Maverick former Russian President Boris Nikolayevich Yeltsin (1931-2007) was born on this date in Sverdlovsk, Siberia. At 11, he lost two fingers on his left hand while playing with a live grenade. That didn't stop him from playing pro volleyball in college and graduating with an engineering degree.
"A man must live like a great brilliant flame and burn as brightly as he can," he said. "In the end he burns out. But this is far better than a mean little flame."
In 1961, Yeltsin joined the Communist Party and built a reputation as a strong leader, hard worker, and someone who was above corruption. He was named Sverdlovsky's top party official in 1976. With the collapse of communism and the Soviet Union, he became the first elected Russian President in 1989, then reelected in 1996.
"The main problem with being president is the constant sense that you are inside a glass bowl for everyone to see, or in a kind of barometric chamber with an artificial atmosphere where you must stay all the time," he reflected in 1994.
A lover of vodka who former President Bill Clinton called "bold, blunt, even defiant," Yeltsin dismantled the communist system and the cold war. He tried to build a market economy amid chaos, corruption, and incompetence. While attempting these awesome tasks, his popularity in Russia plummeted.
With continued failing health and customary drama, he announced his surprise resignation on the last day of 1999 (the last day of the 20th century and the second millennium) and urged new leadership in a new century. He named Prime Minister Vladimir Putin acting president, and Putin granted Yeltsin immunity.
"I want to beg forgiveness for your dreams that never came true. And also I would like to beg forgiveness not to have justified your hopes."
Freedom is more than just air.