When Boris Yeltsin announced Feb. 15 that he would run for reelection, a number of his closest advisers stood in the wings and quietly cried. Some of them feared they were witnessing the president's last hurrah.

Yeltsin had traveled to his home base, the Urals city of Yekaterinburg, to make the announcement. That day, most major polls showed Yeltsin in fourth or fifth place in the presidential race, and many political observers had all but written him off. It was a frigid, damp day, and the president's normally booming baritone was reduced to an unhealthy rasp.

"We were standing behind the curtains, and several of the president's aides -- their eyes welled up with tears," said Igor Mintusov, a key strategist for Yeltsin. "Here was this elderly president with his hoarse voice who was showing this tremendous determination. It was an emotional moment."

The story of Yeltsin's comeback, which reached its climax this week with his decisive runoff victory over Communist leader Gennady Zyuganov, is political drama of the highest order. In interviews this week, Yeltsin aides and campaign consultants outlined several key factors and turning points that made it possible: * A massive injection of cash into the president's campaign -- $100 million to $500 million or higher, according to estimates -- that came in part from the newly rich Russian capitalists controlling banks and other big private businesses. That spending dwarfed the official campaign spending limit of a little more than $3 million. * Scare tactics that included an eleventh-hour advertising campaign outside Moscow to convince Russians that a Communist victory could trigger a famine. * A group of top-secret American campaign advisers who were kept in isolation from nearly the entire Russian campaign team. *

A secret alliance with Alexander Lebed, the retired- general-turned-presidential-candidate, that was arranged at least several weeks before the June 16 first round of elections. Following the first round, in which Lebed placed third, Yeltsin appointed Lebed chief of national security.

Yeltsin also benefited from the good fortune of having opponents so technically inept, so mired in ideological confusion and burdened with political pariahs that they became their own worst enemies.

Above all, the campaign saga is an intensely human story of an aging and ailing leader -- a man by his own description at his best when the chips are down -- who at considerable risk to his fragile health shook himself awake from a long political torpor to mount an astonishing come-from-behind victory.

"At key points in his life, Yeltsin wakes up," said Boris Berezovsky, a financier who helped bankroll the Yeltsin campaign. "Five months ago, he woke up."

And not a minute too soon. Gloom and Doom

When Yeltsin's team of 20 top strategists sat down Jan. 11 in a building next to the Kremlin, they knew they were in trouble.

Yeltsin's senior political aide, Georgy Satarov, who called the meeting, had a simple agenda: He expected Yeltsin to run for reelection, and he wanted to formulate a winning game plan.

The response was not encouraging. The country was paralyzed by a hostage crisis in the southern region of Chechnya, where war between separatist rebels and Russian troops was grinding on. Three weeks earlier, the Communist Party had won big in nationwide parliamentary elections. Yeltsin, his approval rating hovering in the 4-to-8 percent range and clearly on the defensive, was busy firing the remaining free-market reformers in his cabinet.

"At the meeting there was total pessimism, a total absence of hope," said Mintusov, who was at the table. "Of 10 people who spoke, nine said {Yeltsin's candidacy} was senseless, a lost cause."

But not everything was as hopeless as it seemed. Some of Russia's most powerful financial and industrial groups -- the very people who had benefited most handsomely from four years of capitalism -- were keeping a close eye on events. The more closely they watched, the more worried they became -- and the more determined to preserve the status quo that had made them rich.

A sense of alarm among these money men took hold in February after they watched Zyuganov strut his stuff at the annual conference of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.

Leading comfortably in the polls, a confident Zyuganov strolled the well-appointed salons of Davos, rubbing shoulders with Western capitalists and doing a fair job of convincing them that a Communist government in Russia would not bring economic disaster.

The silky words Zyuganov used to woo the Western businessmen gave Berezovsky the jitters. "We decided there that Zyuganov was a danger for us, and for Russia," he recalled.

On their return, Berezovsky and some other kingpins of the new Russian capitalism asked for a meeting with Yeltsin. There was a sense that the Yeltsin campaign was adrift or, worse, stillborn, and they intended to sound the alarm.

The money men opened the spigots of financial support for Yeltsin's campaign. While the campaign's official spending limit was slightly more than $3 million, there was no way to monitor all the funds that might be spent on the president's behalf. Yeltsin team members estimated that at a bare minimum, $100 million flowed from banks and other financial concerns determined to reelect Yeltsin. Russian journalists and sources close to the campaign have said the minimum figure is closer to $500 million -- and possibly a good deal more.

But could the money be put to good use? At the time, Yeltsin's reelection effort was in the hands of Oleg Soskovets, a first deputy prime minister with close ties to Russia's military-industrial complex. Soskovets, despised by the reformers around Yeltsin, had been the director of a huge steel mill earlier in his career but didn't seem to have a clue how to run a political campaign.

His first major task was to collect the 1 million signatures Yeltsin needed to register as a candidate, and it was nearly a disaster.

"The president had set the date for getting signatures, Feb. 15, and a week before that we didn't have enough," said Vyacheslav Nikonov, a top campaign strategist. "No one was really in charge."

A few weeks later, in mid-March, Berezovsky and some of his allies, including Anatoly Chubais, Yeltsin's former economic guru, met with the president and gave him the bad news. They told Yeltsin he had little popular support and was heading for disaster. The next day the Russian leader acted. Soskovets was out as campaign chief; a new group of more liberal advisers, including Chubais, was in.

It was a turning point. But it might not have mattered much if Yeltsin had not been handed a golden opportunity by his main opponents at exactly the same time. Communists' Big Blunder

On March 15, the Communists, who control the largest faction in the lower house of parliament, voted to denounce the breakup of the Soviet Union. The Communists saw the non-binding resolution as largely symbolic, a throw-away potshot at a president already vulnerable for his role in dismantling the great Soviet empire.

That was exactly what the Yeltsin team wanted. According to aides to the president, they laid the groundwork for the vote by signaling nationalists in parliament to go ahead and vote on the side of the Communists and by having only Yeltsin's least popular allies in parliament speak out against the resolution.

When it passed, Yeltsin pounced. If the Soviet breakup was illegal, then Russia itself was an illegitimate state, the president said.

"This was a great gift for the president," said Mintusov. "The Communists didn't quite know what hit them."

With Zyuganov suddenly looking like an extremist, Yeltsin's poll numbers started to move. The president seemed emboldened, making his first campaign swing in early April to southern Russia's "Red Belt" agricultural region, where the Communists are particularly strong. Pleasantly surprised that the reception was relatively warm and curious, the Yeltsin camp scheduled a grueling series of campaign stops for the president.

As Zyuganov crisscrossed the country, giving his droning, gloomy stump speech dozens of times to no great effect, the Yeltsin campaign began to pick up steam, due largely to the most sophisticated media campaign Russia has ever seen.

The main strategy before the first-round presidential vote was not to air anti-Communist attack ads but to soften the popular perception of Yeltsin. It was not an easy task, largely because aides felt that Yeltsin, with his high negative ratings and overexposure on television, could not make his pitch directly. Instead, his team took an indirect approach.

The result was a blitz of advertisements in which Yeltsin did not appear. Instead, elderly people, veterans and working-class Russians offered testimonials for the Russian leader. It was a gamble. Most of the subjects in the ads were closer to the profile of Communist supporters, but all said they were voting for Yeltsin.

For elderly Russian voters, who had never seen sophisticated political ads before, "it made a mishmash of their brains," said Alexei Levinson, a focus-group specialist at the All-Russian Center for Research in Public Opinion.

"The trick in the commercials was that the people in them were 100 percent Zyuganov-type voters," he said. "You look at a person talking about the hardships of life, not necessarily linked to Communist rule, and all of a sudden he says, Let's vote for Yeltsin.' "

Not all the advertising was so touchy-feely. In the closing weeks of the campaign, one of the agencies working for Yeltsin printed more than a million posters of a glowering Zyuganov with the slogan, "This could be your last chance to buy food!" The adhesive-backed posters, stuck on the windows of food markets all over Russia, were a blatant scare tactic, but they worked.

"It's frightening," said a campaign source who was involved. "We have a genetic fear of hunger in Russia."

Meanwhile, the media, heavily backing Yeltsin and largely under the Kremlin's control, hammered home the message that a Communist return to power would mean upheaval, instability and maybe war.

Yeltsin's team sidestepped sticky issues such as the dismal condition of the economy or falling standards of living. "We didn't want political or economic discussions," said Mikhail Margelov of Video International, the ad agency behind Yeltsin's TV campaign. "We decided to play on the field of basic human values . . . people talking about their lives and basic values. If we came to a discussion of economic problems or crime, it's easy to criticize Yeltsin for that."

One unseen facet of the campaign was a team of Americans hired to help craft Yeltsin's image and message based on polling and survey research. The group -- which included George Gorton, Joe Shumate and Dick Dresner, former campaign staffers for California Gov. Pete Wilson (R) -- worked closely with Yeltsin's daughter, Tatyana Dyachenko.

The presence of American advisers, not particularly unusual in Russian campaigns, was a closely held secret because of the xenophobic and nationalistic climate surrounding this particular election. The Lebed Factor

As the campaign entered its final weeks, Yeltsin drew even with the Communists and took a small lead in the campaign's own polls. The Communists, short on cash and strangely blind to the power of TV ads, eschewed the airwaves in favor of door-to-door campaigning.

But the Yeltsin team knew it needed something more: an ally. In retired Lt. Gen. Alexander Lebed, it found one.

A military man who had been in politics less than a year, Lebed met with Yeltsin in May. Shortly thereafter, he began appearing on talk shows and was interviewed for newspaper articles. A five-minute video on public television June 4 portrayed Lebed as a "born leader" and compared him to Yeltsin.

It was no accident. According to campaign officials, a concerted effort was underway by the Yeltsin forces to build up the gruff former soldier and pave the way for an eventual anti-Communist alliance. Berezovsky, a major investor in Russia's state-controlled television channel, confirmed he had done his utmost to promote Lebed on the air.

"We helped him, and we helped other people understand him," Berezovsky said.

In the June 16 election, Lebed came in third, behind Yeltsin and Zyuganov. Two days later, he joined the Yeltsin administration as head of the National Security Council. Yeltsin's runoff victory seemed secure.

But a week later, after a trip to the western Russian enclave of Kaliningrad, Yeltsin became sick.

Aides insisted he had a cold or a sore throat. But sources who asked not to be identified said Yeltsin was exhausted. Two people close to the president's staff said Yeltsin suffered a breakdown -- a combination of exhaustion and depression.

"We were scared of the possible rumors, not of the president's health," said Nikonov. "Losing the candidate, a major resource in the last week -- this was really scary." CAPTION: Russian President Boris Yeltsin waved to onlookers on June 16 after voting in the first-round presidential election. CAPTION: Communist leader and then- presidential candidate Gennady Zyuganov danced with a friend last month at the Woodstock nightclub in Moscow. CAPTION: A campaigning Yeltsin plays a traditional Tatar game in the village of Saban. CAPTION: Widely distributed picture of Communist candidate Gennady Zyuganov carried the warning: "This could be your last chance to buy food!"