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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

CONFESSIONS OF A RUSSOPHILE: Time to Jump-Start Crisis




Feeling sluggish? It may not be just the turkey you ate over the weekend. We have now officially entered the "sluggishly moving crisis" phase. I heard it on the radio.


It's a bit depressing, since, free-lance journalist and news scavenger that I am, my bread and butter depends on a crisis that moves a bit more swiftly. It's hard to get anyone interested in "sluggish."


"Yeltsin in the hospital? We've done that story," say foreign editors at U.S. publications. "Call us if there's a real development."


I can't blame them, really. The president's health barely moves the needle on the excitement meter, even here. Itogi put the hospitalization way down in its weekly news program, behind the economy, the new war on crime and the weather in Vladivostok. "Kukly" did a "Yeltsin at death's door, nasty political intrigue around him" program Sunday. It was a repeat. The languor seems to have rubbed off on the Russians as well. At various dinner parties last week to mark the Thanksgiving holiday, it seemed that Westerners went into huddles to swap anxious comments and dire predictions, while the Russians traded anecdotes: The rector of an institute comes upon a student, drunk and disorderly. "You're a disgrace to your school," he barked. "What course are you in?" "Course?" gasped the student weakly. "17 rubles, 88 kopeks."


We all roared, but I guess it sounded better in Russian.


The difference in response is probably natural. Many foreigners are either in the process of packing up or contemplating it, while the majority of Russians will have to stay and make the best of it. No use worrying about things you can't fix, after all, and Russians have never felt that they had much of a chance of changing things. At least the Russians that I talk to.


"Nothing will happen when Yeltsin goes," shrugged Sasha, a young bohemian type who was the source of many of the anecdotes. "We Russians still have a lot of warmth and love for each other, we'll go to each other's houses, drink vodka, and that will be that."


It's this passivity, of course, that keeps this sluggish crisis limping along. While the decent people stay home, fastidiously washing their hands of the dastardly deeds being done at the top, those with a bit more gumption and a lot fewer scruples get a chance to wreak havoc on the rest of the country.


It used to be called Oblomovshchina, after a 19th-century novel by Ivan Goncharov. The endearing but useless Oblomov is so anguished by thoughts of "what is to be done" that he can barely get out of bed. While he revels in memories of a beloved mama and an idyllic childhood, his country changes irrevocably around him.


I think the late 20th-century version of the malady may itself be based not on an imaginary character, but on the all-too-real person of Grigory Yavlinsky, the liberal, upright, appealing politician who has been waffling on the fringes of Russia's political scene for most of the decade.


If politics is the art of the possible, then Yavlinsky is a very poor artist. He has made the "better" the enemy of the "good" - rather than get down and dirty with the rest of the bunch, he has set himself above the fray, in the process condemning himself to almost total irrelevance.


I interviewed Yavlinsky once, in Nizhny Novgorod, on the eve of the parliamentary elections in 1995. He had just crashed a benefit for invalids at the local house of culture to campaign for his Yabloko party. I had been sitting in the back of the hall with other journalists when the politician came out on stage. It was not pretty: Yavlinsky, who helped design the city's experiment in privatization, is well-known in Nizhny and, at least at that time, not well liked. The crowd erupted into whistles and catcalls, and growls of "What is he doing here?" were heard all around us.


Afterward, sitting in the lobby, Yavlinsky preened. "You see how they love me here?" he said, in perfect seriousness.


In the present troubled climate, Yavlinsky is sitting on the sidelines chanting, like a schoolboy, "told you so." Then he wonders why nobody likes him.


But all of this is also old news. No one's going to make headlines with insider Kremlin politics these days.


I'm not sure what it will take to shake the Russians out of their lethargy and the West out of its indifference. But it had better happen soon, or there will be precious little to be thankful for next Thanksgiving.