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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Yeltsin Shirking Soviet Style

Just over a week ago, when Russian troops were still slowly advancing toward Grozny and President Boris Yeltsin was still recovering from his nose operation, Vladimir Zhirinovsky jumped up from his seat in the Duma and demanded authorization to visit the president in the Kremlin Hospital. He was quick to explain this uncharacteristic concern for Yeltsin's well-being -- it wasn't that he was planning to take him grapes; on the contrary, he wanted to check that the president was really alive.

As with so many of the Liberal Democratic leader's statements, the real aim was doubtless to create pandemonium and uproar. And Zhirinovsky duly got exactly what he wanted. The storm of outrage and guffaws of delight were only quelled by a formal, unsmiling rejection of his request by Duma Chairman Ivan Rybkin.

Now the thought occurs that he may have had a point. This is not to suggest that Yeltsin is dead and that grim Kremlin apparatchiks are keeping his demise a secret. The point is that, as far as the nation is concerned, Yeltsin might just as well have dropped off his perch on Dec. 11, the day the troops were ordered into Chechnya.

In the latter years of Leonid Brezhnev, never a great one for getting out on the streets and pressing the flesh, the leader's public appearances were extremely rare. He was televised welcoming foreign dignitaries or photographed with members of his Politburo. Otherwise, it was just a matter of keeping him wound up for those twice-yearly appearances on the mausoleum for an hour of mechanical hand waving.

Such times are, of course, long gone. But anyone with a sense for Soviet-era nostalgia would have found a note of poignancy in Yeltsin's sole television appearance of the last 12 days -- receiving U.S. President Al Gore inside the Kremlin hospital last Friday. The Soviet-style image was completed over the weekend by the circulation of photographs of Yeltsin chairing a meeting of his Security Council on Saturday. Since then, we have had nothing but a series of statements issued by his press office.

This behavior has not gone unnoticed in the Russian press. On Dec. 14, Otto Latsis, writing in Izvestia, noted that in contrast to his almost daily television appearances in recent weeks, Yeltsin had suddenly disappeared from the screens, just before the troops mobilized. Six days later, the Segodnya commentator Sergei Parkhomenko made it clear that he did not regard the two events as coincidental.

He compared Yeltsin's predicament with that of the luckless Major Kovalyov in Nikolai Gogol's work, The Nose: "What use is a nose to anyone? Apparently, to someone needing a good alibi. Even Major Kovalyov, when his nose ran off, chased after it into the city center, down Nevsky Prospekt, into the Kazan cathedral. But President Yeltsin just stays hidden behind walls in embarrassment."

Let us try to be fair. Let us assume that Yeltsin had no choice about his confinement. After all, the timing of an infection is rarely a matter of personal choice. And whatever unkind remarks have been published about the consequences of nose-picking, an infected septum is doubtless very unpleasant, not to mention painful. The fact that Yeltsin's stay in hospital should have coincided with one of the most serious crises of his presidency may have been no more than chance.

Such assumptions looked flimsy from the outset; when Yeltsin's hospital convalescence extended into a second week they became absurd. Few people were left in any doubt that the president was resorting to that time-honored tactic of deniability.

After 10 days of this, even the Kremlin had to admit that the game was up. Yeltsin's confinement to the TsKB, as the loftier members of the apparat refer to the exclusive Central Clinical Hospital, was spawning new rumors. According to these, Yeltsin was not being treated for his nose at all, but for something rather more serious, not unconnected, so the whisper went, with his predilection for the bottle.

So out Yeltsin came, back to work at his Kremlin desk. But he has become no more visible, having merely substituted one set of walls for another. As the bombs rain down on Grozny, as Russian and Chechen blood continues to be spilled, the man ultimately responsible appears to have adopted the pose of an ostrich, while waiting for the crisis to pass.