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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

General, Governor, Kremlin Hopeful

General Alexander Lebed, a military hero and serious one-time presidential contender, managed to trespass the nation's blurred political boundaries by bluntly providing ready answers to a country looking for its path in a post-Soviet era.

Yet the character traits that ultimately cost him any hope of the Kremlin were just an extension of the virtues that made him so popular. Lebed was the first politician to tap into the public's need for a non-Communist patriot ready to restore order to a country in chaos after a liberal revolution.

Lebed was admired as an honest anti-establishment figure who loved his country and wanted to lead it differently than the compromised elite -- both liberal and Communist. But he was unable to navigate his way through the intrigue-ridden world of politics and time after time had to rely on a tactical group of backers, without ever building up a stable team or strategy of his own.

"Lebed dramatically burst into Russian history and tragically left it," said Dmitry Rogozin, head of the State Duma's foreign relations committee and Lebed's one-time ally in the 1995 Duma elections. When their political paths parted, he declared Lebed a traitor.

"He was a very complicated but outstanding man," Rogozin said.

Lebed was born April 20, 1950, to a humble working family in the Cossack capital of Novocherkassk. He entered the famed Ryazan College of Airborne Troops in 1969. As a battalion commander, he fought in Afghanistan before graduating with distinction in 1985 from the military's elite Frunze Academy. From then on, as a commander of the Tula paratroops division, he took part in suppressing bloody protests -- first in Baku and then in Tbilisi -- that proved to mark the collapse of the Soviet Union.

During the August 1991 coup attempt against Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, Lebed was in charge of the troops deployed around the Supreme Soviet building, the stronghold for Boris Yeltsin. Lebed's neutrality later won him credit for preventing bloodshed at the White House.

Soon afterward, he was appointed commander of the 14th army corps in Moldavia's breakaway Russian-speaking Transdnestr region. There, his early attack on Moldovan forces was believed to have prevented greater fighting with separatists, and he was championed as a savior of the beleaguered Russians in the region. His status grew to one close to a national hero when he then began to expose corruption in both the Transdnestr leadership and the military brass in Moscow.

At the end of the day, he was dismissed after openly defying an order from Defense Minister Pavel Grachev to withdraw the 14th army. Nonetheless, he came to Moscow in 1995 as a victor and embarked on a career as a politician.

First, he ran for the Duma and, although his moderate nationalist Congress of Russian Communities did not overcome the 5 percent barrier, he was elected to represent the Tula region.

His tough and witty proclamations of justice, public order and national dignity -- all spoken in a rumbling bass -- contrasted vividly with the mannerisms of other politicians and earned him wide popularity.

"He was not afraid to speak the truth and -- in 98 percent of cases -- he was right. He would say what we thought but were afraid to say," said Alexey Kiselev, a retired high-ranking U.S. Marine officer of Russian origin. He befriended Lebed in Transdnestr and has since acted as an unofficial adviser.

"He had a natural wit and loved Russia," Kiselev said by telephone from California.

Lebed's career peaked in 1996 when under the slogan "Truth and Order" he mounted a bid for the presidency on a platform of patriotism, anti-corruption pathos and liberal economics. With help from Boris Berezovsky and other Yeltsin campaigners, Lebed came in third.

Yeltsin appointed him Security Council secretary with vague powers to deal with Chechnya in exchange for his support in a run-off vote against Communist leader Gennady Zyuganov.

One of the most dramatic moments in Lebed's career was his talks that summer with Chechen rebel leaders, which ended with the signing of the Khasavyurt peace agreement on Aug. 31. Under the accord, the Russian army withdrew and the issue of Chechnya's independence was postponed for five years.

"I've spent more than enough time fighting," Lebed told rebel Chechen leader Aslan Maskhadov at their first meeting.

The pride of a soldier was an important underpinning of Lebed's politics, and his moral authority among the military allowed him to bear the brunt of the humiliating defeat.

History has yet to give a final verdict on the Khasavyurt agreement and Lebed's role. Although widely welcomed at the time, it has been blamed recently for the kidnappings and terrorism that later broke out and eventually led to the second Chechnya war.

During his four short months on the Security Council, Lebed defied the rules of the game by publicly demanding that Yeltsin fire either him or Interior Minister Anatoly Kulikov, whom he blamed for excessive bloodshed in Chechnya. He repeatedly hinted that Yeltsin was too sick to govern the country.

His office was in a constant power struggle with then-presidential chief of staff Anatoly Chubais, Viktor Chernomyrdin's Cabinet and the power ministries. Lebed charged ahead with the brazenness of a general who often ignored his aides, pushing his own ideal of a Russian leader.

In October, Yeltsin fired Lebed for "inadmissible mistakes that harmed Russia" and creating a "pre-electoral atmosphere" in the Kremlin.

He then tried and failed to build a coalition around his Russian National-Republican Party. But in 1998 he found another way to possibly get back into the Kremlin -- he beat the Kremlin-backed incumbent to win gubernatorial elections in the country's largest region, Krasnoyarsk.

Krasnoyarsk aluminum boss Anatoly Bykov, who had to a large degree secured Lebed's victory by rendering his support, had hoped that Lebed would soon leave the region to return to Moscow, said Nikolai Petrov, a political scientist who follows regional politics.

But Lebed, seeing that Yeltsin was shaking up the government, realized that he would have to stay in Krasnoyarsk for a while and began to establish his control over the region's cash flows.

A series of disputes with the local elite broke out. Bykov and Lebed had a public brawl.

"A fight to the death began, which has gone on until now," Petrov said in a telephone interview from Minnesota, where he teaches at a college. "He remained a military commander and had many conflicts, including many stupid ones."

As in Moscow, Lebed changed his entourage many times and had few loyal friends. Earlier this year, he fired his entire staff and declared an open competition to fill the vacancies in the governor's office. Nikolai Ashlapov, who took over as interim governor Sunday, was picked by Lebed just three months ago.

Since the federal government redistributed the flow of tax money between the regions and Moscow, the Krasnoyarsk budget has suffered holes that further threatened Lebed's clout. He began to fight for the tax money generated by the Norilsk Nickel metals giant, which led to a conflict with the Taimyr autonomous region where Norilsk Nickel is registered.

By the end of the month, Lebed and Taimyr Governor Alexander Khloponin were to report to Putin with their proposals on redefining the relationship between the regions. Lebed had proposed merging Taimyr and another semi-autonomous region, Evenkia, into a single Krasnoyarsk region.

"In regional politics, real influence often does not coincide with nominal authority and much depends on who sits where in meetings and what is being offered to whom," Petrov said. "Lebed has never been good at that."

Yet Lebed has secured his place in Russian history as a bright and independent-minded general who has never been anybody's puppet.

"Lebed was demanded by society when we had a weak, undetermined and unpredictable president," Petrov said. "Some of his traits were continued in [Prime Minister Yevgeny] Primakov. And Putin is also a continuation of Lebed. But if Lebed is an army variant of Yeltsin's antipode, Putin is a KGB variant."

Lebed is survived by his wife, Inna, three children and five grandchildren.