Life of the party
Seemingly energetic and healthy, Boris Yeltsin takes the stage to dance during his 1996 campaign. A few weeks later, at his inauguration, onlookers expressed dismay that he appeared tired and ill.
Extreme highs, lows marked career of unpredictable politician
Former Russian President Boris Yeltsin weathered the ups and downs of his public and private life by drawing on his firm conviction that "right" was on his side.
There's the indelible image of a boisterous Yeltsin dancing freely during the 1996 presidential campaign. And there's the image of a weary old man, standing stiffly at his second presidential inauguration.
That these pictures came just weeks apart was typical of the extremes that pervaded Yeltsin's life and took him from peaks to valleys and back again in short order.
The courage of his convictions
Yeltsin's actions and autobiographies indicate his drive to lead and to persevere was inspired not by others, but from an internal force of character that even he confessed could create problems.
"In all my years of school I was the ringleader, always devising some mischief," Yeltsin recalled in his 1990 memoir, "Against the Grain." He was referring to the time he convinced his entire fifth-grade class to jump out of a first-floor window to escape the unpopular teacher.
But he could just as easily have been talking about his life in politics.
He resisted all opponents to his vision of reform, first under the Soviet system, then within Russia's first-ever democracy. Yeltsin did not hesitate to stand up for what he believed, which got him expelled as a child from school and as an adult from the Soviet regime.
He was reinstated both times, not by giving in but by digging in and arguing his case. The populist politician acknowledged he often acted from impulse -- a trait that led to some of his most historic actions, including his resistance to 1991 coup plotters.
"As an athlete, I know very well how sometimes all of a sudden you get a push and feel as if the game were going well, and you can seize the initiative," he wrote in "The Struggle for Russia" about his decision to rally Moscow crowds against the coup.
"Suddenly, I felt a jolt inside," he continued a few pages later. "I had to be out there right away, standing with those people. ... I felt a surge of energy and an enormous sense of relief inside."
Yeltsin relaxes with Barbara and George Bush at the White House during a trip to the United States in 1992. His dynamic personality was in stark contrast to the stoic manner of Soviet leaders.
Mixed reception on world stage
International leaders were not sure at times how to cope with Yeltsin's energy and unpredictability. Accustomed to the measured if dull manner of most Soviet leaders, they initially gave him a cool reception.
The mixed reviews abroad started in 1989, when he traveled to the United States for the first time and met with President George Bush. It became one of many trips on which he was accused of being too brash and of drinking too much.
But as the Soviet Union crumbled, world leaders quickly recognized they needed to back Yeltsin as the region's remaining unifying force. They acknowledged this by consulting with Yeltsin and inviting him to visit. They supplied billions of dollars in international aid for Russia. In 1997, the Group of Seven leading industrialized nations admitted Russia and renamed itself the G-8. They also consulted Russia on international problems, relying on its influence on matters such as disarmament and Iraqi weapons inspections.
The importance of symbolism
The naturally informal Yeltsin embraced what he perceived as an individual self-confidence and lack of formality among his American peers.
In his 1994 memoir, "The Struggle for Russia," he described in detail a passing moment at the U.S. presidential retreat at Camp David, Maryland, when then-Secretary of State James Baker casually poured a glass of juice for then-Defense Secretary Dick Cheney.
"If the meeting had been in Russia, we would have definitely had a young man in a tuxedo and bow tie serving, the bosses would have been sitting formally in their seats," Yeltsin wrote. "I thought to myself at the time: Why are Americans like this? I realized it was because they were absolutely independent people -- even from the president himself -- and therefore they could work for the sake of ideas, for the sake of a cause."
Yeltsin also recognized the importance of symbolism to voters. He took buses and subways. He quit the Communist Party when it was still in control in 1990, and he later moved to ban it. He dropped the honor guard at Lenin's Tomb in Moscow's Red Square and closed the Lenin Museum in 1993.
In a 1996 tell-all book, Yeltsin's former bodyguard, Alexander Korzhakov, portrayed the Russian leader as a hard drinker who suffered from bouts of depression.
Great confidence, intense doubts
Yeltsin's former bodyguard Alexander Korzhakov, in a 1996 tell-all book, described a drinking man, prone to depression. The Kremlin didn't comment.
Yeltsin himself, in "The Struggle for Russia," acknowledged his deep internal struggles. "The debilitating bouts of depression, the grave second thoughts, the insomnia and headaches in the middle of the night, the tears and despair ... the entire burden of the decisions made, the hurt from people close to me who did not support me at the last minute, who didn't hold up, who deceived me -- I have had to bear all of this," he wrote.
Yeltsin also volunteered a dependence "on the image I created and that those around me have created -- that of a willful, determined, strong politician."
He went on, in a less certain tone, "I am dependent on my notions and principles, which, like the majority of normal people, I can't do anything about. Such beliefs are absorbed in childhood, and they are stronger than we are."
Yeltsin's mother, to whom he was devoted, would remember her son as a hot-tempered boy but one who was always well-behaved.
Yeltsin clearly believed that whatever his faults, his country needed his leadership. But he defended his motives. "The chief goal of this restless president," he wrote, "is Russia's tranquillity."