MOSCOW - Boris Yeltsin, who kicked the props out from under the tottering Soviet empire and then struggled to build a nation from its wreckage, died yesterday after seeing many of his democratic reforms rolled back. The former Russian president was 76.
Larger than life during his tenure, Yeltsin shrank from public view following his retirement on New Year's Eve 1999, and in recent years rarely gave interviews. But the big, bumptious politician with the soft pink features and wave of white hair could be seen again yesterday in file footage on Russian television.
President Vladimir Putin spoke to the nation four hours after the announcement of Yeltsin's death to praise briefly Russia's first freely elected president as a man "thanks to whom a whole new epoch has started."
"New democratic Russia was born, a free state open to the world, a state in which power truly belongs to the people," Putin said.
Yeltsin will be buried tomorrow in Moscow's historic Novodevichy cemetery, the resting place of writer Anton Chekhov and former Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev. Putin postponed his annual state of the state address from tomorrow to Thursday in deference.
According to Andrew Kuchins, of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, in Washington, Yeltsin was "a revolutionary leader at a revolutionary moment," a reformer who battled the Communist Party from the inside, an exultant wrecker of the U.S.S.R.'s totalitarian regime.
But as president of Russia, he seemed too willing to use force, too tolerant of corruption, too eager to trust his gut - even when it led to disaster.
He broke up the old Soviet Union, but then invaded Chechnya when the region joined the rush for independence.
He abolished the old KGB, but then named a KGB veteran - Putin - as his heir apparent.
But what angered many Russians was how Yeltsin the crusader against Soviet corruption presided over a fire sale of state-owned industries to Kremlin insiders, a move that created a small cadre of Russian billionaires overnight.
Meanwhile, during his tenure, many ordinary Russian citizens saw their savings wiped out, their jobs evaporate, the society their parents and grandparents had created disintegrate.
Mikhail Gorbachev, the last Soviet president, eulogized Yeltsin - both a comrade and a nemesis - as one "on whose shoulders are both great deeds for the country and serious errors," according to the news agency Interfax.
Yeltsin was not one to apologize. "A man must live like a great, bright flame and burn as brightly as he can," Yeltsin had been quoted as saying. "In the end, he burns out. But this is better than a mean, little flame."
Boris Nikolayevich Yeltsin was born Feb. 1, 1931, into a peasant family in the Sverdlovsk region of the Ural Mountains.
When he was 3, his father was imprisoned in dictator Josef Stalin's purges for allegedly owning property before the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution.
Brash and ambitious, Yeltsin rose through the ranks of the Communist Party. But he chafed against the party's iron discipline and turned into one of its most determined foes.
After he helped bring down the old regime, Yeltsin couldn't be bothered with the tricky matter of governing and was quick to blame subordinates for Russia's multiplying problems.
"He brought about the fairly peaceful collapse of the Soviet Union, the dismantling of the Communist Party," Kuchins said. "Then he inherited a large hairball of a job he wasn't well suited to do on a day-to-day basis."
Admirers contend that it was the trauma of the U.S.S.R.'s death throes, not Yeltsin's leadership, that brought Russia to the brink.
Yeltsin pushed through free-market reforms, creating a private sector and allowing foreign investment. In foreign policy, he assured independence for Russia's Soviet-era satellites, oversaw troop and arms reductions, and warmly embraced Western leaders.
"What set him apart was that he very often defeated his opponents, but he never trampled on them," said Grigory Yavlinsky, the head of Russia's liberal Yabloko party, which under Putin has been marginalized.
"He would knock an opponent off his horse, but never destroy him. In his time there were many shortcomings and even crimes, but . . . there was never any physical removal of political opponents in Russia, and that was his personal contribution." *