Is Yeltsin ‘The Man’?

We are all waiting for The Man

Johnson’s Russia List, Monday, 12 Oct 1998

Waiting for the Man

By Will Harte

It is just after eight in the evening and already another bright fall day
in Russia has slipped into darkness, lying down to await the lover she knows
will come. Winter. What will he bring her? Roses? Sweet Promises? A frigid
kiss that sears the heart?

The manner in which Russia has dropped the charade of post-Soviet prosperity
over these first few weeks of autumn is stunning, both for its speed and
because it all seems so final. Like that first cold front coming in and erasing
any hope of a return to summer, the August 17 devaluation of the rouble and
almost instantaneous collapse of the country’s house-of-cards economy ran
a chill through Russia overnight, laying bare the ephemeral nature of President
Boris Yeltsin’s reforms and leaving everyone wondering out loud about trouble
ahead.

Two weeks later, after Yeltsin had dismissed Sergei Vladlenovich Kirienko
as Prime Minister and recalled the ôheavyweightö Viktor Stepanovich
Chernomyrdin, President Clinton was in Moscow trying to talk up support for
his friend Boris. While Clinton ended up looking like someone who had walked
in on a heated argument, he at least had the sense to leave quietly. As a
result, Russiansùwho cannot understand what in the world all the fuss
over Monica Lewinsky is aboutùhardly took note of the president amid
the start of a new school year and the growing crisis in the Kremlin.

If no one here stopped to ask just how much responsibility Clinton and his
foreign policy team bore for this latest trauma to Russian society, it was
only because people were too busy keeping an eye on the rouble-dollar exchange
rate. Arcing, curving, swooping, spiraling, the rouble underwent an unnerving
evolution beginning in late August, mirroring various sordid events occurring
on Russia’s political arena. Of course, it did not help things that the country’s
financial system had collapsed, or that people’s savings in all major private
institutions had been frozen by the Russian Central Bank. Four years of
increasing consumer confidence were dashed. Panic hit the streets.

Against this background, Yeltsin in early September attempted to force the
unsavory morsel of a resurrected Chernomyrdin down the nation’s throat. Deposed
as prime minister in the spring and now, almost unbelievably, called on by
a president clearly losing his marbles, the dull but dangerous Viktor Stepanovich
was soundly rejected in two votes by a parliament quickly losing its patience.
Politicians and pundits began predicting civil warùan old but potent
threat around hereùand after several tense days as the world watched,
word came from Yeltsin’s dacha that Chernomyrdin was being passed over for
the compromise candidate, Minister of Foreign Affairs Evgeny Maximovich Primakov.
Boris could not have made a better choice, and for the time being Russia
was back from the brink.

Primakovùwhose real name is Finkelstein but has earned the moniker
ôthe sphinxöùcomes to the Russian White House with the
most impeccable of credentials. Cold war spy master, Gorbachev confidante,
savior of the KGB after the fall of the Soviet Union, and the man who has
brought about a renaissance in Russian foreign affairs, Primakov is wily
and well-spoken. A smooth, no nonsense foreign minister for the last two
years, Primakov was the debonair Elephant Walk maitre d’ to Madeline Albright’s
gum chewing diner doll, delivering up diplomacy on platters palatable to
all from Saddam Hussein to William Cohen.

Unfortunately, the appointment of Primakov as Prime Minister promises to
do little in the short run to make the lives of his countrymen any better.
Russia is in a rut, and while Evgeny Maximovich is perhaps the only man who
can hold Russia together until the next election in June, 2000, the direction
this country is heading is dictatorship, not democracy; Pinochet, not
privatization. Primakov is known for the strength of his convictions, and
respected for his ability to lead. However, whether he can lead Russia out
of its current mess with at least a remnant of the country’s former free
market system intact will depend to a large degree on the Russian people
themselves. How much more of Yeltsin can they take? As last Wednesday’s muted
national day of protest showed, Russians may be calling for Boris’ head on
a platter, but they are not yet ready to put it there.

A guy I know here, Anatoly, tells the following story about a friend who
recently emigrated from Russia: Settling in Germany, his friend buys a bicycle
and begins using it to go to the grocery store around the corner, taking
daily trips and enjoying his new found freedom. Pretty soon, though, a policeman
stops the Russian and orders him to dismount, pointing to a no-bicycles-allowed
symbol. The friend reluctantly goes the rest of the way to the store by foot.
A couple of days later, though, he is back on his bike, and blows by the
sign only to be confronted once again by the vigilant officer. The Russian
pleads forgetfulness in broken German and is glad to escape without a fine.
The next day he flaunts the odds and ventures out again on his bicycle, only
to be stopped for a third time by the now familiar keeper of the peace. He
dismounts immediately and is sheepishly offering an apology when the policeman,
looking around for a second, takes out his baton and starts whacking away.
ôRussische schwein!ö Now Anatoly’s friend understands. Now he
walks to the store for his groceries.

It is hard to come to terms with this apparent need Russia has for an ôiron
fist,ö as it is equally difficult to explain. Alas, as the past six
years prove, democracy is unlikely to take root here any time soon. The great
freedoms enjoyed by Russia today are more than offset by grotesque levels
of thievery, exploitation, and violence born of these very freedoms. Russians
talk constantly about the ôoligarchy,ö a small clique of fabulously
wealthy Jewish men, led by the Rasputin-like Boris Berezovsky, who supposedly
run both the Kremlin and the country. While reality is obviously much more
complex, Russians are want to look for simple answers and a strong leader
to correct the economic injustices prevalent today. Is it their history,
their genes, or the exuberance with which the west fostered its ideas and
values on an unsuspecting nation? It does not really matter. Russians are
now waiting for the man. Whoever he is, he will carry a big stick. And use
it.

Be this as it may, the overriding concern in Vologda this fall was with the
rain and whether people were going to have any potatoes to put away for the
winter. Contrary to scenes of long lines of frantic Muscovites at ATMs and
the blustery rhetoric of politicians, most Vologodians were initially unaffected
by the rouble’s collapse, mainly because they had nothing in the bank to
begin with. Also, people in Vologda had better things to do with their time
than watch Yeltsin mumble his way Brezhnevesque through a nationwide television
interview or to listen as parliament ranted on about who was to blame for
Russia’s mess. People here knew the score. The country may be broke, but
the Russian Central Bank just put the finishing touches on a gleaming regional
headquarters in Vologda. Standing out on the bank of the Vologda River before
half-submerged fishing boats, rotting log houses, and the crumbling carcass
of an unfinished hotel begun years ago, the glass and stone palace is a fitting
symbol for Russia in 1998.

Anyway, as I said, people had better things to do than play chorus to the
cynical farce being acted out in Moscow. After all, mother nature offered
up one of the warmest, sunniest autumns in memory, and what with all the
rain northern Russia had got this summer, it was a banner year for mushrooms
and berries here. Vologda’s forests and bogs were awash in edible gifts and
the bounty to be found was truly amazing. Blueberries, cloudberries, bilberries,
cranberries, white mushrooms, brown mushrooms, ôlittle foxesö.à
Russians were out and about en masse this fall, pushed by the prospect of
ôgolod i kholod,ö hunger and cold, this winter, but pulled by
the soft morning light and the thought of a warm bonfire at day’s end. ôZa
gribami,ö looking for mushrooms. No phrase quite conjures up the potent
images these two words do. Try, if you can, to imagine the smell of pine
trees and rotting leaves and sour cigarettes and sunlight. This is Russia’s
essence. This is why it will survive the latest crude joke called devaluation
and all that lies ahead.

Six weeks into the crisis, though, even those who spent autumn in the woods
have sat up and started to pay attention. Prices are higher everywhere in
Vologda and store shelves have regained only a fraction of the luster they
had before everything began to come apart at the seams. Locally made items
such as bread, sausage, and dairy products remain roughly what they were,
but even these are beginning to inch their way upward. In Moscow, the Primakov
cabinet remains mired in the mud of personality conflicts and unclear goals.
Just recently, someone promoted the notion of forbidding the free exchange
of U.S. dollars in Russia. The instant hysteria this created in early morning
Moscow reached Vologda around noon. When banks here reopened for business
after their hour lunch break, people trying to unload their greenbacks quickly
depleted the rouble supply in town. Yeltsin had no other choice than to appear
on television later in the day and dismiss the idea publicly. Perhaps recalling
that it was Yeltsin who on August 15 had told reporters that there would
be no, repeat no, devaluation of the rouble, Primakov went on air in the
evening, too, assuring everyone that dollars could still be exchanged in
banks. Do Russians trust Primakov’s word? Time will tell.

Regardless, people go about their lives today much in the same way they did
before August 17. While bankers wonder whether this will be their last day
on the job, pretty girls in long coats and dress hats stroll by, smiling
in the midday sun. Young men in crew cuts and creased pants strut their stuff
on Cathedral Hill, the still waters of the Vologda River below reflecting
bright yellow birches and red maples against a pale blue sky. Elderly couples
just back from the dacha stand sentry at bus stops with knapsacks full of
carrots and cabbages for the months to come. Men just off the job sit together
on park benches, enjoying a smoke and a bottle of beer in the growing twilight.
Another day in Russia turns into night. Winter is on its way. Life is good.
Life is hard. Life goes on.