HE was almost dead when his mother scooped him out of the baptismal font in a small village in the Urals. The local priest, plied with liquor all morning by happy parents, had dunked the baby in the water and forgotten him. The boy survived and was christened Boris, a fighter.
The story may be legend, but survival against the odds was a constant in Boris Yeltsin's life. He nearly killed himself dismantling a grenade; he played cards with criminals on the roofs of speeding trains; he almost lost his life to diehard Communists. But like some character from a Russian fairy tale, he always came through.
He survived, too, the Soviet experiment that hoped to create a new man and to root out everything human and natural. Moreover, it fell to him to end this experiment and the system that lay behind it. Though Mr Yeltsin was a Communist Party boss, he never turned into Homo sovieticus; he preserved the qualities and sensibilities of a Russian man. As Alexander Solzhenitsyn put it, he was almost too Russian. He was spontaneous, erratic, frequently drunk, talented, sincere, witty, full-hearted. His hugeness as a character matched the scale of the changes in his country.
Mr Yeltsin thrived on crises, seeming bored when things were normal. Gut instinct, rather than reason, guided him. He had profound faith in Russia and tried to encourage its best impulses; but he also knew its darker side, for his personal history was his country's. Under Stalin's collectivisation his grandfather was pronounced a kulak—a rich peasant—stripped of his possessions and sentenced to forced labour. His father spent three years in the gulag, a fact which Mr Yeltsin concealed for over 30 years. The family was driven off its land and into barracks where a goat was the only source of heat. There he grew up with 20 other families, one to each room and with a single lavatory.
He believed in freedom and rejected communism not because he was a libertarian, but because he felt freedom was part of human nature. His hatred of Stalinism was instinctive, not intellectual. He cursed fascism and Stalinism in the same breath, without putting so much as a comma between them.
When Mikhail Gorbachev, then the Soviet president, launched perestroika and glasnost in the mid-1980s, Mr Yeltsin—then the party boss in Moscow—embraced them wholeheartedly. But Mr Gorbachev wanted gradual reform. Mr Yeltsin had less patience. Sensing early that the system was doomed, he broke with the Soviet power structure in 1987, publicly criticised Mr Gorbachev, was disgraced and fired. Four years later, to everyone's astonishment, he stormed back—this time as the first democratically elected president of Russia, then still one of 15 Soviet republics.
One picture captivated the world: Mr Yeltsin on top of a tank, opposing the communist coup in 1991, charismatic, brave, defiant. Later there would be darker images: a bloated, inebriated figure who grabbed a conductor's baton at a public ceremony in Berlin, or goosed the ladies at state receptions. But in August 1991 Russia rallied behind its president. People loved Yeltsin like no other Russian leader—without fear. They would hate him too, when times got tough, without fear. They took him personally, for he was one of them.
Breaking communism's neck
The country he inherited had few features of a state: no functioning institutions, no money, no food in the shops and, worst of all, a brainwashed people. He surrounded himself with young reformers, half his age and with twice his knowledge, who began to dismantle a planned economy that was rotten to the core.
For millions of Russians, it seemed that Mr Yeltsin's liberalisation of prices in 1992—not the bankruptcy of the Soviet Union—had plunged them into poverty. He refused to back off. Unlike Mr Gorbachev, he did not want to reform the communist system. He wanted to break its neck. His mass privatisation, which destroyed the basis of the regime, created robber barons too, and a communist backlash was never far away. In 1993 armed communists and fascists tried to overthrow Mr Yeltsin's government; he shelled the hostile parliament. In 1996 communists almost won the presidential elections; by twisting the rules, he saved himself and his country.
Civil war and hunger were averted, but Mr Yeltsin's compromises allowed authoritarianism to revive. He missed his chance to dismantle the KGB, and let corruption and nepotism thrive. In 1994, his worst mistake, he agreed to invade Chechnya, starting a conflict that still scars, degrades and endangers his country.
Most unusually, he admitted those mistakes. When, for the first time in Russian history, he voluntarily handed power to his (handpicked) successor, he apologised to his people—who, in truth, had never fought for freedom as hard as he had.
I ask you to forgive me for not fulfilling the hopes of those people who believed that we would be able to jump from the grey, stagnating, totalitarian past into a bright, rich and civilised future in one go. I myself believed in this. But it could not be done in one fell swoop...I am leaving. I have done everything I could...In saying farewell, I wish to say to each of you the following. Be happy. You deserve happiness. You deserve happiness and peace.