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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Sound Bites in The Smoker Behind the Scenes at the Congress, Hardliner's Limelight

Wednesday at the Congress was the day of the guest hardliner.

Never mind Lenin look-alike Sergei Baburin. On this day, Vladimir Zhirinovsky, Ivan Polozkov, and the omnipresent Gennady Zyuganov are holding court.

Meet Zhirinovsky, the onetime presidential candidate; Polozkov, the retired leader of the Russian Communist Party; and Zyuganov, all-round hardliner-for-hire and leader of the National Salvation Front.

Finding them is no problem. They saunter casually up and down the wide corridor, outside the Congress hall, an area haunted by reporters waiting for their favorite deputies to emerge.

Occasionally they lure a catch. Zhirinovsky, clearly to his delight, quickly finds himself surrounded by television cameras. Strains of "get rid of the Commonwealth and build a new Russia on the borders of the former Soviet Union" waft through the crowd.

Meanwhile Baburin, notorious for his anti-Western stance, has ducked out of the proceedings to dash over to the Radisson Slavyanskaya Hotel to set up a press conference for foreign journalists - for Jan. 31.

Those who don't hang around in the corridor are in The Smoking Room. This is also not hard to find,

given the clouds of thick smoke (eau de Belomorkanal). "The Smoker" is a room for Real Men, not those going for the ultimate sound bite. Here, and not on the Congress floor, is where the decisions are made. Besides the cigarettes, the most notable thing about The Room is that it is full of men. This may be because the men's room is right there, door wide open.

Back in the sound-bite corridor, Ella Pamfilova, Russia's minister of

social welfare, is backed up against a wall.

"The situation is very critical", she says. "I feel it every day".

A mushrooming crowd of reporters closes in on Pamfilova, who has somehow found herself pressed against a bulletin board belonging to Civil Society, a centrist parliamentary faction. She stands right next to a photocopied Pravda article whose headline reads, "Are we headed down the right road, comrades? "

Completely surrounded, Pamfilova holds her own. How can the minister of social welfare back the very reforms that have left so many Russians destitute, the reporters ask?

"If there are alternatives, where are they? Who's doing them? " she shoots back. As for the position of Ruslan Khasbulatov, the parliament speaker and government critic, she adds, "There's nothing serious there - just some populist proposals that sound nice".