FIFTH COLUMN: Erratic Yeltsin Drew Potential Exile Back East




Every internal emigre, I suppose, has at one time or another contemplated leaving Russia for good. I did, too, six years ago.


In Russia, six years is a long time, and I could have forgotten all about it, if not for President Boris Yeltsin. He will always be there to remind me why I thought back then that Russia was not a good place to live and raise a family.


Back in 1993, I enrolled in California State University to study computer science, hoping to find a job in Silicon Valley. I married my girlfriend, Lisa, so she could come, though she spoke no English and did not want to leave. All these personal details would be completely irrelevant if my wedding day were not described in Yeltsin's diary, as published in his 1994 book, "View from the Kremlin."


Lest I forget, Yeltsin's memoir will always tell me that July 24, 1993, was a Saturday, a sunny day in a rainy summer. Yeltsin was on vacation in the upper reaches of the Volga. In the morning, while I and a friend ran around Moscow buying food and booze for our party, Yeltsin played two sets of tennis and his wife, Naina, was in the forest gathering blackberries.


Then they sat down to lunch, and Naina got a call from her daughter Yelena (the wife of Aeroflot chief Valery Okulov, who was then just an Aeroflot pilot). Yelena told Naina thatthe government had suddenly decided to take out of circulation billions of rubles in Soviet-era banknotes. Only 30,000 rubles in the old notes (less than $30) could be exchanged without hassle. Okulov had just received his entire salary in the old notes and he and Yelena were to leave for a holiday that day.


Naina asked Yeltsin if he had known about the exchange plans. He had, but he was not aware of the 30,000 ruble restriction. Naina reproached Yeltsin for not telling the family in advance, and he flew off the handle: "Why should my family know when no one else does?"


"While I cooled off, I was thinking anxiously, 'We've messed up again,'" Yeltsin wrote.


He did it first, then he started thinking. Stores had stopped taking my money on my wedding day. Like Okulov, I had a wallet full of old bills.


My friend and I ran around looking for stores where news of the exchange had not yet arrived. We bought wedding bands just as the store that sold them to us was putting up a sign about no more old banknotes.


On our way to the registrar's office, we paid the taxi driver 5,000 rubles in old bills. His radio had been off.


Yeltsin ordered a helicopter to take him to Moscow. Lisa and I got married. Everyone got drunk.


As for Okulov, "I think my son-in-law, the victim of ill-conceived economic reforms, did go off on vacation with the old money," Yeltsin wrote. "When you're still young, the lack of money - is that a problem? I wish I had such problems now ..."


I was mad, though. I thought the lack of money was a problem. I left for California thinking I'd wait for a smarter government to come back.


Of course, when Yeltsin shot up the parliament a couple of months later, I was on the phone looking for a reporting job in Moscow. The soul of an internal emigr? is not easy to fathom.