He left the Communist party in 1990 and banned it a year later when he became the first president of Russia.
But it was this moment that changed both the course of history and of Yeltsin's life.
He led the masses to resist the communist hardliners who were trying to breathe life into a dying state.
He declared the coup illegal and his courage paid off, creating hope for a better Russia.
He pushed for a break-up of the Soviet Union, consigning the great stand-off between communism and capitalism to the history books.
He put an end to the Cold war, signing several disarmament treaties with the United States.
He pushed Russia to embrace a multi-party democracy, freedom of speech and a free market.
The transition was a painful one. Russia's economy collapsed, millions lost their lifetime savings and many got the taste of real poverty.
He oversaw one of the greatest transfers of state property into private hands, creating a class of hugely wealthy oligarchs practically overnight.
Then there was also violence - he sent tanks against a Soviet-era parliament and led Russia into one of the most brutal conflicts in its modern history - the Chechen war.
The war was unpopular and his health faltered so he finally decided it was time to resign.
He picked a then obscure technocrat to succeed him: Vladimir Putin.
He said it was time for him to go and that he believed the new generation of leaders was going to do greater things for Russia, the country he changed so dramatically in such a short time.