HE MAY BE THE MOST POPULAR MAN IN the Soviet Union, and Americans who glimpsed his charisma during his lightning visit here earlier this month will understand why. But like some wines, Boris Yeltsin doesn't always travel well. Two years ago the beefy opposition leader made a spectacle of himself during a nine-day tour of the United States. At one point, after a long night of drinking Jack Daniels, he slurred his way through a speech at Johns Hopkins University. And as if turning up with a snootful wasn't bad enough, he was even spotted urinating on the tarmac at Baltimore-Washington International Airport.

This time around, Yeltsin, 60, managed to spare both the pavements and his reputation. In fact, on his three-day, two-city U.S. visit, he came across as the soul of sobriety. He met with President Bush twice, in the process impressing White House officials with his command of international issues. Indeed, he was like a man transformed; not only was he togged out in tasteful dark suits, but the raggedy haircut he sported on the first trip had been replaced with a stylish coif. The sudden change in style is no coincidence. As the President-elect of the Russian Republic, Yeltsin is the first freely elected leader in his country's history. And with the Soviet Union sinking deeper into economic chaos, there is growing talk that he could eventually replace Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, who banished him from the Politburo in 1987.

Yeltsin's immense popularity back home stems from his image as an earthy Everyman. Born to a poor family in the Siberian village of Butko, young Boris had a joyless childhood, amid drab surroundings. He likes to say that, at his baptism, he was almost drowned by a drunken priest. As a youngster he lost two fingers on his left hand when a World War II grenade detonated while he was playing with it. The injury prevented him from serving in the military, and he graduated from Ural Polytechnic Institute with a degree in civil engineering. He worked his way up through the Communist Party hierarchy, eventually becoming head of construction in Sverdlovsk, the Soviet Union's major iron-and steel-producing region. In that job he caught the attention of party leaders, who appointed him to a post on the Central Committee in 1985.

Since then Yeltsin, who resigned from the Communist Party last year, has made his national reputation by stressing the need for instant capitalism. To drive home his point, when he was named the head of the Moscow Party Committee in 1985, Yeltsin ostentatiously refused the offer of an official dacha—or country estate. That is not to say that Yeltsin is entirely indifferent to the trappings of power. He and his wife, Anastasia, live with one of their two daughters, Lena, in an enormous apartment near Moscow's fashionable Gorky Street. Yeltsin, who draws an annual salary equivalent to $7,900, even has a modest dacha now, built privately with a group of friends.

His crusade has put him on a collision course with Gorbachev. As he takes office, Yeltsin will come under intense pressure to make good on his vision of a new Russia. "All his life, he has gotten power by going against the orthodox," says Jim Garrison, a Soviet American trade organization executive who arranged Yeltsin's first U.S. trip. "Now he's President, and he has to deliver."

BILL HEWITT
KATY KELLY and NANCY TRAVER in Washington, D.C.

  • Contributors:
  • Katy Kelly,
  • Nancy Traver.