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AGAINST THE GRAIN: AN AUTOBIOGRAPHY; By Boris Yeltsin; Translated by Michael Glenny; Summit Books; $19.95, 263 pages.

In assuming the newly created presidency of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev chose to forgo the benefits of popular endorsement of his rule in order to avoid the "inconvenience" and "distractions" of competing for the office in a general election.One reason for this choice was almost certainly Gorbachev's fear that his erstwhile protege, Boris Yeltsin, might run against him. Given the enormous political resources he commands, the odds doubtless would have favored Gorbachev in such a contest. But it would have been a close race with an unexpected outcome.

After five years of continued economic stagnation and mounting political turmoil, Gorbachev no longer can count on the widespread support he enjoyed when he first came to power. Although still greatly admired abroad, his domestic approval rating has fallen precipitously. Yeltsin, on the other hand, is immensely popular and seems to become more so with each new attempt by his highly placed enemies to discredit him.

Yeltsin's popularity was vividly demonstrated a year ago, when the voters of Moscow elected him to the USSR Congress of Peoples' Deputies by a 9-1 margin. It was confirmed this March, when he was elected to the Supreme Soviet of the Russian Republic by 85 percent of the voters in the city of Sverdlovsk. These landslide victories were the more remarkable because Yeltsin had formerly headed the party organizations in both Moscow and Sverdlovsk and hence was more than ordinarily vulnerable to the throw-the-rascals-out psychology.

To the degree that he has any name recognition outside the Soviet Union, he is known, above all, for his allegedly heavy drinking and his supposed womanizing. Presumably, a desire to rectify this situation is one of the motives behind the publication of this political self-portrait.

For a variety of reasons, it seems highly unlikely that "Against the Grain" will in fact succeed in winning Yeltsin much of a foreign following. Certainly, it will not have anything like the international impact of Gorbachev's far more polished autobiography, "Perestroika." All else apart, the absence of any discussion of Soviet foreign policy will limit its appeal. Nevertheless, "Against the Grain" deserves careful reading for the fascinating insights it provides into the political struggles that are taking place in the Soviet Union, and also into the personalities of some of the major combatants.