Only days away from their seventh summit, "Boris" and "Bill," as they call each other, handled their personal and political crises in remarkably similar fashion - first wielding the big stick, then going into hiding.

Russian President Boris Yeltsin, blamed for a collapsing economy and under increasing pressure to resign, fired one prime minister, reappointed another whom he had sacked just five months ago, then left him struggling to form a government while he went into seclusion at a country dacha.President Clinton, basking in the glow of a booming U.S. economy but greatly weakened by his admission of extramarital sex with Monica Lewinsky, fired Tomahawk missiles at terrorist targets in Sudan and Afghanistan, then retreated to Martha's Vineyard, where he went sailing with Walter Cronkite.

Both emerged a few days later, looking confident, relaxed and in charge. But both are politically wounded, perhaps fatally so. Both are threatened with impeachment by their respective legislatures. Both face unprecedented calls to step down.

Yeltsin's political survival looks particularly shaky. Although he insisted that he would not resign - "I will work as I'm supposed to for my constitutional term" - reports persisted that he had already penned a resignation letter and that Tuesday's meeting with Clinton would be a "farewell summit."

At 67, after two heart attacks and a bypass operation, Yeltsin is no longer the active populist who climbed onto a tank in 1991 to lead opposition to a communist coup.

And his attempts to shift blame by firing yet another government - his second this year - are no longer believable.

In March, Yeltsin fired Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin, blaming him for the state of the economy. He presented Sergei Kiriyenko, a young political unknown, as the man who would save Russia. Last Sunday, Kiriyenko was out and Chernomyrdin back in, officially anointed as Yeltsin's heir "to maintain stability."

The two-time prime minister, who wept when he was so ignominiously booted from office five months ago, now finds himself being praised by Yeltsin for his "dignity, decency, honesty and solidity." Yet many hold him at least partly responsible for the huge problems that helped precipitate Russia's currency crash, such as poor tax collection, endemic government corruption and factories in desperate need of restructuring, which Kiriyenko had tried to solve.

In his brief term of office, which lasted only four months, some admirers had described Kiriyenko as the best prime minister Russia ever had, and he impressed Western leaders with his commitment to reform.

Clinton clearly was not happy with his dismissal. He waited two days after Chernomyrdin's appointment before telephoning Yeltsin to offer a less than enthusiastic endorsement, saying: "I'll continue to support you in what you need to do to tackle Russia's economic situation."

That's really what this summit is all about.

The prospect of economic collapse and political instability in a nuclear-armed Russia has sent stock markets, including the Dow, plunging around the world. Chernomyrdin has not helped matters by raising the specter of a coalition government with Communists, who form the largest voting bloc in the State Duma, Russia's lower house of parliament.

The Communists have demanded that Yeltsin reject conditions attached to a $22.6 billion bailout approved by the International Monetary Fund in July. They also want him to revive industrial and agricultural subsidies, increase social spending and strengthen Russia's defense potential - in short, a complete change of course.

Since he took over the remains of the Soviet empire he helped destroy, Yeltsin had always played on the threat of a Communist revival to win Western support. But Chernomyrdin, still an interim prime minister who needs confirmation by parliament, has indicated that some of the Communists' demands are acceptable to him.

They include currency controls, fixed prices and state ownership - a rollback of free-market reforms already in place and precisely the opposite of what the IMF demands as a condition for releasing further funds to defend the ruble.

To be fair, no single man - Yeltsin or Chernomyrdin - and no single economic circumstance can be blamed for this looming catastrophe. But, cumulatively, they have brought the world's largest country to the brink of economic collapse.

Since the demise of the Soviet Union, Russia has always been short of money, largely because it has no effective tax collection system. The government gets only a fraction of what it is owed, and thus has to struggle to pay salaries, bonds and foreign loans. The latter must be paid in dollars, which further strains reserves.

Last July the cash crunch was actually worse than at present. The government faced a 40 percent revenue shortfall. But industrial production had posted its first post-Soviet growth, investor confidence was high and the stock market was soaring. This July the shortfall was only 10 percent, but the mood had changed, causing the stock market to sink and lose two-thirds of its value.

One reason for the crisis of confidence was a steep drop in world prices for oil, Russia's major export and source of hard currency earnings. This, coupled with the lingering effects of Asia's melt-down, panicked investors, and the very perception that Russia's economy was in trouble worsened the crisis.

As banks and other depositors lost confidence in Russia, they shifted their assets into dollars and forced the government to buy back rubles, using its foreign currency reserves. The government didn't even dip into its $17 billion reserves, instead spending $4.6 billion of the IMF's money.

When that ran out, however, it decided it could no long afford to prop up the ruble. Afloat in the free market, it quickly lost 34 percent of its value and the government had to announce Russia's first debt default since the Bolshevik revolution of 1917.

If Russia's financial woes trigger hyperinflation, meaning big price increases for staple goods, its people may become sufficiently angry to revolt.

Analysts recall that the worst rebellions of the Soviet era involved food staples. For example, troops opened fire on rioters at Novo-cher-kassk after the government raised the price of meat by 30 percent.

At their summit, Clinton will try to impress on Yeltsin the need to continue with economic reforms as the only way to get Russia out of its mess. Yeltsin, in turn, may ask for more bailout money.

Germany, owed $30 billion and Russia's biggest creditor, has already advised Moscow that "without the reforms it will not be possible to mobilize money either from international financial organizations or from Germany." The same message was sent by France. And Clinton is constrained by congressional distaste for the IMF and a widespread belief that more aid for Russia would be like pouring money down a bottomless well.

The American president has a host of other issues he wants to discuss with Yeltsin, disputes that were not resolved or have arisen since six previous summits and eight less formal meetings between the two. But expectations of this summit are low, given their shaky status.