Boris Yeltsin

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Words by: Theodora Sutcliffe

Transformer of the new Russia, and a quite heroic lush, Boris Yeltsin died five years ago next week - but his vodka dancing will long outlive him.

So who was Boris Yeltsin?
Born in Siberia into a family so poor they had to move when their only cow died, Boris Yeltsin was almost drowned during his baptism when a drunken priest dropped him in a font, and later mangled his hand while disassembling a live hand grenade using a hammer and a rock.

Blessed with a razor sharp mind, he rose through the challenging environment of Soviet politics to become the man responsible for what Russia is today, from standing atop a tank to face down an attempted coup to authorising the brutal war in Chechnya.

Yet for many Westerners he will be more famous for a general fondness for liquids that makes Churchill seem like a Quaker, all the while with his finger on the nuclear button.

Where did he drink?
Where didn't he drink? State dinners. Private dachas. Limousines... Boats...

What did he drink?
Like many Russians of his generation, Yeltsin considered beer a soft drink, favouring instead vodka, bourbon and red wine, which he believed protected Russian submariners from radiation.

At a diplomatic event in Vancouver, Yeltsin began with wine at lunch, consumed three whiskies on a boat in the afternoon, then eschewed food over dinner in favour of glasses of wine, downed in one: he concluded the evening by offering Bill Clinton bear hugs across the table.

Any famous drinking buddies?
Every important politician of the era, and many minor ones, spent time with Boris Yeltsin, except for those whose meetings he slept through because he was drunk - notably the prime minister of Ireland and the Kiwi foreign minister.

How did drink change his life?
Yeltsin wrote in his autobiography that he used booze as a stress reliever: ''I remember that the weight would lift after a few shot glasses. And in that state of lightness I felt as if I could conduct an orchestra.'' As, of course, he did.

It seems likely that Yeltsin would have done a better job at running his country had he been sober more often.

Any drinking stories?
On Yeltsin's first visit to America, he unzipped and, umm, released the pressure on the airport runway; soon after, he arrived at a police station near Moscow soaked to the skin, waving flowers and ranting about KGB plots.

Another celebrated occasion left him stumbling around the White House in his underpants, yelling for "Pizza! Pizza!", as his handlers tried to haul him back.

Not a man to be trusted around music, Yeltsin's impromptu dad dancing did not improve his nation's reputation in the slightest. Perhaps the finest example of this was when, as Russian forces solemnly withdrew from a now unified Berlin, the great man grabbed the conductor's baton and combined dancing with conducting the Berlin police orchestra. The embarrassed German chancellor had to help him down the stairs.

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