WHEN BORIS Yeltsin, the haughty, always-late, impatient, brilliant, jet-lagged radical reformer, wrote about himself in his autobiography last year, the most strangely memorable parts were of his mental breakdowns.
"I looked inside, and there was no one there," he wrote in one part of "Against the Grain." "A kind of voice, a vacuum, had been created -- a human vacuum . . . It was as though a circle had been traced around me, which no one could enter for fear of contamination. I was a kind of leper . . .
"The tension within me was extreme, and for that reason my strength was at a very low ebb," he wrote of his complete nervous breakdown during Gorbachev's personal and political attacks in 1988. "I was tormented by headaches almost every night. The emergency medical service would come often . . ."
That kind of candor about one's own human weakness is so extraordinary -- it flies in the face of every secretive, paranoid, fearful emanation of "Mother Russia" -- that one is stunned that this Boris Nikolayevich Yeltsin is now the first president of the great Russian Republic.
This very different Russian man -- attractive and bungling, contradictory and clear-minded, kindly and quick-to-anger -- won roughly 60 percent of the vote from his vast republic of 150 million people stretching from gloomy Baltic Sea to shining Pacific Ocean. He had risen from provincial communist bureaucrat to membership in the Communist Party's ruling Politburo, before he fell to temporary obscurity again when Mikhail Gorbachev dismissed him in disgrace three years ago.
Now he has risen again, and, strangely enough, the most promising parts of Yeltin's personality for the behemothian job that lies ahead in saving Mother Russia may well be his honesty and willingness to illuminate such formerly hidden corners as his own mental problems. For Yeltsin inherits a profoundly ill world.
The first thing that analysts just coming out of Russia comment on is no longer the economic, the political or even the social; it is the mental. As one journalist told me after flying home from Moscow: "The race in Russia is somehow to stay ahead of mental decline, emotional decline, total despair."
That national mental anguish can be seen in a second extraordinary event: the changing of names of Russian cities from communist to czarist. Leningrad will probably now become St. Petersburg again, Gorki has become Nizhni Novgorod, Kuybyshev is legendary Samara, and even Yeltsin's hometown of Sverdlovsk will probably again become Ekaterinburg, in memory of Catherine the Great.
It is as though an entire country -- an empire, really -- were trying desperately to expunge every possible reminder of 74 years of communism and reach back into its history to choose a better time and place to live in.
But can even a talented and instinctive political animal like Yeltsin address the grave breakdown of the Soviet Union? What will happen if he cannot?
"President" Yeltsin does represent a giant step forward from his old nemesis, Mikhail Gorbachev. For Gorbachev's problem was that he could not take the ultimate step to transform the Soviet Union. (Yeltsin talks derisively of "our chairman's inconsistency and timidity, his love of half-measures and semi-decisions"). Whatever, the Gorbachev era is now history.
But Yeltsin has at least a well-formulated program. It is coherent. His new union of states, built "horizontally" with equality for all the participants, is in place. Gorbachev's earlier top liberal advisers are with him. Yeltsin believes in private property, freedom for the Baltic republics, cutting off Cuba, a professional volunteer army and the transfer of power from the Kremlin to the Council of Federation of the presidents of the 15 republics. The Yeltsin era now begins.
Yeltsin could fail, of course, and, were that to happen, the hard-line military could take over and rule through repression and force. The warring ethnic republics and nationalities could simply continue the breakdown of the Soviet Union, presaging endless years of civil wars across the country.
But Yeltsin's mammoth victory at least puts those possibilities off. For Yeltsin's populist popularity means that the hard-liners would risk bringing millions of rioters into the streets. And the nationalities finally have a structure within which they can begin to build, rather than just destroy.
"Our huge country is balanced on a razor's edge," Yeltsin wrote last year, "and nobody knows what will happen to it tomorrow."
That remains true even after the election, but it is less true, because in the Soviet Union democracy has actually begun.