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RUSSIAN LEADER'S POPULIST ROOTS GO DEEP

Alya I. Tanachova, an engineer at the huge Uralmash machine plant here, remembers vividly the day in the late 1970s when she first saw Boris N. Yeltsin, then the local Communist Party boss.

Plant workers had turned out for a "subbotnik," a Soviet tradition in which workers volunteered their Saturday (subbota) for a good cause - or else. They had been ordered to remove dirt piles, plant bushes and tidy up around the factory's newly built Palace of Culture."Boris Nikolayevich showed up in work clothes and worked the whole shift with us, shoveling dirt," Tanachova, 56, recalled. "At one point the (Uralmash) general director's car pulled up and he got out, dressed in a suit and tie, to tell everybody `Good job,' you know. And all of sudden he spotted Yeltsin - taller than all the rest, you couldn't miss him.

"He was embarrassed. He didn't know what to do . . . He nervously shook Yeltsin's hand, got in his car and drove away," she said, laughing at the discomfort of her boss.

"They say Yeltsin's a populist. Well, he was a populist back then, too. He went everywhere and talked to everybody," Tanachova said.

Since that subbotnik, Yeltsin has made a career of embarrassing bosses, not least among them Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev. On a few occasions, he has embarrassed himself and his supporters.

But through the mini-scandals, careless promises, tactical swivels, triumphal campaigns and bold political confrontations, his standing with the Russian people has remained unshakeable.

And now Russian voters have elected Yeltsin, 60, the first president of Russia.

He was the first Politburo defector, the first top Soviet politician to admit that the emperor had no clothes. He was the first high-level Communist to challenge the party and the KGB, drawing relentless propaganda attacks, KGB harassment and even death threats. He was the first to quit the party.

Last winter, he stood as the bulwark of reform when Gorbachev badly faltered. His dramatic intervention may have prevented military coups in the Baltic republics in January. His delicate exploitation of the coal miners' strike helped halt a slide into reaction and force Gorbachev back to a reformist path.

His victory was decisive - 60 percent of the vote - even though he has been chairman of the Russian parliament during a year of worsening economic chaos. He overcame competition from five diverse opponents and a furious smear campaign in the still-dominant Communist Party press.

In this city where he is known best, the vote for Yeltsin was overwhelming - 85 percent.

In Sverdlovsk, for a decade of the now-despised "period of stagnation," he was an ideologically correct Communist Party leader, an audible voice in the chorus singing the praises of the dottering Leonid Brezhnev. Surprisingly, perhaps, in a 1989 interview Yeltsin called those 10 years "the best years of my life."

It was Yeltsin who carried out the Politburo's secret order to raze the Sverdlovsk house where Czar Nicholas II and his family were murdered by the Bolsheviks. It was Yeltsin who built for the party hierarchy the glittering marble highrise that towers today over crowded wooden barracks where some workers still live.

But he was also a hands-on manager who made a point of riding trolley buses, digging potatoes on local collective farms, showing up to shake hands on the factory floor - all at a time when elections were uncontested.

He was one of the first party officials in the country to appear regularly on local TV to answer viewers' gripes and questions.

Whatever may happen now, Yeltsin already is a Russian leader of historic stature. He has a democratic legitimacy without precedent for a Russian or Soviet politician. He will travel in triumph to Washington this week to meet President Bush, to say "I told you so" to the West that once wrote him off as a demagogue.

But are all the doubts about Yeltsin gone? Are all the accusations against him groundless?

The answer, based on interviews with people who worked with him in Sverdlovsk and Moscow, is no.

His flaws and misadventures are on such a scale that they might long ago have ended most political careers.

In the past, he often made economic promises that he could not keep. Even during this presidential campaign, he at times came near demagoguery on the subject of prices, implying that he would defend the people from increases although he knows that a real market requires free prices.

He was drunk, or appeared to be, in a speech at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore during his first trip to the United States in 1989. A Sverdlovsk journalist who supports him says he watched Yeltsin consume a bottle of cognac at an official luncheon a few months ago making it impossible to interview him afterward.

Yeltsin's allies have insisted that the Baltimore scandal was a result of sleeping pills and too little sleep. They said he drinks no more than the average Russian male, which is probably true.

According to a number of sources, some of them sympathetic to Yeltsin, his infamous midnight swim in the Moscow River in the fall of 1989 came after he visited a lady friend, found her with another man and ended up in a fight. He told police at first that a pair of men had thrown him from a bridge, then withdrew that story.

Valentin B. Yumashev, the 33-year-old journalist who spent hundreds of hours with Yeltsin to ghostwrite his 1990 autobiography, "Against the Grain," confirmed many colleagues' reports that Yeltsin in private is "emotional and impulsive" and can be extremely harsh with people.

"He can answer his aides very harshly, and not just his aides," Yumashev said. Yeltsin appears equally tough on his own family - wife, Naina, their daughters, Yelena and Tatyana; and three grandchildren.

Yumashev recalled that early last year, Yeltsin announced one day in his Moscow apartment that as part of his rejection of privileges, he had decided to do without a chauffeur.

Mrs. Yeltsin immediately objected: as a high official, he had not driven a car himself in years, and it would be pointless and dangerous to start now, she argued.

"He was harsh and rude, and his wife started to cry. For me it was very unpleasant," Yumashev said.