Install

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

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Recall Yeltsin's April 'Rest'?

While I have no intention of sitting down to a plate of my own words, my praise last week for the new-found glasnost in the Kremlin might with hindsight appear to have been a little inappropriate. Little did I suspect, as I marveled over the presidential PR team's deftness in blocking just about every possible line of speculation with a deluge of health bulletins, that all this good work was to be wiped out.


I am, of course, talking about the photograph, issued last Friday by that same slick PR team, purporting to show President Boris Yeltsin in the hospital that week, working at a desk. We all accepted it at face value; the president, after all, looked ghastly. In fact, the only question was why they couldn't have produced a better picture.


All was well, until the revelation that this picture was almost identical to shots taken almost three months earlier while Yeltsin was supposedly on vacation in the southern resort of Kislovodsk. The same Ellesse sports shirt, the same four telephones, the same curtains, hanging with just the same folds, the same plain wallpaper.


Suddenly, the well-oiled Kremlin information machine ground to a halt, and the officials reverted to that favored policy of old -- denial. Confronted with such damning evidence of deception, the response was to brazen it out. Spokesmen insisted that the photograph had been taken the previous Friday and that any resemblance to the earlier pictures was purely coincidental.


It was almost as though there were two factions at work here. First, the truth group had held sway, contending that accurate information was one of the best ways to maintain credibility. Then they got pushed aside by the liars' faction, who will only give out any information if it is untrue. Under considerable pressure, this group reluctantly agreed to release a picture of Yeltsin in the hospital, but only on condition that it was a false picture.


Then came the uproar and the truth faction was left to clear up the mess, which they did with the television interview Tuesday, during which a pale but reasonably healthy-looking Yeltsin talked frankly about his illness and stay in the hospital. He'd also changed his shirt.


The trouble with this theory is that there are not two groups here, but only one. The people who were so forthcoming were the same people behind the photo fiasco. The main player was Yeltsin's press secretary, Sergei Medvedev, a former Channel One anchorman, who has otherwise made the Kremlin more media-friendly and accessible since taking over in March. Medvedev, of all people, would remember the Kislovodsk footage -- which he had supplied to his former employers at Ostankino -- and would surely see the foolishness of releasing an old picture that would so easily be exposed for what it was. And yet it is this same Medvedev who continues to insist that the picture was indeed taken at the Kremlyovka last week.


But then, perhaps it was taken at the Kremlyovka. So how come it was so similar to the Kislovodsk shots? The answer -- now that we no longer know who is telling the truth when -- could be that the April video shots were taken in the Central Clinical Hospital and edited in with footage of the president strolling around the grounds of Leonid Brezhnev's former dacha in Kislovodsk.


All we know for sure, after all, is that the two pictures were taken in the same place. The telephones, curtains and position of the desk make that certain. But which place? We frankly do not know, nor can we be absolutely sure about the timing. There is no reason why Yeltsin should not wear the same shirt twice. Maybe it's one he keeps at the Kremlyovka.


After all, there were some very strange goings on during that April vacation. First, Yeltsin cancelled plans at the last minute to make his way south by train. Instead, much to the irritation of the various local officials who had been forced to Potemkinize their towns in preparation, he flew directly to Kislovodsk, where he apparently remained, out of sight, having cancelled other trips in the region, for some two weeks. Officials at the time attributed changes in his schedule to "a slight cold."


There would have been ample opportunity for him to slip back to Moscow for medical treatment if he had more than a cold. But no need to mention it at the time, was there? Who can say what the truth is anymore?