- The Washington Times - Monday, April 23, 2007

11:58 a.m.

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MOSCOW — Former President Boris Yeltsin, who engineered the final collapse of the Soviet Union and pushed Russia to embrace democracy and a market economy, died today. He was 76.

Kremlin spokesman Alexander Smirnov confirmed Mr. Yeltsin’s death, and Russian news agencies cited Sergei Mironov, head of the presidential administration’s medical center, as saying the former president died of heart failure at the Central Clinical Hospital.

Despite Mr. Yeltsin’s pro-democracy and economic reform efforts, many Russian citizens will remember him mostly for presiding over the country’s steep decline.

Mikhail Gorbachev, the last Soviet president, summed up the complexity of Mr. Yeltsin’s tenure in a condolence statement minutes after the death was announced. He referred to Mr. Yeltsin as one “on whose shoulders are both great deeds for the country and serious errors,” according to the news agency Interfax.

Mr. Yeltsin was a 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 during his nine years as Russia’s first freely elected president.

Mr. Yeltsin steadfastly defended freedom of the press, but he was a master at manipulating the media. His hand-picked successor, Vladimir Putin, has proved far more popular even as he has tightened Kremlin control over both Russia’s industry and its press.

Mr. Yeltsin amassed as much power as possible in his office — then gave it all up in a dramatic New Year’s address at the end of 1999.

Mr. Yeltsin’s greatest moments came in bursts. He stood atop a tank to resist an attempted coup 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 Mr. 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.

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

Boris Nikolayevich Yeltsin was born Feb. 1, 1931, into a peasant family in the Ural Mountains’ Sverdlovsk region. When he was 3, his father was imprisoned in dictator Josef Stalin’s purges. His purported crime was owning property before the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution.

Mr. Yeltsin was, by his own account, a garrulous, scrappy boy who loved pranks and was quick to fight. From the start, he bucked authority.

He was expelled from elementary school for criticizing a teacher at a school assembly. Early in his career as a construction engineer, he was given written reprimands 17 times in one year — “a new record,” he would later recall proudly. His long career as a Communist Party official was rife with battles with higher party officials.

He was educated as an engineer and married a fellow student, Naina Girina. They had two daughters.

Besides his wife and daughters, Mr. Yeltsin is survived by several grandchildren.

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