MOSCOW -- On television last night, Boris N. Yeltsin made his desperate, final stand.
With a stroke of his pen, like a Romanov autocrat, Russia's president ordered Parliament abolished and its members, two-thirds of whom have become his critics or enemies, to return to their homes and jobs. Elections would be held in December for a new assembly, he said.
He moved to dissolve Russia's legislative institutions, Mr. Yeltsin explained, for the sake of liberty.
Mr. Yeltsin's avowedly unconstitutional attempt to make himself Russia's sole national authority was his most extreme act since he faced down the tanks of the 1991 hardline Communist putsch. It was also an unmistakable sign that this unique politician, immobilized in an energy-sapping power struggle with Parliament, realizes his time has run out.
The moment of truth that has seemed inevitable since the collapse of the Soviet Union left Russia with a hybrid, semi-Soviet, semi-presidential system of government has come. But will Mr. Yeltsin's attempt at a blitzkrieg attack on his adversaries succeed? Will the message that a stern, determined Mr. Yeltsin delivered to his country in a 20-minute speech last night salvage or doom his 2-year-old presidency?
Holding elections means exerting authority nationwide, and many Russian regions have already rebeled against Mr. Yeltsin. His Cabinet rallied to his side, but yesterday evening the army was making vague and non-committal noises.
Within minutes of the president's move, rival forces had declared that the tumultuous Yeltsin era in Russia was over. Mr. Yeltsin's hand-picked running mate turned irreconcilable enemy, Vice President Alexander V. Rutskoi, was proclaimed acting president by parliamentary leaders who, ironically, assembled inside the same government building on the banks of the Moscow River that became Mr. Yeltsin's command post during the August 1991 putsch.
His gamble is obvious. This construction engineer from the Ural mountains, who has had an innate ability to sense and act on the Russian people's wants and desires but who seemed to have a tin ear of late and has squandered countless opportunities, is betting that the residue of his authority and charisma, and the faded glow of victory in a nationwide referendum last April, will win out over Russians' veneration for duly constituted, albeit Soviet-era, institutions, the deep hurt caused by the government's economic reforms, and widespread indifference.
Last night's speech was hardly a blind throw of the dice, and in retrospect some of Mr. Yeltsin's recent actions now take on a new meaning. On Aug. 31, Mr. Yeltsin visited the elite Taman Motorized Rifle Division's headquarters outside Moscow, and last Thursday he was the guest of honor at the Dzerzhinsky Division of Russia's Interior Troops -- precisely the sort of unit that would be called in to break up any disorders in Russia's capital that Yeltsin's decree might cause.
In a standard-issue beret and service parka, Mr. Yeltsin inspected the Dzerzhinksy Division's vehicles, and stopped in front of a truck equipped with fire hoses of the type used to dispel demonstrations. How far could the water reach? Mr. Yeltsin asked. "Up to 60 meters," a lieutenant colonel answered.
Mr. Yeltsin, one witness reported, seemed delighted.
On Saturday, he appointed a new security minister. And to pre-empt exactly the kind of countermove that Mr. Rutskoi and the Parliament made yesterday, Mr. Yeltsin decreed in a move of dubious constitutionality that the vice president could not replace him without his approval.
Questioned by the Los Angeles Times last month, Mr. Yeltsin said his most grievous error over the past two years was his failure to seek early parliamentary elections immediately after the August putsch. That would have been a key step toward reinventing Russia's governmental institutions through a new document to replace the Soviet-era 1978 constitution. Last night's decree was his attempt at a belated remedy.
With last night's speech, this politician whose soul has been at war for the past two years over his lifelong penchant for the bold, unexpected stroke and the need to play by the rules of Western-style checks and balances, made his choice. It may mean the end of his presidency.
In any event, in Russia naked power, perhaps even force -- not constitutionality or legal texts -- will decide yet again the future of the nation.