But early results showed voters had ignored his appeals not to allow Russia to fall into the hands of "forces of the past". Angered by poverty, the war in Chechnya and a loss of global status, they were lurching back towards Communism anew.
As officials totted up tens of millions of votes, preliminary figures from the Far East showed the Communist Party had snatched 20.9 per cent of the vote in 15 of the 89 regions. The ultra-nationalist enfant terrible of Russian politics, Vladimir Zhirinovsky, was running second with 16 per cent, although he is considered more popular in these areas than elsewhere. The government-backed centrist party, Our Home Is Russia was trailing, with just over 6 per cent.
However, the results represented only a fraction of the total votes casts in the elections to the State Duma (lower house), only the second multi- party poll since the end of the Soviet Union. Pro-reformers were hoping that the high turn-out - some 60 per cent - meant that anti-Communist elements, and particularly Russia's young, had rallied after President Yeltsin made his eleventh hour televised appeal.
Mr Yeltsin scorned suggestions that a return to Communism was possible. "No, and no again", he said, as he cast his ballot at a sanatorium near Moscow, where he is recovering from a heart attack. "No circumstances would force me to abandon the course of reforms I have taken."
Scenting victory, Gennady Zyuganov, the leader of the Communist Party, sought to reassure the world there would be no return to the old-style Communism, despite his party's commitment to restricting privatisation, increasing state economic controls and holding a referendum on the restoration of the Soviet Union.
"It is impossible to lead in the old way", he said. "On a big ship one does not jerk the helm sharply". Such declarations are likely to be regarded with suspicion by Russian reformers and Western diplomats, as Mr Zyuganov has a record of making conflicting statements.
The fact that the elections took place marks a milestone in the progress towards democracy. They are the equivalent of a primary for next year's presidential race, if it goes ahead.
The State Duma's powers are limited, and no party is expected to emerge with total control. If a Communist-nationalist coalition emerges, Kremlin policy makers are likely to trim their policies in the hope of gleaning popular support.
Success will be crucial for Mr Zyuganov, the nationalist General Alexander Lebed, and Grigory Yavlinksy, the liberal pro-reformer. The strength of their support will affect their ability to mount a strong presidential challenge. Last week Mr Yeltsin said he would announce his decision whether to run for a second term in February.
Mr Yeltsin gave a surprising vote of confidence to Viktor Chernomyrdin, defying speculation that the Prime Minister, whom the West would love to see in the Kremlin, would be fired. The President hinted that he may dismiss others before the presidential elections, but said he thought Mr Chernomyrdin will keep his post.
There were no reports of serious malpractice in the elections, except in Chechnya, where Russia has insisted on holding a vote despite the continuing war.
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