Install

Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Yeltsin to Mark Birthday In Hospital

When former Russian leader Boris Yeltsin celebrates his 70th birthday Thursday, the congratulatory telegrams may well be addressed to the place from where he at times ruled the country -- the Central Clinical Hospital.

In a cruel twist of fate for the man whose final years in power were dogged by illness, Yeltsin was taken to hospital Tuesday with a suspected "acute viral infection". He was expected to stay in bed until after his birthday on Feb. 1.

The recurrent illnesses of a man the authorities dubbed the "first Russian president" after his retirement became a hallmark of his later years in office, giving a sometimes desperate air to his rule, that of a man not in charge of the country.

But his supporters say the way he left office, the first time a Russian leader made a peaceful transition of power, was a key achievement which showed Yeltsin never lost control.

For a man who unarguably brought about incredible and dramatic change in Russia's history, the relative calm of his life since his dramatic 1999 New Year's Eve announcement handing power to Vladimir Putin, seems in stark contrast.

In the year since then, Yeltsin has released a third book of memoirs, appeared infrequently on television and met former chancellor Helmut Kohl in Germany.

His birthday is likely to be marked without official fanfare, although Putin was expected to drop by. A documentary is to be aired on state-owned RTR television while the independent channel NTV has been broadcasting a retrospective of his life.

Apparently, the former president, a man who used to have the world's second largest nuclear arsenal at his fingertips, prefers to live without fuss, in the bosom of his family in the luxurious country residence which the Russian government gave him.



CONTRADICTIONS

The image of a content pensioner is at odds with the eight years of Yeltsin's rule: a time of economic turmoil, an attempted coup, two military campaigns against rebel Chechnya and his own unpredictable personality.

Virtually all his working life was devoted to politics, first as he fought his way to the top of the ranks of the Soviet Communist Party in his native Sverdlovsk region and then as the champion of democratic reforms after storming out of the party.

The images which have been imprinted in the public consciousness are those which mark his rise and decline.

In 1991, he leapt energetically onto a loyalist tank during a hardline Communist coup attempt; in 1994 he drunkenly conducted an orchestra in Germany and four years later he almost stumbled during a trip to Kazakhstan.

Finally, on New Year's Eve, 1999, he quietly donned his coat and fur hat and stepped out into the Kremlin courtyard, shook Putin's hand and sped off to his country residence.

Russians seem either to love or hate him, but most cannot ignore his historical significance.

"He is a very contradictory figure. Without doubt, he made a huge contribution to the fall of communism," said Andrei Piontkovsky, a leading political scientist.

"But on the other hand, Yeltsin created the system of bandit capitalism in Russia, if not by his will then he at least let it happen. He also unleashed a bloody war two times in Chechnya."

Dmitry Yakushkin, Yeltsin's press secretary in the last two years of his rule, said that despite the president's illnesses, he was never out of control. But by the end he was tired.

"Of course it was difficult to change his habits, like someone who does not have to get up to go the office. But at the same time I had the feeling...that in a way he was a little bit tired also. Power is a very hard burden," Yakushkin said.

He said Yeltsin was a strong family man who now enjoyed spending time with his grandchildren and his one great-grandchild.

Yeltsin's retirement and privileges given by the state differ from the less generous treatment of ex-Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev, a man with whom Yeltsin was often at odds and who got little state support when forced to resign.



CONTROVERSIES CONTINUE, LEGACY DEBATED

Some of the controversies which marked Yeltsin's final period in office continue.

Allegations of corruption have again surfaced in the last two weeks with the detention in New York on a Swiss arrest warrant of former Kremlin aide Pavel Borodin for alleged money laundering, which he denies.

Speculation also remains that Yeltsin's close circle of advisers still have a say in the day-to-day running of the country and that Putin is trying his best to sideline them.

As to Yeltsin's legacy, there is also disagreement.

"A lot of what Putin is doing and how Putin is doing this has been inherited from the previous era, from the Yeltsin era," said Georgy Satarov, president of the Indem Fund thinktank.

"If we look at the substance of what he has done, so far it has been largely what Yeltsin did not have the time to do or could not do," he added.

Since coming to office, Putin has reined in power from the regions and defied his mentor by adopting the anthem of the former Soviet Union as Russia's national tune.

Putin has also pursued a vigorous foreign policy, travelling abroad at a pace which would have been impossible for his predecessor.

Another of Yeltsin's former press secretaries, Vyasheslav Kostikov, said Putin had restored confidence in a system with which Russians were disillusioned by the time Yeltsin quit.

"...Putin has managed to restore the faith of the population in the possibility of Russia's resurgence, the possibility of the country becoming civilised, strong and a country which respects human dignity," Kostikov told a news conference.