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Russia's revolutionary Boris Yeltsin presided over breakup but couldn't engineer better future

A successful revolution, wrote economist John Kenneth Galbraith, is a strong boot kicking in a rotten door. Boris Yeltsin was the toe of the boot that gave the final kick to the rotten door -- ceiling, foundation and walls -- of the old Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.

In 1991, as an ally of reformist Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev, Russian President Yeltsin stood on top of a tank in resistance to an attempted coup by what was left of the Soviet old guard. By the end of that year, he was instrumental in shepherding Russia out of the wreckage of the old USSR and into its current status as an independent nation.

And, it could be argued, it was all downhill from there. Yeltsin's health declined along with his influence and effectiveness, despite a surprising spurt of energy in his comeback campaign for re-election in 1996. He put down yet another coup, started a disastrous war in the breakaway region of Chechnya and turned power over to the current president, Vladimir Putin, whose restoration of centralized authority rose from the discontent over the botched rapid privatization of Soviet-era industry.

Monday, at the age of 76, after being off the global stage for many years, Yeltsin died, reportedly of heart failure. His was a heart that history, and not just that of Russia, should remember, even if his judgment was not always in the same league.

Successful governments that rise from revolution need someone to build a new house. Yeltsin, with his mercurial temper and distaste for the details of day-to-day governance, wasn't cut out for that role. He may have been Russia's Patrick Henry, not its George Washington.

But Yeltsin personified his people's desire for a popular uprising to throw off such a long period of misrule. He did it with devotion, energy and a Russian-sized measure of courage. History will remember that.

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