The media and their readers often have short memories, so many will see this morning’s headlines for the death of Boris Yeltsin and ask “who he?” But the collapse of the Soviet empire was the biggest story for a generation, and Boris Yeltsin was the man at the centre of it.

You can read detailed obituaries in The New York Times, The Guardian and The Times of London. They all tell the same story: a flawed human being (who isn’t?) who accomplished astounding changes.

Yeltsin started out as a reformer within the Soviet communist party at the side of then-leader Mikhail Gorbachev. But he fell out with Gorbachev, and in 1989, in the country’s first real elections, won his own mandate as leader of the more radical forces in the Soviet parliament.

The presence of a pro-reform opposition allowed Gorbachev to play the role of moderate, and to balance in the centre for another two years while he dismantled most of the apparatus of dictatorship. When that balancing act finally came to grief in the attempted communist coup of 1991, it was Yeltsin who led the popular resistance.

A few months later, the Soviet Union and the communist party were no more, and Yeltsin was leader of an independent Russia – the first elected leader in its history. At the beginning of 2000 he acquired an even more striking distinction, becoming the first Russian leader to leave office of his own accord.

In the meantime, many mistakes were made, some of them – such as the invasion of Chechnya – with horrific consequences. But the achievement remained. The totalitarian state was gone for good; even the worst fears that democrats hold for Russia under his successor, Vladimir Putin, amount to but a pale echo of the Soviet past.

Paying tribute to Yeltsin last night, Putin said “A man has passed away thanks to whom a whole new epoch was born … A new democratic Russia was born, a free state open to the world. A state in which power truly belongs to the people.”

For those who lived through the Cold War, and who remember how impossibly utopian words like that would have sounded 30 years ago, Yeltsin’s heroism will not be forgotten.


Boris’ greatest hits

And with thanks to YouTube here are a few of Yeltsin’s most memorable moments — including this montage. Click on the images to run the video:

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