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World Loses Many Well-Known International Figures in 2007 


The year 2007 saw the passing of many well-known international figures who left a lasting impression. VOA's Barry Unger takes a look back at some of these people. Jim Bertel narrates.

Former Russian President Boris Yeltsin died in April at the age of 76. He first gained wide international attention in the last years of the Soviet Union as president of the Russian Republic.

He stood up to Soviet conspirators in 1991 when they tried to overthrow Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. They did not succeed, but the Soviet state soon collapsed.

Mr. Yeltsin won election to an independent Russia in December 1991, and to a second term in 1996. He retired six months before he was scheduled to leave office and handpicked then Prime Minister Vladimir Putin to succeed him.

Mohammad Zahir Shah was more of a symbolic leader - the last king of Afghanistan. He reigned for 40 years but a coup in 1973 forced him into exile. He returned in 2002. King Mohammad Zahir Shah died in November at the age of 92.

Kurt Waldheim's achievements as United Nations secretary general and president of Austria were later overshadowed by revelations of his actions during World War Two. Mr. Waldheim served in a German army unit in the Balkans that committed atrocities. He was never charged with war crimes, but his earlier denials of service in the unit led to international censure. He died at the age of 88.

Paul Tibbets also earned his place in history during World War II as the American military pilot who dropped the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Japan in 1945. Tibbets said in interviews that he had no regrets and slept easily at night. The war ended soon after his historic mission, after the U.S. dropped a second atomic bomb on Japan. Col. Paul Tibbets died at the age of 92.

Lady Bird Johnson came to live at the White House during a time of national tragedy in the United States. Her husband, Lyndon Johnson was vice president when an assassin killed President John F. Kennedy in November 1963. Mr. Johnson became the 36th U.S. president. Lady Bird Johnson's pet project was the beautification of the nation's capital. Her efforts led to to the planting of thousands of flowers around Washington. She died at the age of 94.

Reverend Jerry Falwell was a well-known television evangelist in the United States, but had a major influence in politics as well as religion. Falwell founded the political lobbying group known as the "Moral Majority" and mobilized millions of conservative voters to elect Republican Ronald Reagan president in 1980. Falwell remained a potent force in the Christian conservative movement, as well as a lightning rod of controversy. Falwell died in May at the age of 73.

Italian-born Luciano Pavarotti had a personality as large as his voice. The great tenor was known as the King of the High Cs and he was one of the few opera singers to crossover into mainstream music. Pavarotti died in Italy at the age of 71.

Swedish film director Ingmar Bergman made more than 50 films during his long career and is widely considered one of the most influential figures in cinema history. Three of his films - Fanny and Alexander, The Virgin Spring and Through a Glass Darkly - won Academy Awards for Best Foreign Language Film. Ingmar Bergman died in July at the age of 89.

Two other critically acclaimed artists - both American writers - passed away this year at age 84. Norman Mailer was widely recognized for his innovative style and his sometimes controversial public persona. He wrote both fiction and non-fiction best sellers, none more celebrated than his World War II novel, The Naked and the Dead that later became a movie.

Another best selling novel that became a film was Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse Five. Vonnegut was a cult favorite, as well as a literary great, for many American readers who appreciated his a satirical view of 20th century life.

Another American cult hero - daredevil, stuntman Evel Knievel - first gained wide public attention in the 1960s and 70s with his nationally televised motorcycle jumps. He was not always successful and broke nearly 40 bones in his body from various crash landings. Knievel died at the age of 69.

Video courtesy: Universal Pictures for Clip of "Slaughterhouse Five" and ABC Sports for footage of Evil Knievel