MOSCOW -- Long after the tanks are quiet in their garrisons and the barricades dismantled, the indelible image of this week's abortive coup in the Soviet Union will be the picture of one defiant man -- Boris Yeltsin -- clambering up the dark green hull of a T-72 tank to rally his people for democracy.
It was a quintessential Yeltsin moment. The burly Siberian had watched from the windows of his Russian Federation headquarters as the tanks surrounded the building Monday afternoon. After little more than an hour, he strode impulsively out the door, clambered up onto one of the armored vehicles, and greeted a tank officer as if he were a prospective voter instead of the spearhead of a hostile military force.
Then, with the white, blue and red flag of an independent Russia by his side, he spoke in a booming baritone full of the confidence his anxious listeners needed.
"The reactionaries will not achieve their goals!" he declared. "The army will not turn against the people."
Relentlessly larger than life, courageous to the point of foolhardiness, instinctively in tune with the soul of
the Russian republic's 147 million people: Boris Yeltsin was the single most important figure in the resistance to the attempted coup -- and the single biggest winner in the political aftermath.
"Yeltsin is our absolute leader," said Alexander I. Riman, 55, an engineer who was among the crowds gathered in the rain outside the Russian Federation headquarters on the Moscow River yesterday. "He was the one hope that proved to be true and valid. All the rest evaporated."
The praise was echoed in the West, where leaders who once disdained Yeltsin as mercurial and erratic now hailed him as dauntless and bold.
"[The coup] leaves the world looking at him as a very courageous individual, duly elected by the people, standing firmly and courageously for democracy and freedom, with enormous stature as a result of that," President Bush said yesterday.
"He's a Slavic edition of Huey Long," said a former White House official, recalling the charismatic populist who ruled Louisiana in the 1930s. "But he is the future of the Soviet Union, and the administration better get used to dealing with him."
Until the coup, Bush often held Yeltsin at arm's length. But now all that has changed.
Several senior U.S. government analysts interviewed yesterday said the abortive coup has clearly made Yeltsin the most powerful single figure in the Soviet Union.
"Yeltsin is the winner here," said one. "Gorbachev could end up beingvery irrelevant. No matter what happens now . . . he comes out of it with less power than when he was arrested . . . It was Yeltsin who marshaled the forces of democracy."
Another government analyst said the abortive coup could ultimately lead to Yeltsin's election to Gorbachev's job as president of the entire Soviet Union -- not just president of the Russian Federation, his current position.