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Boris Yeltsin elected Russia’s first President

This Day in World History

13 June 1991

Boris Yeltsin elected Russia’s first President

On 13 June 1991, millions of Russians went to the polls for the first time in an open election to choose a president. Emerging as winner was 60-year-old Boris Yeltsin, a maverick with a reputation for alcohol abuse who had for some time advocated political and economic reforms.

Boris Yeltsin. Photo by Susan Biddle. Source: White House Photo Office.
In the 1980s, Yeltsin became acquainted with Mikhail Gorbachev, both on the rise in the Communist Party. In 1985, after Gorbachev became leader of the Soviet Union, he named Yeltsin to the top party post in Moscow and to the Politburo that ruled the nation. Within two years though, Yeltsin made himself unwelcome by pushing for more rapid reforms and criticizing Gorbachev’s leadership. He lost his leadership positions.

Nevertheless, by 1989 he was back in prominence after winning election to a seat in the Congress of People’s Deputies, the national legislature. The following year, the legislature of the Russian Federation voted him as Russia’s president. Recognizing that the Communist leadership had little regard for him — and perhaps sensing the weakening hold of communism on national power — Yeltsin bolted from the party.

Just two months after his popular election as president in 1991, Yeltsin faced his first and most crucial challenge. In August, Communist hardliners attempted a coup aimed at ousting Gorbachev, and ending his and Yeltsin’s competing reform efforts. Yeltsin rallied the Russian people and encouraged Soviet troops to oppose the coup. In the face of Yeltsin’s and popular defiance, and the loss of military support that coup leaders had counted on, the takeover attempt failed.

Yeltsin’s rule as Russia’s president was tumultuous. He survived a coup attempt against him in 1993 and won a second election in 1996. Political fights marked his rule with a legislature unwilling to fully embrace his economic reforms, his tendency to rule by edict to bypass that legislature, and a bloody and costly war to defeat an independence movement in the province of Chechnya. In 1999, Yeltsin resigned and named Vladimir Putin as acting president.

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