Who Was in Charge of Russia Before Putin?

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A Brief History

On August 9, 1999, Russian President Boris Yeltsin fired not only his Prime Minister, Sergei Stepashin, but also his entire cabinet.  Firing an entire cabinet?  Yeltsin had previously done just that 3 times before!  Despite being the second most powerful country in the world (at least militarily), Russia has some less than modern political traits.

Digging Deeper

After the break up of the Soviet Union in 1991, Russia lost its de facto empire and began a new chapter in its history as its own country once again.  Of course, many Russians were thrilled to be done with communism, while others pined for the previous bragging rights of being such an enormous and powerful country as the USSR had been, as well as the (forced) order that a totalitarian state provided.  Enter Boris Yeltsin as the first President of Russia in 1991, a former Communist Party member that had established his reformer bona fides in 1987 when he resigned his post as a Politburo member while demanding reform.  The late 1980’s saw the United States spending lavishly on military budgets while the USSR struggled to match US military spending, causing the Soviet economy to groan under such strain.

Yeltsin on 22 August 1991.  This file comes from the website of the President of the Russian Federation and is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 License.

Prior to the disintegration of the USSR, in 1990, Yeltsin was elected as the Chairman of the Russian Supreme Soviet, as well as President of the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic in 1991, setting the stage for him to become the first President of Russia in the new era.  The Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic became the Russian Federation in December of 1991 as the break up of the Soviet Union became finalized.  Yeltsin was by default the President of Russia and was reelected in 1996, although accusations of corrupt election practices were rampant.

Yeltsin oversaw the transformation of Russia from the nucleus of a communist confederation with a totalitarian government into a free market (sort of) economy run by democratically elected officials.  The transition was not always a smooth one, with economic hardship and often lack of direction symptomatic of the debate about exactly how Russia would transition.  Meanwhile, parts of Russia that were not purely Russian ethnic in origin, such as Chechnya and Dagestan, especial Muslim majority areas, were eager to also claim their own independence as had other previous Soviet Socialist Republics such as Georgia and the Ukraine.  The Russian government had to fight small wars to stamp out the independence minded rebels, adding to the disorder and questionable stability of the Russian regime.  A new class of rich and powerful Russians evolved, oligarchs that were basically underworld bosses that seized economic power and soaked the country of its wealth.  After having been enormously popular with the Russian population from the late 1980’s into the first years of his Presidency, Yeltsin experienced a steep nose dive in confidence and popularity, becoming a figure of loathing and scorn as the economy and political situation deteriorated.

Anti-Yeltsin protests.  Photograph by Бахтиёр Абдуллаев.

The unrest and unsteady economy led Yeltsin to take strong measures to attempt to wrestle control of the government from the forces of chaos, including the extraordinary measure of firing his cabinet a total of 4 times.  Such disarray could not continue forever without resulting in another revolution, and in 1999, former KGB official Vladimir Putin took the reins of Russian government as President and has not let go since, running Russia as an autocracy totalitarian state with a veneer of phony democratic elections just as the communists once ran the USSR.

Boris Yeltsin was born in 1931, in the Sverdlovsk Oblast of the Ural region of Russia and was of Russian ethnic origin.  Yeltsin’s father is believed to have physically beaten his wife and children.  The Stalinist era of Russian history was not kind to the Yeltsin family, as their previously lucrative farm drew the ire of the government and “corrective” measures were taken to put the family back in their place, as it were.  Famine during the 1930’s and the confiscation of the family farm hit the Yeltsin’s hard, but Boris was smart enough to study at school and played the Soviet game needed to avoid government censure and be considered a good citizen while growing up in Kazan, Tatarstan.  He later attended the Ural State Technical University and took part in Communist Party activities, joining the Party and participating in athletics.  Somewhere along the way, Boris managed to blow off a thumb and finger while playing with a hand grenade!

Yeltsin (second from left) with childhood friends

Yeltsin was adept at his work in the building trades and rose up to supervisor status, becoming the Sverdlovsk House-Building Combine Director in 1965.  As Yeltsin’s status rose, he became a part of the “Nomenklatura,” the ruling class of people that actually ran the workings of the USSR, a status sanctioned by the Communist Party.  Yeltsin’s involvement in politics finally culminated with his election as Chairman of the Russian Supreme Soviet leading to his years as President of the Russian Federation.

The end of Yeltsin’s time as President saw him and his government accused of incompetence, disarray and corruption, and he was forced to resign his post in 1999.  Tales of heart disease and alcoholism dogged the former darling of the public, and his popularity polls were a dismal 2%!  (He had in fact suffered multiple heart attacks and had had heart surgery prior to resigning.)  After resigning Yeltsin continued to suffer a variety of health issues, and largely remained out of the public spotlight.  One criticism of his successor, Vladimir Putin, voiced by Yeltsin was over Putin’s reinstatement of the National Anthem from the Soviet era.

Yeltsin with Patriarch Alexy II and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.  This file comes from the website of the President of the Russian Federation and is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 License.

Boris Yeltsin died at the age of 76 in 2007, and was given a church funeral at the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour in Moscow, the first Russian leader given a religious burial since the Russian Revolution in 1917.  President Putin marked Yeltsin’s passing by declaring a single day of mourning, flying the Russian flag at half mast that day.

The legacy of Boris Yeltsin is not yet clear, with indifference and disagreement about his historical impact.  He did occupy an important niche in Russian history as the first non-Soviet leader in the era following the break up of the Soviet Union, but did not make dramatic improvements or dramatic disasters enough to clearly define his role as definitely good or bad.  Compared to Putin, Yeltsin might not look so bad after all!

Putin in the cockpit of a Tupolev Tu-160 strategic bomber before the flight, August 2005.  This file comes from the website of the President of the Russian Federation and is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 License.

Question for students (and subscribers):  Do you believe Boris Yeltsin was a positive or negative influence on Russian history?  Please let us know in the comments section below this article.

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Historical Evidence

For more information, please see…

Bushkovitch, Paul. Concise History of Russia. Cambridge University Press, 2011.

Colton, Timothy. Yeltsin: A Life. Basic Books, 2011.

Yeltsin, Boris. Against the Grain: An Autobiography.  Simon & Schuster, 1990.

The featured image in this article, a photograph of President Boris Yeltsin handing over the “presidential” copy of the Russian constitution to Vladimir Putin, 31 December 1999, comes from the website of the President of the Russian Federation and is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 License.  In short: you are free to distribute and modify the file as long as you attribute www.kremlin.ru.  Note: Works published on site before April 8, 2014 are also licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 License. 

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About Author

Major Dan

Major Dan is a retired veteran of the United States Marine Corps. He served during the Cold War and has traveled to many countries around the world. Prior to his military service, he graduated from Cleveland State University, having majored in sociology. Following his military service, he worked as a police officer eventually earning the rank of captain prior to his retirement.