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Former Russian President Yeltsin Dies at 76

RENEE MONTAGNE, Host:

Russia's former president, Boris Yeltsin, has died. We remember him as the man who engineered the final collapse of the Soviet Union. You might recall visiting from 1991, communist hardliners had just attempted a coup. He leapt on top of a tank and told the crowd, Russia had taken a stand for democracy.

BORIS YELTSIN: (Russian spoken)

MONTAGNE: Boris Yeltsin in 1991. Joining us now from Moscow is NPR's Gregory Feifer. And Greg, how important was that moment in 1991 for Boris Yeltsin and for Russia, and its future.

GREGORY FEIFER: Yeltsin was a former communist party boss who became a fierce anti-communist and he took a very brave decision to get on that tank and take a stand against communist hardliners who were trying to overthrow former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev.

MONTAGNE: And just briefly before we move on, to talk about him, what do we know about how he died?

FEIFER: We don't know. The Kremlin has only confirmed that he's died. It's not saying anything about the causes, but Russian news agencies reporting unnamed medical sources are saying that he suffered a heart failure.

MONTAGNE: In the end, did Boris Yeltsin deliver on his promises?

FEIFER: That's a very complicated question, and I would answer it saying yes and no. He oversaw the collapse of the Soviet Union. He brought in able, young - a so-called young reformers - who wrote laws to privatize the economy, to setup - to try to setup, at least, democratic institutions to hold elections. So a lot was done under Yeltsin's - essentially under his political protection, he allowed these people to work. But under Yeltsin, there was also huge corruption, a lot of the country's best industrial assets, including its - most of its oil industry was given away in rigged closed auctions to a handful of insiders. And in the end, Yeltsin was sick for many, many months at a time. He was out of view. He has subsequently admitted to having suffered from five heart attacks. And he was a famous drinker. I mean, he suffered from drinking too much.

MONTAGNE: And what do we know about what Boris Yeltsin did since he left office in these intervening years?

FEIFER: He's kept low. He's had a couple of interviews on Russian television and that's it. Under his successor, President Vladimir Putin, Russia has really returned to its authoritarian past and, I think, Yeltsin struck a deal with Putin. He would be left alone if he didn't criticized Putin's government.

MONTAGNE: Thank you very much, NPR's Gregory Feifer speaking to us from Moscow. Boris Yeltsin has died. The former Russian president was 76 years old.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MONTAGNE: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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