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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Politics' Superfluous Man

It's hard to study Russian literature long without encountering that well-known figure brooding across the pages of the 19th-century novel, "the superfluous man."


From Yevgeny Onegin to Bazarov, the nihilist in "Fathers and Sons," they all share the same characteristics: an excess of talent combined with a deficit of possibilities. Spurned by an unfeeling society, the superfluous man dreams of a bright future but fritters away his life to no purpose.


Now post-election Russia has a new version of the old literary prototype. He is called Grigory Yavlinsky, promising economist turned presidential also-ran. He is one of Russia's most talented men and yet perfectly superfluous to everyone else's requirements.


Yavlinsky actually did quite well on June 16. He came in fourth place, ousting the objectionable Vladimir Zhirinovsky. Despite a virtually invisible campaign and huge pressures from the Kremlin he managed to convince 5.5 million voters to back him. That was almost 800,000 votes more than in the parliamentary elections.


But unfortunately for him, he lost the real battle that counted, the one for third place. The man who won it, Alexander Lebed, is now one of the half dozen most powerful people in the country. Yavlinsky, who was in government when Lebed was still commanding a paratroop division, is still waiting for his call.


It was not just the votes that made Boris Yeltsin pick Lebed over Yavlinsky. Yeltsin and Lebed are muzhiki, men of the people without intellectual pretensions. Yavlinsky may be an ex-boxing champion, but in every other respect he is a long-haired, dandified intellectual.


Yavlinsky is almost an exact fit for Chatsky in Griboyedov's "Woe from Wit." Sharp-tongued, cultivated, Westernized, he spears the whole of Moscow society on his wit. But society gentlemen and grandes dames, instead of being shamed into changing their ways by his diagnosis, just end up declaring him mad.


Many of his critics will say that Yavlinsky has only brought it on himself.


Haughty, prickly, mercurial in character, he has certainly managed to offend a lot of people over the last few years. Ask Yegor Gaidar or Yury Boldyrev, both of whom he could have worked with quite constructively if there had not been a clash of egos.


That side of his character is so obvious that it is easy to forget his gifts.


As a communicator of ideas I can think of no one who matches him in Russian politics, except perhaps Zhirinovsky. While Gaidar and Boris Fyodorov were vexing the Supreme Soviet with technocratic details and macroeconomics, Yavlinsky had an ability to talk about broad issues, democracy and the market.


And he has had very good intuitions about the dark side of Yeltsin. He did not allow himself to endorse the violence of October 1993 and took a strong line on Chechnya from the start.


A parlor game of "Will he, won't he?" is being played in the Russian press on whether or not Yavlinsky will join the government. It seems to me self-evident that he won't and also that that is by no means a bad thing.


The crux of the issue is that Yavlinsky is too big for anything other than a big job, and the only suitable one is being filled by Viktor Chernomyrdin. He burned his bridges with Chernomyrdin before the election by putting his name on a list of ministers he wanted to see resign from government. And Chernomyrdin got his revenge after July 3 with his exquisitely barbed comment about Yavlinsky: "Has he done anything? Tell me what he's done."


That means Yavlinsky will stay in the Duma and will keep being interviewed on NTV, and that has to be a good thing. His Duma faction is easily the most interesting and professional and needs a strong leader. And Russia badly needs a strong democratic opposition.


That will not stop individual Yabloko members being invited into the government. The rumors that Mikhail Zadornov might become finance minister or Tatyana Yarygina deputy prime minister in charge of social welfare, if true, would be an indirect blessing from the Yavlinsky phenomenon.


As for the man himself, there are few recorded instances of what happens to superfluous men when they grow older and their duelling days are over. Chatsky went back abroad, but Yavlinsky strenuously denies that he is headed for Washington or Harvard. At 44, he still can keep that option for a few years and just keep on hoping the Russian political climate changes in his favor.