Sputnik Escalates the Cold War
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Yeltsin, Boris (1931–2007)

Soviet reform politician during the last years of the Soviet Union and first elected president of Russia (1991–1999). Born on 1 February 1931 in Butka in the Sverdlovsk Oblast in the Ural Mountains, Boris Nikolayevich Yeltsin graduated from the Urals Polytechnical Institute in 1955 as a construction engineer. He joined the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) in 1961 and worked on various construction projects in the Sverdlovsk area until 1968.

Yeltsin rose through the party ranks in the Sverdlovsk Oblast Party Committee. He was elected the region's industry secretary in 1975 and first secretary in 1976. During 1976–1985, he moved through the national ranks of the CPSU. He served as a deputy in the Council of the Union (1978–1989), a member of the Supreme Soviet Commission on Transport and Communication (1979–1984), a member of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet (1984–1985), and chief of the Central Committee Department of Construction in 1985. The new CPSU general secretary, Mikhail Gorbachev, summoned Yeltsin to Moscow in April 1985 as part of a team of reform-minded party members.

Gorbachev asked Yeltsin to reform the Moscow City Committee. Yeltsin began to clear the city's Party Committee of corrupt officials, which endeared him to Muscovites. Eventually, he became dissatisfied with the slow pace of the perestroika reforms and openly criticized the CPSU officials. This was directed at the power base of Yegor Ligachev, who endorsed a moderate party–led reform. In 1987, Yeltsin resigned to force Gorbachev to take sides. Gorbachev needed Yeltsin to counterbalance Ligachev's growing skepticism and rejected his resignation, asking him to curb his critiques. Yeltsin ignored Gorbachev's plea. Thus, Gorbachev allowed Ligachev to continue the campaign against Yeltsin, which finally led to Yeltsin's dismissal as first secretary of the Moscow Party Committee. In 1988 Yeltsin was also expelled from the Politburo, but he remained in Moscow as the first deputy chair of the State Committee for Construction.

Yeltsin went on to win a landslide victory in the newly established Congress of People's Deputies of the Russian Soviet Federated Socialistic Republic (RSFSR) in March 1989. In May 1990 he became chairman of the RSFSR. By 12 June 1990 the RSFSR, along with the other fourteen Soviet republics, had declared its independence. Yeltsin was directly elected to the newly created office of president of the now-independent RSFSR on 12 June 1991. He then demanded Gorbachev's resignation. Gorbachev refused to step down, but he did agree to sign a new union treaty in late August 1991.

Hard-line conservative forces within the CPSU tried to prevent the signing of the treaty, which would lead to the dissolution of the Soviet Union. On 19 August 1991, the conservatives dispatched troops to key positions around Moscow and held Gorbachev under house arrest. Yeltsin climbed atop one of the tanks surrounding the parliament building, denounced the CPSU coup as illegal, and called for a general strike. He and his supporters remained in the parliament building as they rallied international support. For three days, thousands of people demonstrated in front of parliament, holding off an expected attack on the building.

The failed putsch and massive street demonstrations quickly destroyed the credibility of Gorbachev's perestroika and glasnost reforms. On 24 December 1991 the RSFSR and then later Russia took the Soviet Union's seat in the United Nation (UN) Security Council. The next day Gorbachev resigned, an act that officially dissolved the Soviet Union. Yeltsin, as president of Russia, immediately abolished the CPSU. In the meantime, he had negotiated with the leaders of Ukraine and Belarus to form the Commonwealth of Independent States as a federation of most of the former Soviet republics.

With a stagnating economy, a hostile legislature, and an attempted coup, Yeltsin was not expected to win reelection in 1996. However, he staged an amazing comeback. Despite becoming increasingly unpopular and suffering from ill health, he continued as president of Russia until 31 December 1999, when he surprisingly named Vladimir Putin acting president. Yeltsin died in Moscow on 23 April 2007.

Frank Beyersdorf

Further Reading
Breslauer, George W. Gorbachev and Yeltsin As Leaders. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002.; Yeltsin, Boris. Against the Grain. New York: Summit, 1999.; Yeltsin, Boris. The Struggle for Russia. New York: Random House, 1994.

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