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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

The Deeply Contradictory Legacy of Boris Yeltsin

ReutersRussian President Boris Yeltsin making a speech atop an armored vehicle outside the White House on Aug. 19, 1991.
Boris Yeltsin was a deeply contradictory figure, rocketing to popularity in the Communist era on pledges to fight corruption -- but proving unable, or unwilling, to prevent the looting of state industry as it moved into private hands after the Soviet collapse.

During his nine years as Russia's first freely elected president, he steadfastly defended freedom of the press, but was a master at manipulating the media. He amassed as much power as possible in his office, then gave it up in a dramatic New Year's address at the end of 1999.

Yeltsin's greatest moments came in bursts. He stood atop a tank to resist an attempted coup against Gorbachev in August 1991, and spearheaded the peaceful end of the Soviet state on Dec. 25 of that year.

Ill with heart problems, and facing possible defeat by a Communist challenger in his 1996 re-election bid, he marshaled his energy and sprinted through the final weeks of the campaign. The challenge transformed the shaky convalescent into a spry, dancing candidate.

But Yeltsin was an inconsistent reformer who never took much interest in the mundane tasks of day-to-day government and nearly always blamed Russia's myriad problems on subordinates.

Yeltsin damaged his democratic credentials by using force to solve political disputes, though he claimed his actions were necessary to keep the country together.

He sent tanks and troops in October 1993 to flush armed supporters out of the parliament after they had sparked violence in the streets of Moscow. In December 1994, Yeltsin launched a war against separatists in Chechnya.

Tens of thousands of people were killed in the Chechnya conflict, and a defeated and humiliated Army withdrew at the end of 1996. The war solved nothing -- and federal troops resumed fighting in Chechnya in fall 1999.

The second war was seen as largely driven by Yeltsin's prime minister, Vladimir Putin, who became president some three months later when Yeltsin stunned the nation by resigning on New Year's Eve 1999.

In the final years of his leadership, Yeltsin was dogged by health problems and often seemed out of touch. He retreated regularly to his country residence outside Moscow and stayed away from the Kremlin for days, even weeks at a time. As the country lurched from crisis to crisis, its leader appeared increasingly absent.

Yet Yeltsin had made a stunning debut as Russian president. He introduced many basics of democracy, guaranteeing the rights to free speech, private property and multiparty elections, and opening the borders to trade and travel. Though full of bluster, he revealed more of his personal life and private doubts than any previous Russian leader had.

"The debilitating bouts of depression, the grave second thoughts, the insomnia and headaches in the middle of the night, the tears and despair ... the hurt from people close to me who did not support me at the last minute, who didn't hold up, who deceived me -- I have had to bear all of this," he wrote in his 1994 memoir, "The Struggle for Russia."

Yeltsin pushed through free-market reforms, creating a private sector and allowing foreign investment. In foreign policy, he assured independence for Russia's Soviet-era satellites, oversaw troop and arms reductions, and developed warm relations with Western leaders.

That was the democratic Yeltsin, who in August 1991 rallied tens of thousands of Russians to face down a hard-line Soviet coup attempt. Throughout his nearly decade-long leadership, he remained Russia's strongest bulwark against communism.

But there was another Yeltsin.

He was hesitant to act against crime and corruption -- beginning in his own administration -- while they sapped public faith and stunted democracy. His government's wrenching economic reforms impoverished millions of Russians -- poor people whose wages and pensions Yeltsin's government often went months without paying.

In the course of the Yeltsin era, per capita income fell about 75 percent, and the nation's population fell by more than 2 million, due largely to the steep decline in public health.

Yeltsin was a master of Kremlin intrigues, and preferred the chess game of politics to the detail work of solving economic and social problems. He played top advisers against one another, and never let any of them accumulate much power, lest they challenge him.

He fired the entire government four times in 1998 and 1999. The economy sank into a deep recession in summer 1998, but Yeltsin rarely commented on the troubles and never offered a plan to combat them.

He was quick to act if anyone threatened his hold on power, standing fast even when his traditional allies called on him to step down. He easily faced down an impeachment attempt by the Communist-dominated State Duma in May 1999.

Yeltsin is survived by his wife, Naina, two daughters and several grandchildren. Funeral plans were not immediately announced.