Yeltsin had found common cause with the Soviet Union's pro-democracy campaigners, though he was by no means one of their number by temperament, personality or background.
"It was a very important historical moment," said Piontkovsky. "Without Yeltsin, the democratic movement would have been just a group of intellectuals talking around the kitchen table."
With him, they became a force ready to remake Russia. Their moment came Aug. 19, 1991, when the world awoke to the news that something called the State Committee on the State of Emergency had assumed power in Moscow, that Gorbachev was being held at his summer home in the Crimea. The men who organized the coup were some of Gorbachev's closest associates, and they included the ministers of defense and internal affairs and the head of the KGB.
They wanted to put a stop to what they saw as Gorbachev's weak and vacillating leadership -- and the alarming prospect that Yeltsin, just elected as president of the Russian Federation, was emerging as perhaps the most powerful man in the Soviet Union.
Yet the coup was so poorly organized that no attempt was made to arrest Yeltsin until it was too late. Having learned what was up, he raced to the White House, the headquarters of the Russian government on the banks of the Moscow River.
As he huddled with his closest allies, tanks rumbled up and took positions around the building. Yeltsin strode out, climbed atop one of them and called on the Russian people to resist the coup. It was an audacious move. He had no guns behind him, only nerve.
But the junta cracked under the strain. The tanks that had been sent to the White House turned their guns around to protect it. Hundreds of thousands of Muscovites answered Yeltsin's call and turned out, coming by bus, tram and subway to the grounds of the building. Yeltsin was defiant, and his foes from the old Soviet inner circle were routed.
He induced Gorbachev to seize the property of the Communist Party and ban any party activity. Then, in December 1991, he hammered out an agreement with his counterparts from Belarus and Ukraine to dismantle the Soviet Union itself.
The Russian government ended price controls and subsidies, boldly achieving more reforms in a few weeks in 1992 than Gorbachev had in six years. The long, hopeless lines of shoppers, static and hunkered down, gave way to fully stocked shelves.
Inevitably, there was a flip side to this coin. Prices soared to reflect reality, even while wages fell behind. The abundance of goods was matched by a shortage of ready cash. Large informal flea markets formed on certain street corners, as people tried to sell off what little they had to make ends meet.
In this lay the roots of the conflict that would dog Yeltsin for the rest of his tenure. Politicians who had stood with him at the White House turned against his reforms.
The struggle for power intensified and became never-ending. There was a change in prime ministers, a referendum, an aborted attempt at imposing emergency rule. At regular intervals, it seemed Yeltsin's foes were ready to sweep away his free-market reforms. A move to impeach him came close to succeeding in March 1993.
Every time, Yeltsin would in the end go over his opponents' heads and appeal to the people -- and whether through referendum or demonstrations in the streets, the people would come out for him. Struggling to keep afloat as prices rose, troubled by ever more blatant crime and corruption, Russians nevertheless had little use for the old Soviet-manager class that dominated the opposition. Time after time, a tired and beleaguered Yeltsin would call for public support and emerge the stronger for it.
The goodwill ends
October 1993 would mark the beginning of the end of that good feeling. A final showdown with the old parliament reached a dangerous impasse, and after 10 days a large anti-Yeltsin demonstration erupted into a melee. A gunbattle at the main television headquarters was followed the next day by the bombardment of the White House.
By evening, the parliamentary leaders were under arrest, the White House was a burning hulk and Yeltsin's sure popular touch had come undone.
It had been a dangerous time for Russia, and it is likely that a majority of the people across the country were appalled by the parliament's tactics and pronouncements. But no one rejoiced at a victory wrought by tanks.
Since then, Yeltsin's tenure has been marked by two wars in Chechnya -- the first a disaster, the second a political triumph -- and by a growing sophistication in manipulative politics.
The Kremlin struck an alliance with Russia's new breed of bank tycoons, who profited enormously under privatization and who control much of Russia's press.
Pro-Kremlin coverage in elections in 1996 and again in 1999 was relentless, even as huge commercial enterprises have been nearly given away to the banks.