In a written statement, President George W. Bush commented on the death of former Russian president Boris Yeltsin. “President Yeltsin was an historic figure who served his country during a time of momentous change,” Mr. Bush said. “He played a key role as the Soviet Union dissolved, helped lay the foundations of freedom in Russia, and became the first democratically elected leader in that country’s history.”
Mr. Yeltsin was the Communist Party chief in Moscow when he challenged the Soviet system and, in October 1987, called for more far-reaching reform. Within a month he was removed as Moscow party chief, and shortly thereafter was fired from the ruling Politburo. He became a prominent leader of Russia’s fledgling political opposition.
He was elected to the Soviet parliament in 1989, when the Soviet Union, experimenting with limited democracy, held national elections. In 1991, Mr. Yeltsin was elected president of the Russian Soviet Federal Socialist Republic, the largest of the Soviet republics. Mikhail Gorbachev was then president of the Soviet Union.
But as Mr. Yeltsin pushed for change, a combination of military, Communist Party, and K.G.B. plotters attempted to reassert their power through a coup in August 1991. The leaders of the coup detained Mr. Gorbachev, but not Mr. Yeltsin, who famously climbed atop an army tank in Moscow to rally tens of thousands against the coup. The coup failed, and by December 1991, the Soviet Union collapsed.
Mr. Yeltsin's presidency included elements, such as sweeping privatizations and a war to prevent Chechnya from breaking away from Russia, that created controversy with regard to his legacy. Nonetheless, Mr. Yeltsin began the difficult, if incomplete, process of building a new Russia, including putting his country on a path to democracy and a market economy. He also established a new relationship between Russia and the United States.
As U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said that Boris Yeltsin “will be remembered for his significant contribution to ending the Cold War.” He also “ushered in a new era for his country in which ordinary Russians were able to speak and worship without fear, to own property, and to choose their leaders freely.”