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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Yeltsin Wished Well on 70th Birthday

Former President Boris Yeltsin sipped champagne on his 70th birthday Thursday, but the man who dragged the country through reform, chaos and crisis was stuck in the hospital, as so often during his final years in office.

The most distinguished visitor for Yeltsin, now solemnly called the "first Russian president," was the man he chose as his successor, Vladimir Putin.

ORT television showed Putin handing over a huge bunch of flowers and then, accompanied by Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov, raising a glass of champagne.

The guests also ate a cake baked by Yeltsin's wife, Naina, Interfax quoted Yeltsin aide Vladimir Shevchenko as saying.

But the party was overshadowed by another bout of illness, a suspected viral infection, which this week landed Yeltsin back in the elite Central Clinical Hospital.

"Luckily, today his temperature dropped. I think God helped him," Naina said in comments on ORT. "It's a shame he's celebrating his birthday in the hospital, as we'd prepared for it."

Telegrams of congratulation came from both houses of parliament, Orthodox Patriarch Alexy II, former aides and even one-time rival, former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev.

Former German Chancellor Helmut Kohl and former Japanese Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto were among the international statesmen to wish Yeltsin a happy birthday.

Yeltsin lives in a luxury residence near Moscow. The official generosity contrasts with the small pension given Gorbachev, who launched the glasnost policy of openness and paved the way for the Yeltsin era.

RIA news agency quoted Gorbachev as saying he had also sent his best wishes. "I am a politician and hold no grudges," he said of Yeltsin, who as head of an independent Russia pushed Gorbachev aside and forced the Soviet Union out of existence.

Shevchenko said in an interview with Kommersant that Yeltsin was still deeply interested in politics and had not changed his views nor lost any of his fire.

"Boris Nikolayevich still holds all his positions," Shevchenko was quoted as saying. "Probably no one would understand him if [he] changed his mind — it is his vision."

As Yeltsin's 70th birthday approached, the media again turned the spotlight on him with televised retrospectives of his life and newspaper editorials about his contradictory legacy.

Commentators saw contradictions between the fighter for democracy of the early 1990s and the man who sent tanks to blast parliamentary rebels into submission in 1993 and unleashed war in Chechnya in 1994.

Although a declining force by the end of his second term of office, an isolated and largely unpopular figure, Yeltsin managed Russia's first democratic handover of power.

"Boris Nikolayevich firmly knew that freedom was better than communism, that private initiative was better than bureaucracy," said Boris Nemtsov, one of a group dubbed "young reformers."

"Ten years that shook Russia and the world," said the daily Izvestia. "The Last Tsar," proclaimed Moskovsky Komsomolets.

"Whether the friends and enemies of Yeltsin want it or not, and whether it is with a plus sign or a minus sign, the last decade will go down in Russia's history as the 'Yeltsin era,'" said the daily Noviye Izvestiya.

But communists and nationalists were less complimentary. "Yeltsin is 70. It would have been better if you had never been born!" declared the nationalist newspaper Zavtra.

A group of former Yeltsin aides has attempted to lift the veil on some of the conflicting motivations that guided Yeltsin. Their book, "The Epoch of Yeltsin: Essays on Political History," is expected to come out by early spring.

Vyacheslav Kostikov, a former Yeltsin spokesman and one of the authors, said they tried to write an "honest and objective book … which Boris Nikolayevich probably will not like."

The aides wrote that Yeltsin believed in his "mission" as Russia's first president, but lacked a clear view on where he wanted to lead the country — and ended up leading with confused and contradictory actions.

"Without being a theoretician or a profound thinker, he certainly saw his mission rather vaguely, very personally, at times even naively," the authors wrote. Excerpts of the book were published Thursday in Nezavisimaya Gazeta.

Yeltsin was one of Russia's few public figures who experienced profound public love — and later equally profound hatred. "There was a time when Yeltsin was the embodiment of faith and when he epitomized the hopes of millions of people," his former aides wrote. "He was seen almost as a Moses leading his people to the promised land," the book says. "Then, after it became clear that things never improve fast, that the road is long and fraught with losses, people recalled that Moses led his people around a desert for 40 years." (Reuters, AP)