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The surprise of Boris Yeltsin's resignation yesterday is that its manner and its timing were so uncharacteristic of the man.

As he faced the Russian people and the world on television yesterday, Mr. Yeltsin was often humble and self-effacing. It was an aspect of human nature not often associated with the man who faced down his enemies by scrambling onto a tank.

From the time he began his working life as a construction engineer in the city of Sverdlovsk until, as president of Russia, he launched the latest invasion of Chechnya, Mr. Yeltsin was a man who revelled in action. In his youth, his passion was volleyball and his specialty was the smash that simply overwhelmed his opponents. That was the way he played his life.

Sometimes he played with a recklessness that could have proved fatal. When he was a boy, he stole a grenade, smashed it with a hammer and blew off part of his hand. But his recklessness seemed always to stop just short of total disaster.

One of the incidents that tells a lot about the young Mr. Yeltsin occurred when he discovered that the engineers in charge of building a new road near Sverdlovsk had badly bungled the job.

He decided to give them a dramatic demonstration of their failings. He loaded them all into a truck and drove down the road, dropping them off one at a time along the way where the work was inferior, and making them walk home. It was typical of the crude bullying of Mr. Yeltsin and of the crude authoritarian style of the Soviet Union.

Unlike his nemesis Mikhail Gorbachev, who joined the Communist Party at the age of 21 and committed himself to life as an apparatchik, Mr. Yeltsin had a life before communism. He was a hard-driving construction boss who got things done.

He did not get to Moscow until 1985, when Mr. Gorbachev summoned him to the Soviet capital to shake up the old bureaucracy and to clean out the corruption.

He approached Moscow as he approached everything else, with an impressive zeal. He hounded bureaucrats for their laziness, he harassed party apparatchiks for their privileges, and he actually talked to the people in the streets of Moscow about their problems.

It was bad enough that everything he did was a repudiation of those who had ruled Moscow for years. More acute was his attack on the corruption and entrenched privilege of the Communist apparatchiks. That was a threat to the system itself.

Within three years, even Mr. Gorbachev had turned against him. The Soviet leader humiliated Mr. Yeltsin before the country's assembled party loyalists and then effectively pushed him out of the ruling Politburo. Mr. Yeltsin never forgot that experience. Within three years he would square his account with Mr. Gorbachev and with the Communist Party.

While Mr. Gorbachev continued to rule the Soviet Union, edging reluctantly toward democracy and a market economy, all the while trying to legitimize his ruling Communist Party, Mr. Yeltsin became a power in Russia.

The huge Russian republic was half the Soviet Union in terms of population and more than half in terms of economic power and land mass, but power lay at the Soviet level and Mr. Gorbachev held tightly to that power.

The change came in stages. In June of 1991, Mr. Yeltsin became president of Russia. In August, a handful of senior hard-line Communists took Mr. Gorbachev prisoner and tried to seize control of the whole Soviet apparatus.

What stood in the way was Mr. Yeltsin. When the tanks commanded by the dissidents pulled up in front of the Russian parliament, the portly Mr. Yeltsin, with his shock of white hair, clambered aboard one of the tanks and demanded the rebellion stop.

Thirty-six hours later the rebellion collapsed, and Mr. Gorbachev returned from his captivity in a resort on the Black Sea, saved by the man whom he had tried to crush and who would now crush him.

Two days later Mr. Yeltsin welcomed Mr. Gorbachev into the Russian parliament, and he did it by way of humiliation. Before a world television audience he rubbed Mr. Gorbachev's nose in the names of those who conspired against him.

They were all Mr. Gorbachev's trusted allies in the Communist Party. Then and there, as the shattered and squirming Soviet leader watched, Mr. Yeltsin outlawed and destroyed the Communist Party, and with it Mr. Gorbachev.

Mr. Gorbachev had long understood that the power of the Communist Party had to be modified. But he could never bring himself to believe that the Communist Party had to be destroyed. And he thought he could handle the whole thing. That was Mr. Gorbachev's vanity, and it proved to be the blindness that flawed an otherwise extraordinary achievement.

Less for any subtlety of intellect than his own crude understanding of raw power, Mr. Yeltsin understood the Communist Party had to be destroyed, and he did his best to achieve that. By the end of 1991, just eight years ago, Mr. Yeltsin had finished off Mr. Gorbachev and the Soviet Union, and he did his best to destroy the Communists.

The Yeltsin years of power must have been frustrating. You cannot bring a market economy to an authoritarian and totally planned society by clambering atop a tank.

In hailing Mr. Yeltsin's "crucial role in the history of Russia," Prime Minister Tony Blair of Britain talked yesterday of "a most difficult and painful transition from communism to democracy."

It was certainly that, and Mr. Yeltsin reflected that pain in his farewell address when he apologized for the failings of his era.

It was a sad old man who asked for forgiveness, "for the fact that many of the dreams we shared did not come true. . . .

"I ask forgiveness for not justifying some hopes of those people who believed that at one stroke, in one spurt, we could leap from the grey, stagnant, totalitarian past into the light, rich, civilized future. I myself believed in this: that we could overcome everything in one spurt."

Those dreams were tainted by problems and challenges for which neither Mr. Yeltsin nor anyone else in the former Soviet Union was prepared: the complexities of capitalist economics and parliamentary democracy. Mr. Yeltsin understood about destroying the old system, but he did not really understand what the new system should be.

Despite his failings, Mr. Yeltsin did bestow on Russia one further remarkable legacy yesterday. He left office voluntarily and with the clear determination that a successor should be chosen by democratic ballot.

As he left, he said: "A new generation is relieving me, a generation of those who can do more and better. . . . Russia must enter the new millennium with new politicians, with new faces, with new intelligent, strong, energetic people." Then he added: "And we who have been in power for many years must go." In that, too, Boris Yeltsin was right.

YELTSIN'S CAREER

April, 1985: Boris Yeltsin is brought to Moscow from Sverdlovsk by former president Mikhail Gorbachev to head the Central Committee for Construction. December, 1985: Elected first secretary of the Moscow City Committee. 1990: Leaves Communist Party. 1991: Elected President of the newly independent Russian Federation. September, 1991: Climbs up on a tank in Moscow street to resist right-wing coup attempt. December, 1991: Oversees liquidation of the Soviet Union in favour of decentralized Commonwealth of Independent States. Oct. 4, 1994: Sends tanks and troops to crush hard-line lawmakers and their armed supporters who rebel against his decree dissolving parliament. 1994: Authorizes uses of force against separatist uprising in Chechnya. July, 1995: Suffers mild heart attack. October, 1995: Suffers second heart attack. June, 1996: Wins second term. November, 1996: Undergoes quintuple bypass surgery. 1998: Fires his mutinous cabinet; the Duma rejects his first two choices for prime minister. July, 1998: IMF and foreign lenders agree to $22.6-billion (U.S.) bailout. August, 1998: Fires cabinet again; appoints Victor Chernomyrdin acting prime minister; vows ruble will not be devalued; ruble goes into free fall. September, 1998: Yevgeny Primakov takes job of prime minister at Duma's insistence. Nov. 23, 1998: Mr. Yeltsin rushed to hospital with pneumonia. January, 1999: Rushed to hospital with perforated ulcer. May, 1999: Fires Mr. Primakov and appoints Sergei Stepashin acting premier. August, 1999: Fires Mr. Stepashin and appoints Vladimir Putin premier. September, 1999: Bomb attacks on apartment buildings kill 265 people. October - December, 1999: Fighting in Chechnya, where rebels are blamed for blasts. International pressure to stop war. Dec. 31, 1999: Mr. Yeltsin resigns. Staff