Ex-Russian Leader Boris Yeltsin Dies

Yeltsin 1931 2007 death generic 1999/2/9: Boris Yeltsin headshot, as Russia President, over Moscow skyline and Russian flag
Boris Yeltsin, who kicked the props out from under the tottering Soviet empire but fumbled his chance to lead Russia to democratic prosperity, died Monday in relative obscurity in the nation he created from scratch. He was 76.

The head of the Russian Presidential Administration's medical center said Yeltsin died of "cardiovascular inefficiency" at 3:45 p.m. local time (7:45 a.m. EDT).

Larger than life during his tenure, Yeltsin shrank from public view following his retirement on New Year's Eve 1999, and in recent years has rarely given interviews. By the time the Kremlin announced his death in a Moscow hospital, he seemed like a figure from Russia's distant history.

Russians today prefer to recall the glory of the Soviet era, not the suffering that followed its implosion, and the initial announcements of his death on state-run and private channels were followed quickly by soap operas and fashion programs. One network, NTV, began continuous coverage in the evening, but there was little sense of a nation in mourning.

President Vladimir Putin's statement came some four hours after the death was announced. He praised Yeltsin as a man "thanks to whom a whole new epoch has started. New democratic Russia was born, a free state open to the world; a state in which power truly belongs to the people."

Yeltsin is to be buried Wednesday in Moscow's historic Novodevichy cemetery, the resting place of such diverse figures as Nikita Khrushchev and Anton Chekhov.

CBS News correspondent Elizabeth Palmer says Yeltsin "wasn't politically correct, but he was politically astute."

After starting his career as a Communist party boss, Yeltsin left the party in 1990 and successfully re-invented himself as a democrat, reports Palmer.

Yeltsin sometimes seemed to have spent his years as Russia's first freely elected president in retreat from the reforms he so theatrically demanded as a Communist Party leader and exultant wrecker of the totalitarian regime.

Photo Essay: Boris Yeltsin
He stood on top of a tank during the 1991 coup attempt by Communist hard-liners like a big game hunter celebrating his kill. But in 1993, he ordered tanks to shell upstart members of Parliament. He broke up the old Soviet Union, but then invaded Chechnya when the region joined the rush for independence.

He presided over the abolition of the old KGB, but then named a KGB veteran as his heir apparent.

However, what angered many Russians was how Yeltsin the crusader against Soviet corruption presided over a fire sale of state-owned industries to Kremlin insiders, which created a small cadre of Russian billionaires overnight.

Meanwhile, during his tenure many ordinary Russian citizens saw their savings wiped out, their jobs evaporate, the society their parents and grandparents had created disintegrate.

"He was one of us," said Galina Alexandrovna, a Moscow resident, recalling the heady days after the Soviet collapse. "When we elected him we all shouted, 'Hurrah for Boris Yeltsin' but then Russia started selling itself off and we the simple people didn't like what was happening."

Mikhail Gorbachev, the last Soviet president, eulogized Yeltsin, both a comrade and a nemesis, as one "on whose shoulders are both great deeds for the country and serious errors," according to the news agency Interfax.

Perhaps frustrated by Russia's stumbling out of the gate after the Soviet era, he increasingly concentrated power in his own hands — and finally handed it over to Putin, the former KGB colonel who rose rapidly through the Kremlin ranks.

After Putin took power, he was careful to cultivate the image of the anti-Yeltsin. The second Russian president always appears sober where Yeltsin often was not; Putin is decisive where Yeltsin waffled, firing Cabinet after Cabinet. Putin appears calculating where Yeltsin could be spontaneous, to the point of being impulsive.

Yeltsin's greatest moments, in fact, came during fitful flashes of inspiration and surges of energy.

Yeltsin cast himself as a fearless defender of Russia against tyranny in August 1991, adds Palmer, when he jumped on a tank and rallied Russians against a coup threatening then-Soviet leader Gorbachev. But within months, the Soviet state itself had fallen and Yeltsin had seized power from Gorbachev.

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

"A man must live like a great bright flame and burn as brightly as he can," Yeltsin once said. "In the end he burns out. But this is better than a mean little flame."

  • Tucker Reals

    Tucker Reals is the foreign editor, based at the CBS News London bureau.