Boris Yeltsin was president of Russia from 1991 to 1999, the first popularly and freely elected leader in Russian history. Ultimately, Yeltsin was a mixed figure on the international stage, variously considered a heroic visionary who helped bring down the USSR peacefully and took Russia into a new era, yet also a chaotic and ineffective alcoholic, more often the focus of ridicule than praise.
Yeltsin left a freer world, playing a pivotal role in the collapse of the Soviet Union, yet underdelivered on many of the promises of economic prosperity he made to the Russian people. His presidency was characterised by Russia’s move to a free-market economy, conflicts in Chechnya and his own recurring health struggles.
Here are 10 facts about Boris Yeltsin.
1. His family were purged
The year before Yeltsin was born in 1931, Yeltsin’s grandfather Ignatii was accused of being a kulak (wealthy peasant) during Stalin’s purges. The family’s lands were confiscated, and Yeltsin’s grandparents were sent to Siberia. Yeltsin’s parents were forced into a kholkoz (collective farm).
2. He lost his finger playing catch with a grenade
Whilst at secondary school, Yeltsin was an active sportsman and prankster. One prank backfired spectacularly, when the grenade he was playing with exploded, taking off the thumb and index finger of his left hand.
3. He admitted to reading illegal literature
Despite being a devout communist to begin with, Yeltsin became disillusioned with the totalitarian and hard-line elements of the regime. This was reinforced, he would later claim, when he read an illegal copy of The Gulag Archipelago by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. The book, detailing the worst atrocities of the Gulag system, became a key read in the underground literature or ‘samzidat’ of the USSR.
4. He resigned from the Politbureau in 1987
Yeltsin handed in his resignation from the Politbureau (the control centre of the USSR’s Communist Party) in 1987. Before this resignation, Yeltsin had been openly critical of the party’s stunted reforms and, by extension, of the USSR’s leader at the time, Mikhail Gorbachev. This marked the first time in history that someone had voluntarily resigned from the Politbureau.
5. He once gave a speech sitting on the barrel of a tank
On 18 August 1991, just over two months after being elected as president of the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic (SFSR), Yeltsin found himself defending the USSR from a coup by communist hardliners opposed to Gorbachev’s reforms. Yeltsin sat atop one of the coup-plotters’ tanks in Moscow and rallied the crowd. Soon after the coup failed, and Yeltsin emerged a hero.
6. Yeltsin signed the Belovezh Accords in 1991
On 8 December 1991, Yeltsin signed the Belovezh Accords in a ‘dacha’ (holiday cottage) in Belovezhskaya Pushcha in Belarus, effectively ending the USSR. He was accompanied by the leaders of the Belarussian and Ukrainian SSRs. Kazakhstan’s leader attempted to join but his plane was diverted.
Yeltsin had gone into the meeting to discuss the restructuring of the USSR, yet in a matter of hours and many drinks later, the death warrant of the state was signed. The original document was found to have gone missing in 2013.
7. He had major alcohol issues
An intoxicated Yeltsin, on a visit to US President Bill Clinton, was once found running down Pennsylvania Ave, wearing only his pants, trying to hail a taxi and order a pizza. He only returned to his hotel when he was promised a pizza would be delivered.
Yeltsin also once played the spoons on the head of the (bald) President Askar Akayev of Kyrgyzstan.
8. He embarrassed a party of Irish officials in 1994
On 30 September 1994, Yeltsin left a party of dignitaries, including Irish ministers, waiting awkwardly on the runways of Ireland’s Shannon Airport after allegedly being too drunk or hungover to depart the plane.
Yeltsin’s daughter would later claim her father had suffered a heart attack. ‘Circling over Shannon’ would go on to become a euphemism for being too drunk to function in Ireland. The incident raised questions about Yeltsin’s health and capacity to function.
9. He came very close to nuclear war
In January 1995 a team of scientists launched a rocket to help study the Northern Lights from Svalbard in Norway. The Russian military, still fearful of a US attack, interpreted this as a potential first strike, and Yeltsin was brought the nuclear suitcase. Thankfully, nuclear armageddon was averted when the true purpose of the rocket was established.
10. He became erratic towards the end of his presidency
In the last days of his presidency, facing 2% approval ratings, Yeltsin became increasingly erratic, hiring and firing ministers almost daily. When he finally resigned on 31 December 1999, the relatively unknown figure he’d appointed as his successor was the last man standing in the game of musical chairs. That man was Vladimir Putin.