From the moment he scrambled atop a tank to rally Muscovites against a coup in August 1991, it was clear Boris Nikolayevich Yeltsin knew how to seize the day. As Russia’s first freely elected leader in 1,000 years—the man who consigned the Soviet Union to history’s dustbin—the burly Siberian relied on his bold personality. “I remember one time going with him into the Kremlin,” says German journalist Sonia Mikich. “As he whizzed past the secretaries, he poked them in the ribs like a naughty boy.”
Yeltsin, who died April 23 at age 76 of heart failure, rose to the pinnacle of power and drove Russia’s chaotic transformation into a fledgling democracy during the ’90s. As a boy living in a communal hut, he lost a thumb and finger while handling a stolen grenade. It didn’t stop him from becoming a volleyball player, which helped him get into engineering school. There he met Naina Girina—they wed in 1956 and had two daughters—then joined the Communist Party. “Boris went through a difficult life, filled with great works, stresses and anxieties,” said Mikhail Gorbachev, his Kremlin predecessor.
To cope, Yeltsin turned to vodka. After lunch during an official visit to Germany in ’94, he snatched the baton from a conductor and began to lead the band. “I remember that the weight would lift after a few shot glasses,” he wrote in his memoir. A 1996 bypass operation seemed to check his drinking, but Yeltsin’s health remained precarious. Public opinion turned against him as crime flourished and tycoons took control of state assets. Yeltsin resigned in 1999. Says Bill Clinton, who met him many times: “Fate gave him a tough time in which to govern, but history will be kind to him.”