Former Russian president Boris Yeltsin was utterly unique. As the country's first democratically elected leader, he was the first to give up power voluntarily, and constitutionally, to a successor.
However, he was also profoundly characteristic of Russian leaders. Using various mixtures of charisma, statecraft and terror, Peter the Great, Catherine the Great, Alexander II, Peter Stolypin (the last tsar's prime minister), Lenin and Stalin all sought to make Russia not only a great military power, but also an economic and cultural equal of the West.
Yeltsin aimed for the same goals, but he stands out from them because he understood that empire was incompatible with democracy, and so was willing to abandon the Soviet Union in order to try to build a democratic order at home.
At the height of Yeltsin's career, many Russians identified with his bluntness, impulsiveness, sensitivity to personal slight and even with his weakness for alcohol.
And yet in the final years of his rule, his reputation plunged. It was only in the last few months of his second presidential term, after he launched the second war in Chechnya in September 1999, that he and his lieutenants regained some legitimacy in the eyes of the Russian public. Nevertheless, the war caused revulsion among any remaining Western admirers.
Despite his caprices, however, Yeltsin kept Russia on a course of broad strategic co-operation with the US and its allies. Although he opposed the US' use of force against Iraq and Serbia in the 1990s, his government never formally abandoned the sanctions regime against either country. Moreover, no nuclear weapons were unleashed, deliberately or accidentally, and no full-scale war of the kind that ravaged post-communist Yugoslavia broke out between Russia and any of its neighbors, although several of them were locked in internal or regional conflict in which Russia's hand was visible.
The tasks that faced Yeltsin when he attained power in 1991 were monumental. At several crucial moments, he established himself as the only person who could rise to the challenges of transforming Russia from a dictatorship into a democracy, from a planned economy into a free market, and from an empire into a medium-ranked power.
In 1992, as the emerging Russian Federation teetered on the brink of economic and monetary collapse, he opted for radical reform, prompting a backlash from vested interest groups. In the years that followed, he would tilt toward liberal economics whenever he felt powerful enough to do so.
Yeltsin was quintessentially a product of the Soviet system, which made his turn to democracy and the free market, though imperfect, even more miraculous. The son of a poor building worker, he had a meteoric rise through Communist ranks to become party boss in the industrial city of Sverdlovsk, which is now known as Yekaterinburg, in the Urals.
Unlike most other party leaders, he was good at talking to ordinary people, a skill that helped him win support and then power, but he also showed no sign of questioning the Marxist-Leninist gobbledygook that he was required to recite at public events.
It was only after Mikhail Gorbachev, the former general secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, summoned Yeltsin to Moscow in 1985 that Yeltsin began to differentiate himself from dozens of other senior party apparatchiks.