He was always a heavy drinker, but until his health problems got bad in the mid-1990s he could usually hold his liquor. The real problem was that he was a man of action who didn't have an idea in his head.
A lot of people kept trying to put ideas in there, but they just fell out the other side. So he freed Russia (and a lot of other countries) from Communism, but he didn't give it much else to work with instead.
Boris Yeltsin, who died at 76 on April 23, was brought to Moscow in 1985 to clean up corruption by the man he eventually removed from power, the Communist reformer Mikhail Gorbachev.
But the times were right for ambitious men to aim a lot higher, and Yeltsin was nothing if not ambitious, so by 1988 he had quit his position on the Communist Party's ruling body, the Politburo. He ran for the all-Moscow seat in the Congress of People's Deputies against the official Communist candidate in the first free election in Soviet history, and won in a landslide.
I first met Yeltsin soon after that in the basement cafeteria of the Supreme Soviet, just inside the Kremlin walls, the easiest place for foreign journalists to find deputies to this newfangled beast, the Congress of People's Deputies. One of the stars of the nascent Russian democratic movement, Galina Starovoitova, introduced us, and the contrast between the two of them was quite stunning.
Starovoitova (who was murdered in 1998 in a contract killing) was a genuine hero. Yeltsin was a charming bruiser who ran mostly on instinct. Yet he was in practice the leader of her little band of democrats, the Inter-Regional Deputies Group.
The IRDG flourished for less than a year and included less than a tenth of the deputies, most of whom were still Communist Party hacks. Its leaders, including dissident figures like scientist Andrei Sakharov and historian Yuri Afanasiev, were using their access to the media to spread democratic ideas to the furthest corners of a country where such notions had been suppressed for 70 years.
But they knew those ideas alone would not produce a democratic majority in any Soviet election in the near future. Yeltsin, on the other hand, could win the election, but he had no ideas at all. So they made him their leader, and during that year you rarely saw him without some leading light of the IRDG at his side, earnestly trying to fill this empty vessel with democratic ideals. Everybody meant well, I think, but the transplant didn't take, and by 1990 Yeltsin had moved on.
In the following two years he did two things that should have earned him the gratitude of both Russia and the whole world. Standing on a tank outside the White House in Moscow in August 1991, he turned back the hard-line Communist coup attempt that almost reversed the flow of history. And he did it practically single-handedly, by the force of his own personality.
The coup was amazingly incompetent, but it could have succeeded nevertheless, in which case we would still be dealing with a ramshackle Communist-ruled Soviet Union sinking ever deeper into poverty and corruption and fighting insurgencies all around its perimeter. What we have is much better than that.
Yeltsin's other great accomplishment, at the end of 1991, was to wind up the Soviet Union and set all of its constituent "republics" free. He did it for purely tactical reasons, but it was the last great act of decolonization, and it spared us a generation of bloody struggles. Despite tyranny in the 'Stans and war in Chechnya, what we have is much better than that, too.
But then Yeltsin should have died or at least retired, because he was a disaster as president of Russia. There was the "shock therapy" that ended all subsidies overnight, drove inflation to 2,000 per cent and wiped out the life savings of tens of millions of families.
There were the corrupt privatization deals that created the "oligarchs" and the gangster culture. There was the armed assault on Parliament in 1993 and the needless, futile, bloody attempt to subjugate Chechnya. Russia in the 1990s could have done a lot better than that.
Yeltsin's retirement on New Year's Eve 1999 was a cynical deal, handing power to former KGB chief Vladimir Putin in return for a guarantee that no legal inquiries would be made into the wealth accumulated by his family and associates. There isn't much genuine mourning in Russia for Yeltsin today, and you can see why.
But he did get the two big things right, and that counts for a lot. History may take a kinder view of him than Russians do today.