Even after his death in April 2007, Boris Yeltsin remains the most controversial figure in recent Russian history. Although Mikhail Gorbachev presided over the decline of the Communist party and the withdrawal of Soviet control over eastern Europe, it was Yeltsin-Russia's first elected president-who buried the Soviet Union itself. Upon taking office, Yeltsin quickly embarked on a sweeping makeover of newly democratic Russia, beginning with a program of excruciatingly painful market reforms that earned him wide acclaim in the West and deep recrimination from many Russian citizens. In this, the first biography of Yeltsin's entire life, Soviet scholar Timothy Colton traces Yeltsin's development from a peasant boy in the Urals to a Communist party apparatchik, and then ultimately to a nemesis of the Soviet order. Based on unprecedented interviews with Yeltsin himself as well as scores of other Soviet officials, journalists, and businessmen, Colton explains how and why Yeltsin broke with single-party rule and launched his drive to replace it with democracy. Yeltsin's colossal attempt to bring democracy to Russia remains one of the great, unfinished stories of our time. As anti-Western policies and rhetoric resurface in Putin's increasingly bellicose Russia, Yeltsin offers essential insights into the past, present, and future of this vast and troubled nation.
When President Boris Yeltsin (1931 2007) left office in 1999, he was unpopular in Russia and viewed as a buffoon by some internationally, but it would be a mistake to underestimate his influence on contemporary Russia, Colton, director of Harvard's Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies, argues in this balanced yet sympathetic portrayal. Unpretentious, patriotic and with a strong work ethic, says Colton, the provincial young man, whose father had spent time in the gulag, rose up the Soviet bureaucratic ladder. But apparently, in 1989, on a trip to the U.S., Yeltsin saw the benefits of capitalism and foresaw the pending Soviet collapse; Yeltsin's popularity among ordinary Russians served him well when he made his famous 1991 tank speech during the anti-Gorbachev coup. Colton agrees with most pundits that overwork and poor lifestyle habits eventually caught up with Yeltsin, forcing him to leave office in 1999; he named Vladimir Putin his successor. While praising Yeltsin's ability to keep Russia together and sow the seeds for later economic success, Colton criticizes his failure to establish constitutional safeguards that might have prevented Russia's recent turn toward authoritarianism. Colton's book offers a finely detailed portrait of a key international leader.