WHEN he became Russia's presidential press secretary last month, former TV journalist Sergei Medvedev knew he was taking on perhaps the most difficult job of his career: making Boris Yeltsin look good.
Until recently, Mr. Medvedev was a familiar face on the national evening news. Over the years, his unwavering support for President Yeltsin was so strong that once it even got him fired.
So when Yeltsin's popular, energetic, press-the-flesh image deteriorated into the figure of a shadowy recluse out of touch with the people, Medvedev knew his work was cut out for him. While some might question his jump from journalism into politics, the man who says he has become a ''creative bureaucrat'' calls it a natural transition.
One of the president's men
''Next to the president should be a man who knows the mass media well and who has an idea of how to formulate his image,'' Medvedev said recently over lunch in a trendy Mexican restaurant here, as he tries nacho tortilla chips with jalapeno peppers for the first time -- with a fork.
''We're not children,'' he adds as he reaches for his drink, looking more like a youthful ''New Russian Banker'' in a snappy suit and tie than one of the president's men. ''We know that every political figure in the world is doing all he can to make his image look good.''
Beset by the lowest domestic ratings since he was elected in 1992, Yeltsin's popularity plummeted at home and abroad after he dispatched Russian troops to the separatist Chechen republic in December last year.
The Kremlin's use of indiscriminate force to subdue the region so appalled Western leaders that many, including President Clinton, hesitated to say they would attend the May ceremonies in Moscow marking the 50-year anniversary of the Allied victory in World War II.
Recent disputes over Moscow's sale of nuclear technology to Iran and its concern over the possible eastward expansion of NATO seem to have led to an even-deeper rupture in US-Russian relations. But Medvedev, who seems as comfortable talking public relations as he does politics, says such differences of opinion are not indicative of a real rift.
''I don't think the relationship is suffering any real decline, although we have interests which coincide and interests which don't,'' he says. ''It's just that the initial euphoria is over.''
Medvedev is equally matter-of-fact -- and optimistic -- about his new job, which Yeltsin offered him personally. The president had a falling out with his former press secretary, Vyacheslav Kostikov, and Mr. Kostikov was made ambassador to the Vatican.
Back on the tank again
With his new, spacious Kremlin office just down the hall from the president's, Medvedev hopes to lift the secrecy of Russian leaders, part of his plan to help Yeltsin regain the popularity he enjoyed when he climbed a tank in front of the Russian parliament building. That moment became a lasting image of the failed hard-line coup of 1991.
Last week, for example, Medvedev broke Kremlin tradition by releasing a detailed medical report chronicling the details of Yeltsin's health, which a team of doctors said is improving.
Medvedev says he was following the example of Mr. Clinton's press service when he released the report, adding that he wanted to help quell a spate of ''rumors'' about Yeltsin's failing health and excessive drinking, which he says some candidates for the 1996 Russian presidential elections were spreading for their own benefit.
''He's so healthy that he goes swimming as soon as the ice melts, he just jumps in. He can swim in 8 or 9 degree [centigrade] temperatures. He's hardened. He's a very strong man by nature,'' Medvedev says.
In an attempt to show Yeltsin in a rosier light, Medvedev recently helped produce a short TV film about Yeltsin, in which he was shown relaxing on vacation as he played billiards and tennis and chatted with his chef.
In one scene, however, he fished in a lake looking pale and puffy-faced, sitting on a wooden armchair apparently specially brought in for the occasion.
''Many people who saw this film thought ... 'What were they trying to hide from us?' Because there was absolutely nothing to conceal,'' Medvedev says, brushing aside all criticisms. ''There are lots and lots of rumors about Yeltsin, but they come from insufficient information and knowledge about the subject.''
Medvedev himself has a long history as a Yeltsin defender and had often traveled with the president throughout his almost 15-year TV career. During the 1991 attempted coup, the young journalist was fired for sneaking his camera out of Soviet television studios past KGB guards to film Yeltsin's appeal for a general strike against the ringleaders.
But less than a week later, after the coup failed, Medvedev reappeared as the sole anchor on the revamped Vremya evening news program, which was watched by tens of thousands of people across the Soviet Union.
A safer life
Married to a doctor with whom he has a four-year-old son, Medvedev doesn't regret his decision to leave journalism -- although longer hours at the Kremlin mean less time with his family.
Although Yeltsin has not yet stated his intention to run in the 1996 elections, Medvedev hints that he expects a long career with the Russian president -- although he says the days of presidential perquisites such as dachas and lavish apartments are over, and he was forced to take a pay cut.
''The West may be beginning to search for alternatives to Yeltsin, but it is interested first of all in stability.
And the figure of Yeltsin, despite all its shortcomings, is a figure who can guarantee that stability,'' Medvedev says, helping himself to a quesadilla.
''If Boris Nikolayevich decides to run for president, I'll support him. I'm in the Yeltsin team now,'' he adds.
Wasn't he always? ''Yes,'' he replies. ''But now it's official.''