Mostly, a loss for communism Recovery: Boris Yeltsin may have used up the last of his strength politically and medically in his drive to defeat the old order he once embraced.


MOSCOW -- Nine months ago, Boris N. Yeltsin was hidden away in an elite Moscow hospital with severe heart problems. His popularity had sunk even lower than his health.

It seemed improbable that the ailing and discredited 65-year-old Russian president could run for re-election, let alone win.

His victory last night is testimony to his extraordinary personal resilience -- his lifelong procrastinator's gift for rousing himself from deep slumps to ride out a crisis on a sudden gust of energy and willpower.

But even many of his admirers worry that Yeltsin, who fell sufficiently ill in the last days of his campaign to cancel all public events, may have used up every ounce of strength in his bid for re-election.

His second term shows no promise of beginning with a sweeping fresh start. There is no talk among his aides of a new frontier.

There is deep confusion about who will call the shots in the new order. But from Yeltsin the Russians mainly expect less of the same.

His was a presidency as marked by long, unexplained absences it was by historic heights and dizzying descents.

He won, but not by restoring his image or rediscovering his early democratic slogans. He failed to persuade voters that he shared their pain and could ease it anytime in the near future.

Yeltsin made his bid a referendum on communism, asking Russians whether they wanted to entrust their future to the same people who had stifled their past.

A steam-roller anti-Communist campaign by Yeltsin, and voters' own bitter memories, was the key to Yeltsin's victory.

Democrats in Russia and in the West commend Yeltsin for going ahead with elections even when some of his closest advisers were warning him not to take that risk.

But few imagine that he did it to build and protect democracy, at least the kind understood in the West.

He fought to kill communism once and for all -- at the polls. His was a highly personal struggle to go down in history as the man who beat the Communist leader Gennady A. Zyuganov legitimately.

His war to eradicate the Communists from political life is far from won. Communists could regroup to combat the executive branch in the Duma, the lower house of parliament, which they control. They could field a more palatable presidential candidate in the year 2000.

But Yeltsin's part of the mission appears to be completed.

"Of course we'll see him again -- he has to take the presidential oath, and they'll bring him out to take it, no matter what condition he is in," said Pavel Voshchanov, a disenchanted former Yeltsin press secretary.

"Later, I predict a long vacation. If his health is good enough, we'll see him from time to time."

L Yeltsin's career has been as contradictory as his character.

Boris Nikolayevich Yeltsin was born into a peasant family on Feb. 1, 1931, in the village of Butka, in the Sverdlovsk region.

He was an old-fashioned party boss in the Urals who rode the tide of history and washed up on the other shore as a populist democrat.

A democrat who rules by decree, a populist who risks drastic reform, Yeltsin is also a modern statesman who unleashed a war in the breakaway republic of Chechnya that was as brutal as any military operation by the Soviet Politboro during the Cold War.

And over the past few months he showed his commitment to democracy by holding elections, then exploited all the powers of incumbency to twist the rules in his favor.

Mikhail S. Gorbachev brought the energetic, rough-hewn party boss of Sverdlovsk, a former building engineer, to the capital in 1985 to help shake up the slumbering Moscow party organization.

Yeltsin was a bull in a china shop. His speech attacking hard-liners in the Central Committee in 1987 was a pivotal moment in history, smashing the illusion of the party monolith.

Yeltsin was denounced so soundly for his outburst that he was hospitalized for nervous exhaustion, a shattering personal experience. Days later he was called back from a hospital bed by Gorbachev to endure another round. He never forgave his predecessor for it.

Yeltsin soon returned to politics and got himself elected to the newly minted Congress of People's Deputies, where he became the most visible opposition leader.

Perhaps his finest hour was in 1991, captured in the iconic scenes of his standing on a tank to rally popular resistance to a hard-liner's attempted coup against Gorbachev.

Yeltsin believed then that he had driven the stake through the heart of Russian communism. Instead, it rose up again to seize a second chance.

Later that year Yeltsin did what Gorbachev never dared: He ran for president and was elected by a huge margin.

His audacity was dazzling at first. He bravely freed prices in early January 1992, only 10 days after he took over Gorbachev's Kremlin office. He introduced privatization, a revolutionary step that reversed 70 years of state ownership. And until nationalists and Communists turned on him in earnest, he pursued a moderate, pro-Western foreign policy.

His decline, moral and physical, seemed to begin in October 1993, when an insurrection in parliament threatened his power, causing him to order tanks to fire shells at the parliament building.

As he concedes in his memoirs, his ability to lead consistently was always hampered by bouts of severe depression, insomnia and poor health. He has never quite admitted to another obvious habit, drinking.

He wore himself out early. Yeltsin, who is prone to disregarding even his closest advisers' warnings, convinced himself that he would win outright on June 16 and said so publicly -- to the consternation of his campaign aides, who believed no such thing.

Pub Date: 7/04/96

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