Sick of hypocrisy and muddle in the Kremlin, he asked to leave the Politburo and resign as Moscow City party boss. It was a bold gamble but it worked: Mr Yeltsin had launched his reputation as a man of unbending determination.
Five years on, it is a very different Boris Yeltsin who surveys the wreckage of another political battle. He has not only lost but stands accused of making the mistake he found so intolerable in Mr Gorbachev: he caved in. Like Mr Gorbachev, Mr Yeltsin lost his nerve - and the architect of his economic reform policy, Yegor Gaidar.
What happened? He blundered tactically. But it was more than tactics that forced Mr Yeltsin into a corner. In 1987 he proved his conviction by stalking out of the Kremlin; last year he did it by jumping on a tank to defend the White House. He tried the same with the Congress of People's Deputies. But no one joined him.
For a day, though, it seemed as if Mr Yeltsin might repeat his past triumphs. Last Thursday morning, from the podium of the Great Kremlin Palace, it was the 'awkward' Mr Yeltsin who spoke. 'It is no longer possible to work with such a Congress,' he fumed. 'The walls of this hall have blushed from endless insults, from the filth that swamps this Congress due to the sick ambitions of bankrupt politicians.'
By Friday, it was over. Mr Yeltsin did precisely what he had declared impossible: he sat down for talks with Ruslan Khasbulatov, the Congress Speaker. On Saturday, they signed a deal: Mr Yeltsin would cancel plans to hold a referendum to get rid of Congress; he also agreed to submit more than one candidate for the post of prime minister. In return, Mr Khasbulatov promised to rescind a series of measures curbing the President's powers. Also fixed was a referendum, not in January to dissolve Congress as Mr Yeltsin wanted, but in April on the shape of a new constitution.
Mr Yeltsin may still have hoped to scrape by with his policies and Mr Gaidar intact. On Monday, hope vanished. Mr Gaidar came a distant third in a round of preliminary voting. Mr Yeltsin gave up. Russia's new prime minister, he announced, grim-faced, hesitant and utterly humiliated, would be Viktor Chernomyrdin, an energy industry apparatchik.
By yesterday the fire of last Thursday was reduced to a homily on the virtues of compromise: 'Of course both Congress and the President were obliged to make certain compromises, but in politics that is an ordinary occurrence.' In reality, it was anything but ordinary. 'It's a lesson for Yeltsin,' gloated Mr Gorbachev.
One lesson involved tactics. Mr Yeltsin always despised the Congress, a hangover from the Communist era and choked with its most faithful servants. But the Congress has power. At first, Mr Yeltsin seemed to accept this. He lobbied to secure the backing of Civic Union, the largest bloc in the legislature, promising to adjust economic 'shock therapy' to meet its main demand: more support for crumbling state industry.
When the Congress opened, though, all the deals crumbled. Deputies, emboldened by a mood of open hostility towards the government, wanted more.
According to Arkady Volsky, Civic Union's main backroom negotiator, Mr Yeltsin made his first big mistake on Monday last week. That night, a week into the Congress, Mr Yeltsin met Mr Gaidar, Mr Volsky and several others. All agreed that Mr Gaidar had little chance of winning Congress confirmation as full prime minister. Mr Gaidar urged that no vote be held and that he be kept on as acting premier. Civic Union was ready to go along.
But Mr Yeltsin refused. Two days later, on Wednesday, he put Mr Gaidar's future to a vote. He fell 54 votes short. The following morning, Mr Yeltsin exploded: Russia, he thundered, faced its 'severest crisis'; only when Congress was dissolved could reform continue unimpeded.
It is at this point that tactical miscalculation became a far more dangerous blunder. Mr Yeltsin had issued a call to arms for reform, just as he had during last year's putsch. A rally was organised on the edge of Red Square but no more than 1,000 or so supporters showed up.
Most crucial of all, as in August 1991, seems to have been the military. On Friday morning, the Defence Minister, Pavel Grachev, mounted the podium: 'I assure you that we shall not allow the armed forces to be involved in political battles.' Absent was any pledge to support the President. Nor was there any support for Congress. But it was Mr Yeltsin who had launched a political battle. He had needed the military, not to seize the streets but merely to go along with his gamble. Mr Grachev, though, wanted no part.
The following day, Mr Yeltsin sat down for peace talks with Mr Khasbulatov. His battle was over and lost.Reuse content