As the coup by Communist diehards unfolded early on Aug. 19, Boris Yeltsin sprang into action like an enraged bear. Striding out of his headquarters in Moscow, he clambered up on a rebel tank and rallied his fellow Russians to resistance. “The reactionaries will not triumph!” he shouted. “The reactionaries will not triumph!” With the hapless Mikhail Gorbachev under guard at his summer dacha on the Black Sea, Yeltsin’s show of courage forever sealed his own transformation from carousing buffoon to national hero and propelled his country along an uncertain and hazardous path to greater democracy.
For no sooner had he saved the Soviet Union than he set about shattering it. Using his position as president of the Russian Republic, Yeltsin launched a crackdown on the Communist Party and introduced a plan for a sweeping overhaul of the ramshackle economy. By the end of the year an astonished world looked on as he blithely began dismantling the Kremlin’s empire. What had taken nearly three quarters of a century of repression to create and hold together he undid in a matter of weeks. Gorbachev fumed at the rise of his nemesis but was powerless to stop him. The course Yeltsin had charted held many risks, not the least of them being severe food shortages and the potential for chaos as the republics—four of which have most of the Soviet nuclear arsenal stored within their borders—scramble to put in place a new commonwealth system. But as his actions during the coup suggest, for Yeltsin the audacious has become merely routine.