The Tragic Story Of How Boris Yeltsin Lost Two Fingers

Boris Yeltsin was the president of Russia during a turbulent time in that nation's history. Yeltsin took office in 1990 when the country was in its final days as the Soviet Union, and the next year he became the country's first popularly elected president (via Britannica). Yeltsin took over the unenviable task of navigating a period of Russian history in which the country was trying to reorganize itself after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Part of this meant shifting the entire economy to one that used a free market system. Yeltsin also gave greater autonomy to nations that were once part of the Soviet Union.

However, not everything he did was popular. For instance, in 1993, Yeltsin decided to dissolve the Russian congress, an action which was unconstitutional. It was intended to create new parliamentary elections, but instead caused a coup from legislators, which had to be suppressed by Yeltsin-loyalist troops.

Yeltsin's turbulent history with politics started back in his youth as his family fell victim to Soviet area polices. It also included an unfortunate incident involving a stolen hand grenade and his fingers.

Yeltsin's childhood

According to History, Yeltsin was born in the small village of Butka in the Ural Mountains in 1931. Yeltsin's family was hit hard by Soviet Dictator Joseph Stalin's policies. His grandparents had been victims of Stalin's agricultural collectivization and his father had been arrested and sent off to a gulag. Upon his father's release, the family moved to Berezniki. There, Yeltsin's father found work as a laborer, while the young Yeltsin started his rebellious ways that in some ways carried over into his political career decades later.

On one occasion, Yeltsin and his friends decided to do something that most people would immediately think was a terrible idea: steal a grenade from a Russian army warehouse. According to Russia Beyond, Yeltsin and friends made all kinds of weaponry as kids, and next on their list were apparently grenades.

"We decided to procure some grenades and dismantle them, to study and understand what's inside. So I volunteered to sneak inside the church (where the military warehouse was)," the future Russian president wrote in his autobiography ("Against the Grain," 1990; aka "Confession on a Given Theme"). "After dark, I sneaked through three barbed wire perimeters and, while the sentry was at the other side of the building, I hand sawed the bars over a window. Got inside, took two RGD-33 hand grenades and got away safely. I was lucky — the sentry would have shot without warning."

A bad idea gets way worse

The first phase of Yeltsin's plan to better understand the finer points of grenade building went off without a hitch. Per Russia Beyond, with grenade in hand Yeltsin and his fellow amateur engineers drove some 60 kilometers (37 miles) to a wooded area. Yeltsin had the sense to tell his pals to back away a considerable distance while he started to dismantle the grenade.

"​​I persuaded the guys to get a hundred meters away, and hit it with a hammer, standing on my knees," he wrote. "The grenade was lying on a rock. But I didn't know I had to take out the fuse first. Explosion ... fingers gone. The guys were safe. During the ride back to town, I passed out several times. At the hospital, with my father's written consent (gangrene started in my hand), I was operated on, cut off what was remaining of the fingers, and I appeared in school with a bandaged, white hand."

Yeltsin wound up losing his left thumb and index finger, and the injury prevented Yeltsin from serving in the military once he came of age. For the rest of his life, Yeltsin preferred to stand in ways that allowed him to hide his disfigured hand.