IT WAS FITTING that Boris Yeltsin would end his political career with dramatic surprise; flair was a consistent trademark. It was even more fitting, given Mr. Yeltsin's complex legacy, that you could interpret his premature departure yesterday in more than one way. On the one hand, as the Clinton administration chose to emphasize, Mr. Yeltsin acted within the constitution, paving the way for Russia's first-ever peaceful, lawful change of power from one living leader to another. On the other, by ducking out a half-year before his term expired and grabbing legal immunity from prosecution on his way out the Kremlin door, Mr. Yeltsin injected the sour odor of a cooked deal into democratic Russia's first transition. Partly noble, partly rotten: an appropriate end to his tumultuous reign.

Mr. Yeltsin's accomplishments are beyond question. He helped dismantle an oppressive Communist system, easing state control over people and property. He defied widespread predictions, from U.S. experts and others, that Russia would slide back toward dictatorship or forward toward anarchy, bread riots and dissolution. Steadfastly Mr. Yeltsin defended Russians' freedom to express themselves--including by attacking him more and more viciously as the years went by--and to travel. He permitted fair elections for a parliament that operated freely despite its determined opposition to Mr. Yeltsin's policies. For the most part, he respected the integrity of fragile neighboring states like Ukraine. For all this, there is no precedent in Russian history.

But, as the president acknowledged in his forlorn departure speech today, he fell short of his own goals. "What we thought would be easy turned out to be painfully difficult," he said. Eight years ago, Mr. Yeltsin promised his people that the worst pain of transition would last six months; today, many of them are poorer, and die younger, than ever. No one could have "cured" Russia in six months. It is in the midst of three revolutionary shifts at once: from totalitarianism to democracy, from decaying socialism to a market economy, from militarized society to one that is largely civilian. Under any leader, these are transitions of years and decades, not months.

So history will fault Mr. Yeltsin for naivete, as he said; but for more than that, too. He faltered in his devotion to reform; tolerated corruption on a breathtaking scale; waged brutal war, not once but twice, against his own citizens in Chechnya. Now he steps down early, very likely because his handpicked successor, Vladimir Putin, the man who can best protect Mr. Yeltsin from his enemies, is immensely popular, more assured of victory in a special election in March than he would be in a regularly scheduled contest three months later. Few Russians will mourn the passing of a man who has been weakened by disease for years; but his calculated departure deprives Russia of one more notch of normality as it attempts to live under predictable, democratic rules.

Mr. Putin now promises to restore the strength of the Russian state, an implicit rebuke of his predecessor. The goal is beyond reproach: A state so weak that it cannot enforce its laws, pay its pensions or protect its army recruits from sadistic hazing is a menace to everyone, and to the weakest most of all. But will Acting President Putin look for strength in the continued destruction of Chechnya and in the manipulation of media and government agencies to promote his own election in March? Or will he seek to extend the brighter strands of Mr. Yeltsin's legacy and find strength in true democracy and rule of law? Those are questions for the new year.