Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

The Kremlin Good-Bye Lives On

The Kremlin long good-bye is alive and waving.

When President Boris Yeltsin arrived at Vnukovo airport to take off for his week-long Volga boat trip Thursday, a whole troupe of top government and Kremlin officials were waiting to see him off.

This retinue of well-wishers formed an impressive list. Among those present were Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin and much of his cabinet, security chief Sergei Stepashin, Moscow's mayor Yury Luzhkov, and a bevy of assorted aides and advisers.

All shook Yeltsin's hand, escorted him to his helicopter and then stood in line waving dutifully as it took off.

The tarmac ceremony is one Communist-era ritual that the Soviet slayer Yeltsin has dragged into the new era, and it appears to be in tune with his strong presidential style.

"It is the sign of a typical Byzantine culture when there is a big tsar with many staff and subjects and his power is considered sacred," commented Sergei Markov, a professor of politics at Moscow University.

"That's the way we do things here," said Alexander Orfyonov of Yeltsin's press service.

"Maybe it seems a bit socialist but it's the Russian mentality to want to see off the top person."

"There are many practices in the West which we might find strange too," he added, without elaborating.

Orfyonov said he himself had been to a few presidential sendoffs and they were "much more modest" than the big Soviet-era valedictions when the whole Communist Party leadership was required to turn out and wave doggedly on the tarmac whenever the general secretary went anywhere.

Leonid Brezhnev's Politburo spent much of their waning years standing and waving as the ailing leader set off for yet another rest cure.

The ritual also has a veiled political subtext. Nikita Khrushchev was ousted when on holiday in 1964 and Mikhail Gorbachev very nearly went the same way three summers ago.

With this backdrop, Markov explained, Thursday's presidential sendoff was a way his underlings could tell him to rest undisturbed: "By seeing him off they are confirming to him that they aren't planning a coup -- it's a kind of psychological reassurance."

For hard-pressed officials, Markov added, the sendoff ceremony is also a chance to say a few words in the president's ear.

In the Vnukovo departure lounge, an official can seize his chance just as a White House aide might grab a few minutes with the president as he sets off for his morning jog or a British MP corners the prime minister in the House of Commons bar.

The occasion is also rich pickings for Kremlinologists, the diminishing band of academics and journalists who pore over the visual evidence of who is closer to the strings of power.

In the old days, the send-off ceremony -- together with state funerals and festivals -- was their main opportunity to divine who was in favor, who was mysteriously absent, how forceful the general secretary's handshakes were and whom he kissed. In the dying days of the Soviet Union, the long good-bye served as a kind of medical bulletin.

"It was part of the lexicon of a Moscow reporter," recalled Celestine Bohlen, who reported for the Washington Post from Moscow under the brief reign of Konstantin Chernenko. "We would see who was there, who was looking sick. With Chernenko it was a matter of seeing if he could stand up."

In these days of increasing Kremlin secrecy the close scrutiny may be in for a revival. Thursday's sending off ceremony raised a number of interesting questions: Was that Nationalities Minister Nikolai Yegorov standing at the end of the line there? Where was Yegorov's rival Sergei Shakhrai? What were Kremlin liberal insider Filatov and government centrist Soskovets sharing a joke about?

We may have to wait for Yeltsin's next holiday to find out.