It’s hard for Americans to imagine the U.S. Army rolling tanks up Pennsylvania Avenue to force a resistant Congress out of the Capitol Building by shelling the building. It’s not that hard for Russians, though, because all they have to do is remember that day in 1993 when the Russian Army did just that to their own parliamentary building.
Nowadays, Boris Yeltsin is remembered by many in the United States as kind of a vodka-soaked buffoon. We don’t know any better — we’re used to hardened Communist leaders pointing nukes at us. Meanwhile, the most widespread video of Yeltsin in America is the one of him dancing onstage at a concert, presumably drunk.
In Russia, his legacy looms large while inspiring extreme emotions. The provincial politician was bold enough to stand on a tank in front of the white house, Russia’s parliament, as an attempted Communist coup tried to overthrow the democratic government and rebirth the Soviet Union in 1991.
It was Boris Yeltsin that convinced Russian citizens not to throw out Mikhail Gorbachev’s democratic reforms. For that, he was Russia’s first freely-elected President. But that was one of two peaks he would experience throughout his political career.
Yeltsin instituted economic reform after economic reform, one he thought would turn Russia into a vibrant, thriving, open-market democracy. What happened instead was the massive sale of assets formerly controlled by a strong centrally-planned economy for pennies on the dollar. Yeltsin’s “Shock Therapy” market reforms were definitely a shock to many Russians, who saw their quality of life deteriorate before their eyes.
Just as contradictory was Yeltsin’s other peak. The first President elected by the people of Russia willfully left office, setting a precedent for all who came after him to follow. By then, however, the damage to his reputation was done. His approval rating among Russians was as low as two percent and his successor would never have the same intention of leaving power.
But Yeltsin was a true Russian leader when tested. One such test of Yeltsin’s resolve came in October 1993, when the streets on Moscow saw the worst violence since the 1917 October Revolution that birthed the Soviet Union. Legislators and the president’s office were squaring off over the aforementioned free market reforms that were shocking Russia and the Russian people. In response to the parliamentary resistance, Yeltsin dissolved Russia’s legislative body, something the Constitution didn’t exactly allow him to do.
But the lawmakers weren’t just going to accept what they saw as a Kremlin overreach. They barricaded themselves in the white house that housed the Congress of People’s Deputies and the Supreme Soviet that made up Russia’s national legislative body. Then, they voted to impeach the President.
If you’re familiar at all with Russian leaders, you can probably guess how Yeltsin, the “vodka-soaked buffoon,” responded.
He ordered the police to cut off all access, electricity, water, and communications to the building. When anti-Yeltsin crowds started attacking TV stations and other state institutions, he declared a state of emergency and ordered the Russian military (who until then had been a neutral party) to move on the white house itself.
Yeltsin, claiming the action would prevent Russia from slipping into a Soviet Union-like government, ordered the army to shell and secure the building, then arrest the resisting lawmakers. The Russian army obeyed the President’s orders. Soon after, Yeltsin passed a Constitutional referendum that granted the office of President much more power than before, the powers Vladimir Putin wields like a pro to this day.
Yeltsin was elected to another term in office but resigned the Presidency on New Years Eve 1999, mired in corruption allegations and failing health. He told Russia the new century should start with new leadership and left Vladimir Putin in charge. The embattled former President died in 2007 and Putin is still in charge.