activism rankled the party's old guard and Gorbachev himself.

"I sometimes wonder how I managed to end up among all these people," he wrote in "Against the Grain," noting the Soviet system usually weeded out dissenters ruthlessly.

Indeed, Gorbachev turned on him in 1987, at a meeting of the Communist Party's Central Committee. Yeltsin was faulted for pushing harder than Gorbachev for Gorbachev's reforms.

"Is it not enough for you that the whole of Moscow revolves around your person that you now want the Central Committee to spend time on you as well?" Gorbachev said, accusing Yeltsin of acting from personal ambition.

Yeltsin lost his jobs at the Politburo and the Moscow party leadership. In a significant break with Soviet practice, Gorbachev did not banish him.

"It is my belief that if Gorbachev didn't have a Yeltsin he would have had to invent one. ... He realizes he needs someone like me -- prickly, sharp-tongued," a radical against whom Gorbachev could look reasonable, Yeltsin wrote in "Against the Grain."

Riding a public tide into power

The public stuck by him, and by 1989 Yeltsin was back, elected to Moscow's at-large seat in the new national parliament, the Congress of People's Deputies. He defeated the party favorite with nearly 90 percent of the vote in the Soviet Union's first-ever contested national elections.

From there, he landed a seat on the powerful Supreme Soviet, a smaller, elite group of the Congress and the actual lawmaking body. A member resigned to make way for him.

The election marked the beginning of Yeltsin's meteoric rise to the head of a newly independent Russia within two years.

Quitting the party and resisting a coup

Communists tried but failed to block him. Yeltsin undercut their opposition by quitting their ranks in 1990, a then-radical move that prompted other reform advocates to follow him and form an opposition party, the first of its kind.

As Yeltsin's influence grew, he used his strong personality to win vaguely defined powers that allowed him to advance his agenda and his career.

In 1990, Yeltsin was elected president of the Russian Federation, which gave him a powerful platform to challenge Gorbachev. In April 1991, the Russian legislature gave him emergency powers to deal with the sinking economy.

During an August 1991 coup attempt, Yeltsin stands on a tank urging the crowd to resist the hard-line Communists trying to depose Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev.

In June, Yeltsin became Russia's first democratically elected leader. The Russian Congress had obliged him again, creating the new executive presidency at his urging.

"Many Russians came to June 1991 with a sense of the end of Soviet history. Even the very word 'Soviet' was no longer possible to pronounce; it had exhausted its resources," Yeltsin wrote of his success in Russia's first free elections in his 1994 book, "The Struggle for Russia."

Then, in August 1991, a coup attempt against Gorbachev became Yeltsin's springboard. As hard-liners held Gorbachev captive at his vacation home, and troops filled Moscow's streets, Yeltsin thrust himself into the center of the action.

In a visually defining moment, he stood atop a tank outside the Russian parliament building to rally the crowds to resist the "traitors." And it was Yeltsin who called world leaders to ask them not to recognize the coup.

"At that time, I had only one thought -- to save Russia, to save this country, to save democracy and the whole world. Anything else would have led to chaos," Yeltsin said after it was all over.

By the time Gorbachev returned three days later, Yeltsin's popularity and power base could not be denied. Yeltsin, still leader only of the Russian republic, began to assert this new power, influencing Gorbachev's decisions. They even appeared together on U.S. television.

The only president left

Meanwhile, the Soviet political infrastructure was crumbling. The Supreme Soviet suspended Communist Party activities, and Gorbachev quit as party leader. An interim political structure was formed, pending a full constitutional reform.

Several republics bolted the union. Russia's Congress of People's Deputies in November gave Yeltsin sweeping new powers for free-market economic reforms.

Finally, in December, it was over. Gorbachev and Yeltsin agreed the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics would be dissolved. Power would be transferred to the newly created Commonwealth of Independent States, made up of former Soviet republics.

Yeltsin issued decrees that Russia would assume Soviet central duties. The republics officially formed the commonwealth.

On December 25, Yeltsin's presidency of Russia became the only one that mattered, when Gorbachev resigned in a nationally televised address.

The Soviet Union's red flag at the Kremlin was lowered, and the red, white and blue flag of Russia was raised. Yeltsin's era had begun.

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