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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

On Road to Lebediana?

The return of President Boris Yeltsin to the Central Clinical Hospital turned the Russian political establishment back to the kind of presidential campaigning it had gone through last September and November.

Former general Alexander Lebed became more unleashed than before. This self-styled "guiding star of Russia" no longer even tried to hide his malicious and vengeful nature behind a forced smile. Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov also increased his public activity and prudently did not rule out any options, including an alliance with Lebed himself.

But the real sensation was the statement by the cautious and staunchly loyal Yeltsin supporter Yegor Stroyev, the chairman of the upper house of parliament, who said, "The constitution is not an icon."

Stroyev spoke in favor of amending the constitution, and thus limiting some of the president's prerogatives, such as the right to name Cabinet members without parliamentary approval.

But why did this bright idea occur to the Federation Council chairman the morning after the president was hospitalized? Why now have the extreme powers of this one man suddenly started to pose such a threat to Russia's young democracy?

The answer is simple. Stroyev voiced the collective apprehension of the ruling elite not of the concentration of immense power in the hands of the first president of Russia, but of the potential second president. And you know who I have in mind.

In the last few months, the party of power has increasingly discredited itself by its kompromat wars, hopeless economic policies and shameless blending of money and power. The communist opposition, concerned with its place in the establishment, is losing its traditional supporters, who see it as an integral part of the unpopular political authorities.

If early elections were held in these circumstances, Lebed would have an excellent chance of winning. He has taken on the public image of a martyr who has suffered at the hands of the authorities and of a peacemaker. He would be able to secure the votes of all those who are dissatisfied or disappointed with government.

Every segment of the Russian political elite would stand to lose a great deal if Lebed were to win such an election.

The leading businessmen of the country, who are often referred to as the Big Seven, run the risk of completely losing their hard-earned powers or even their liberty. And given the reputation of these men in the West, it is unlikely that Amnesty International would recognize them as prisoners of conscience.

Gennady Zyuganov and the rest of the Communist Party leadership would lose their electorate, as well as their claim to represent the poor, working masses.

The regional barons would lose their independence from the center, something they have not enjoyed for 500 years.

The current thinking in many of the Kremlin's offices, on Staraya Ploshchad and in the White House goes something like this: "Comrade Lebed is coarse, and this shortcoming can be forgiven among us post-communists, but it is completely unacceptable for someone who would fill the post of president of the Russian Federation."

Having more or less established themselves after a decade of shocks, the country's new political and financial elite would never willingly turn over these truly enormous and constitutionally protected powers to a dangerous stranger.

Stroyev opened the way for academic discussion of constitutional rights with the words: "The constitution is not an icon."

Such a serious person does not make such serious statements lightly. This discussion will continue, and some well-known politician is very likely to soon say: "Why should the president have to be elected through such an exhausting and costly process as a general election? Wouldn't it be simpler to amend the constitution so that he could be elected by some kind of convention of respected and worthy citizens, for example, at a joint session of the State Duma and the Federation Council?"

The ruling class could thus solve two problems at once. It could avoid the risks of general elections, and at the same time, a president who was elected in this way would find that his powers were automatically limited. With greater powers, these boyars would be able to protect themselves as much from the voters' whims as the leader's arbitrary rule. The last thing they need right now is another Ivan the Terrible or Josef Stalin, or even Boris Yeltsin.

What they need is tsar-general secretary-president who is first among equals -- someone who could be accused of despotism and removed from his post at a Central Committee plenum, or rather, excuse me, a Federation Council hearing.

There is no need to exaggerate the complexity of amending the constitution. Once they are in place, amendments are nearly impossible to revoke. The process requires two thirds of the Duma votes plus one half of the Federation Council votes plus two thirds of the votes of all the nation's local legislative bodies. And what if the entire ruling class, or just three fourths of it, becomes aware of a general threat to its existence? In such circumstances an arrangement can be reached quickly.

"The road ahead is long. Not everyone will make it to the end. Some will be lost and some will die," Lebed ominously and mysteriously promised.

The senators have picked up their pens, put them to the paper and begun to write out the lines for an amendment to the constitution.

But I am reminded of other lines written by one of Russia's great poets in his "Letter to Roman Friend," which roughly translated goes:

"You say that all governor generals are thieves,

But I find thieves more likable than bloodsuckers."

Andrei Piontkowsky is head of the Moscow Center for Strategic Studies. He contributed this comment to The Moscow and of literature owed much to the Soviet experience -- on one hand, poetry was published in runs of 100,000 and Voznesensky filled stadiums for poetry readings, and, on the other, writers were silenced, imprisoned or killed.

Delivered from their old adversary, many of these writers found themselves disoriented -- but not all of them. Perhaps the best known writer of this generation, Dmitry Prigov, thrives in the current confusion. A popular poet and cultural ambassador in the West, Prigov has become a leading tusovshchik, almost a cult figure, in Russia, mastering the rules of the emerging literary market.

But an equally important figure, Ivan Zhdanov, has been buffeted by the new market. During a recent trip to his native Gorny Altai, for instance, Zhdanov was invited to read his verse in the symphony hall at Barnaul, the regional capital.

The hall was packed, a rare event these days, and the poet was pleased. But when he went to collect his honorarium, he found to his amazement that the federal tax service had siphoned off 40 percent.

This bridge generation, raised in the Soviet Union and now in its maturity, faces a fundamentally different reality. Some, like Prigov, have adapted to and entered the literary establishment. But others, like Zhdanov, once marginalized by the Soviets, now find themselves marginalized by the market.

For the writers now beginning their careers, the first post-Soviet generation, life in the Soviet Union is just a childhood memory. As they began to write, censorship began to slacken during perestroika, and when they were ready to produce serious work, that censorship had disappeared entirely.

These writers are making their debut in an atmosphere more familiar to poets in New York than to their predecessors in Moscow. "Contemporary literature will never again occupy the place in our society that it once did, when it was the sole spiritual oasis, a spring of vital speech. But it will find its place nonetheless," said Kirill Kovaldzhi, editor in chief at Moskovsky Rabochy publishing house.

But the twenty-something generation does understand the Russian literary market. Take novelist and short-story writer Oleg Pavlov. He first published a juvenile essay in Literaturnaya Gazeta at 16. Since the age of 18, when he began writing in earnest, Pavlov has managed to see almost all his work into print.

"We came along at the right time," Pavlov said. "We read Solzhenitsyn, [Andrei] Platonov and Nabokov as young writers, when we needed to, and we didn't have to scurry around with typed, samizdat copies. I read 'The Gulag Archipelago' in Novy Mir, calmly lying on my sofa, drinking coffee and having a cigarette."

Curiously enough, Pavlov agreed with Zalygin's attack on formalism in contemporary literature -- a trait both associate with the "avant-garde." Nevertheless, Pavlov, who in his mid-20s has already been short-listed for the prestigious Russian Booker Prize, dismissed the elder writer's pessimism about the first post-Soviet generation.

When he speaks of literature, Pavlov could be mistaken for a 19th-century novelist. "A great writer in Russia must have within himself the breadth and depth of talent to take on national themes. Russia is enormous, and the writer must be spiritually commensurable with her," he said in an interview at his apartment in a massive Stalinist apartment block located in southern Moscow.

Among his compeers, Pavlov said confidently, there are not a few writers of this stature. He is not alone in this optimism. Natalya Perova, editor of the journal Glas and a keen observer of Russia's literary scene, likened the current situation to the first decades of this century, when violent changes in the country fostered the creativity of a number of great writers unrecognized during their lifetime.

"In close quarters it is very difficult to recognize a great talent, and most critics and readers remain blind to genius in their midst. Very few people have a talent for the first reading," Perova said.

Blindness to the thriving literary activity around them led many critics to proclaim a "crisis" in Russian literature after the fall of communism. The Economist, for example, notoriously pronounced in a December 1994 issue that "the days of serious writing" in Russia, "whatever kind it may be, seem for the time being to be over."

While such apocalyptic judgments are now rare, the simple-minded hunt for the next Tolstoy, especially among Western observers, continues unabated. Perova, who frequently fields this question about tomorrow's new literary geniuses, believes that it is merely a matter of time before the enduring work of this generation will emerge.

"These younger writers are still in the process of developing, and their best work lies ahead," she said.

Meanwhile, Russian writers and critics are slowly coming to terms with what Pavlov called "the age of anonymity" -- the precipitous drop in book publishing and journal subscriptions over the past five years and reduced public interest have made it next to impossible for a new writer to make a name for himself.

Alla Latynina, chief critic of Russian literature at Literaturnaya Gazeta, who was instrumental in making quite a few names during her career, confessed that she had no idea how today's fledgling writers could break through.

"I have come to the conclusion that two or three critics can no longer launch a writer as they once could," she said.

"All we can do is make a little noise."