And now for other news...

Jan 5, 2000 at 12:00 am

Well, I finally left my bunker, only because the $20,000 generator I bought New Year's Eve was interfering with my shortwave radio, and I wanted to see whether any fragments of civilization remained after the Y2K bug had destroyed the world.

To my astonishment, I found that the universal holocaust duly hinted at by the media ("Now We Wait," read one huge Detroit headline) had failed to materialize.

That didn't bother me very much; the 800 cases of Spam and 2,000 gallons of boiled water I socked away is just what I live on in civilian life. But when I turned on the wireless, I discovered the "anchors" all chattering away mindlessly about the same non-news, occasionally holding out a glimmer of hope that the nation's computers might yet kill us all on Feb. 29.

Then I noticed, tucked into a corner of the front page and as a second or third broadcast story, the real news. Eight years after he assumed power as the leader of a nation he more or less invented, or resurrected, Boris Yeltsin suddenly quit.

Suddenly, the biggest — or at least second biggest — nuclear arsenal in the world was in the control of a young, swift and shrewdly efficient former KGB agent very few know much about (see if you can name him) who has been aggressively crushing a major rebellion in a war which again, almost no one here is following.

Years ago, when the Soviet Union was still our officially designated enemy, any leadership change merited huge headlines. Now, Americans couldn't care less. Except that the truth is that it matters far more than in the days when one old man in the Politburo shuffled up to succeed his dead comrade. For Russia is today shaky, in large part starving, and, again, has 20,000-plus nuclear warheads. That they have elections now doesn't mean they love us or that their currency is stable.

We saw Boris Yeltsin in recent years as a comic-opera figure; drunk much of the time, perpetually sick, the butt of jokes. We'd see his bloated mug on TV when he had surgery, or was rumored to be dying, or stood up the prime minister of Ireland. Yet we forget that he did something enormously great, once. Back in the summer of 1991, when hard-line Communists briefly deposed Mikhail Gorbachev, and moved to return the Soviet Union to what it was, Yeltsin saved the day. No one else could have — would have — dared to do what he did. They sent tanks to his headquarters. Yeltsin climbed up on one. "This is an anti-constitutional coup d'etat," he said, calling on all Russians to refuse and resist.

They did. Nobody in the West could have imagined that. And it worked. Two days later the coup collapsed, and with it, in weeks, the USSR. Communism was dead. Boris Yeltsin was left as the freely elected leader of most of what was left — Russia.

Without any money, or time, he had to try to dissolve a thoroughly corrupt and hated system, and build something new, without any blueprint, or money.

He made blunders. But he kept Russia a democracy. "I did all I could," he told his people New Year's Eve. "I turned out to be too naive ... I myself believed we could overcome everything in one spurt, that we could leap from the gray, stagnant, totalitarian past into the light, rich, civilized future."

Now, he knew his time was over. "I have completed the main thing of my life. Russia will never move to the past. Now, Russia will always move forward."

Will it? Russia's new leader, the man Yeltsin literally put in, is named Putin, Vladimir Putin. Nobody had heard of him before August, when the 47-year-old former spy and security chief was suddenly elevated to prime minister.

Now, he is the heavy favorite to win a full term in the presidency when elections are held at the end of March. Putin says he supports democracy, He also says he will wipe out the Chechen rebels even if "they have to be killed while sitting on the toilet."

Well, we will hear a lot more of him this millennium. Incidentally, try this idea on. Suppose that Vice President Al Gore were in a tough primary fight (which, as a matter of fact, he is) and Bill Clinton had an inspiration. Why, he would resign, too! After all, Bill has just as much right as Boris to say, "I have completed the main thing of my life." Surely he isn't going to accomplish anything now.

Having failed at his main priority, universal health coverage, and having lost both houses of Congress, Big Bill unexpectedly ended up presiding over the best economy in the history of the world and the first federal budget surpluses in decades.

Not only that, he survived impeachment. So why not go now and give his designated successor a leg up? That's one main reason Yeltsin got out of the way for his man (who, obligingly, gave him total immunity from prosecution). After all, Bill has to feel that Al is up to the job, right? Plus that would give him time to hang pictures in his (her) new New York digs and help Hillary campaign for the Senate. Ridiculous? Damn right. To misquote Russian comic Yakov Smirnov, "You expect a politician to voluntarily give up power? You think this is Russia or something? What a country!" Yes, indeed.