Boris Yeltsin: Biography & Quotes

Instructor: Christina Boggs

Chrissy has taught secondary English and history and writes online curriculum. She has an M.S.Ed. in Social Studies Education.

Many Soviet and Russian political leaders have been remembered for their harsh policies and unwavering dedication to the Communist Party. Boris Yeltsin, however, broke this mold and became an outspoken force for change during the 1980s and 1990s.

Early Life

Boris Nikolayevich Yeltsin was born on February 1, 1931 to a poor family living in the Ural Mountains. During the 1930s and 1940s, Joseph Stalin, the Premier of the Soviet Union, was in the process of consolidating power and reforming the country. This did not sit well with Yeltsin's father. In Communist Russia, having any kind of personal opinion that went against the government or its leaders was a no-no. As a result, Yeltsin's father was sentenced to the gulag, a Soviet prison labor camp. In the years that followed, Yeltsin's family moved around until settling in the village of Berezniki where they became laborers. Life was not very fun for young Boris, and he looked for excitement everywhere he could. He was a guy who liked to live life on the wild side, and actually lost two fingers when a grenade he was playing with exploded in his hand.

Boris Yeltsin as a Child
Boris Yeltsin as a Child

But his early life was not all labor and explosives. He left his village of Berezniki to move to Sverdlovsk so he could go to school at the Urals Polytechnic Institute. Yeltsin's school years were productive. He liked to play volleyball and met his future wife there. After graduating, he went back to a life of construction. He wasn't a laborer anymore, and was responsible for overseeing construction projects from 1955 to 1968. In 1961, Yeltsin joined the Communist Party. For most of the 20th century, Russia had pretty much only one political party. You either belonged to the Communist Party, or, well, there was no 'or' were a Communist and that was that. In his early years of party membership, he worked for the local committee in Sverdlovsk.

Early Political Career

Sverdlovsk was a small city tucked away in the mountains, but Yeltsin took advantage of his time there. As a member of the Communist Party, he became the secretary of the Sverdlovsk oblast party committee in 1976. An oblast is a state or territory inside of a country. Around this time, future Russian president, Mikhail Gorbachev was making a name for himself in the nearby city of Stavropol. The two of them became BFF's and began to work together. When Gorbachev became president, he brought Yeltsin with him to Moscow on a 'seek and destroy' mission to get rid of government corruption.

From 1985 to 1988, Yeltsin's political career was a hot mess. Gorbachev appointed him to the Politburo, the body responsible for directing the Communist Party, as a non-voting member. Shortly after he became the first secretary of Moscow's Communist Party Committee. This sounds pretty great, right? Yeltsin got out of the Ural Mountains, stopped working construction, and was a big deal in Russia's capital. Unfortunately for Yeltsin, he had an incredibly big mouth and had no problem criticizing Gorbachev and the Communist Party. Between 1987 and 1988, Yeltsin's positions in the Politburo and the Communist Party Committee were taken from him, and he was banished to an obscure part of the government responsible for overseeing national construction projects.

Yeltsin's Rally

Gorbachev and other members of the Communist Party thought they had gotten rid of Yeltsin. Seriously, who could possibly recover from such a massive demotion to the lowly job of deputy minister of construction? They certainly didn't like Yeltsin's opinions and criticisms of government reform, but the Russian people liked what they heard. After one year of professional exile, Yeltsin came back to Moscow with a vengeance, this time as an elected official to the new Congress of People's Deputies, Russia's new parliament.

One year later, on March 20, 1990, Yeltsin became the president of the Russian Republic and spent the next few years of his life causing headaches for the Communist Party. He believed in economic reform, wanted to give members of the Soviet Union more freedom, and pushed for a multiparty political system (GASP!). Yeltsin's big break came in 1991 when conservative Communists staged a coup to overthrow Gorbachev. Yeltsin publicly backed Gorbachev, but was waiting for the disgraced leader to fall apart. In December of 1991, Gorbachev resigned, the Soviet Union collapsed, and Yeltsin was there to pick up the pieces.

Political Career in the 1990's

After the Soviet Union collapsed, Yeltsin worked with his allies in former Soviet countries to put together a Commonwealth of Independent States. Countries like Ukraine and Belarus that were controlled by the Russian government and the Communist Party for decades now had the freedom to do what they wanted.

In just a few years, Yeltsin radically changed the Russian government and its economy by:

  • shifting from a total command economy to an increasingly free-market economy
  • privatizing government assets and industries
  • allowing private banks to exist
  • creating a stock exchange

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