MOSCOW THE LOS ANGELES TIMES CONTRIBUTED TO THIS ARTICLE. — MOSCOW -- Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin rapidly too command yesterday of a shrunken Russian empire only minutes after Mikhail S. Gorbachev stepped down as president of a failed Soviet Union.
A half-hour after Mr. Gorbachev finished a brooding valedictory address, the familiar red Communist hammer-and-sickle flag came down from the flagpole atop the Kremlin -- a symbolic end to nearly seven-and-half decades of Communist rule. In its place went up the red, white and blue flag of Russia that had once flown under the czars.
Just four years after Mr. Gorbachev kicked Mr. Yeltsin out of the halls of power, Mr. Yeltsin also took the "nuclear button" from his former boss and reassured the world that he is now in control.
"The nuclear button today will be passed over to the president of Russia, and we will do all we can do to prevent this nuclear button from being used ever," Mr. Yeltsin said.
In passing the "nuclear button to Yeltsin," Mr. Gorbachev was admitting defeat after a four-year battle for primary influence over the fate of the country. In the end, it was Mr. Yeltsin's vision for the Commonwealth of Independent States, and not Mr. Gorbachev's plan for a single state of sovereign republics, that triumphed.
Mr. Yeltsin said he had disagreed with what he called Mr. Gorbachev's repressive policies since 1987. That was the year when Mr. Yeltsin made a bold, critical speech before Communist Party leaders. It cost him his post as Communist Party chief of Moscow and as a Politburo member.
But Mr. Yeltsin refused to leave the political stage, and in June became the first ruler in Russia's 1,000-year history to be elected by the people. Now, he has succeeded in pushing his longtime rival out of the way, so he can pursue his own dreams for Russia.
For millions of Russians worried about the price and availability of basic foodstuffs, Mr. Gorbachev's Christmas Day exit failed to create anything like the great drama that seized the United States when Richard M. Nixon resigned as president in 1974. Only one of the four Moscow television stations carried his 14-minute resignation address.
Mr. Yeltsin began to take over Mr. Gorbachev's final role, that of military commander-in-chief, earlier in the day, announcing that former Soviet soldiers will leave two regions on the southern fringe of the former Soviet Union that are now plagued by ethnic strife.
The removal order will bring thousands of Russian draftees back from Georgia, where 30 people have died in a power struggle this week, and from the Armenian enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh, where hundreds have died over the past three years.
On the economic front, Mr. Yeltsin said he will push ahead with his plans to "liberalize" Russia's consumer prices Jan. 2, a draconian step aimed at moving quickly to a free-market economy. The move is expected to triple the price of meat, milk and most other necessities in state-run food stores overnight. But Mr. Yeltsin will try to cushion the impact by raising the minimum wage and pensions.
"We have to undertake to take some unpopular measures, which the leadership of this country hasn't had the courage to take in the past seven years," Mr. Yeltsin said, in an obvious reference to the departed Mr. Gorbachev.
Yeltsin told a Cable News Network interviewer: "We're sick and tired of pessimism, which we've had over the past few years. The people here are weary of pessimism, and the share of pessimism is too much for the people to handle. Now they need some belief finally."