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

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Chernomyrdin Strikes Out on His Own

Beatles songs were being piped softly into the basement of the old mayor's building on the Moscow River, while hundreds of bureaucrats shuffled around, sipping soda from plastic cups and nervously smoking.

Nobody quite knew what their boss, Viktor Chernomyrdin, would say to the Our Home Is Russia faithful Wednesday in his first public outing since being deposed as Russia's first and, so far, only prime minister.

Chernomyrdin settled into his seat to polite applause and firmly set out two rules.

"First, let's all agree that this meeting must end by the end of the day," he said, "because we all know how some of us get warmed up when we start talking, and it just never ends."

The crowd roared with laughter.

Then Chernomyrdin said he saw nothing tragic in being dismissed Monday by President Boris Yeltsin, even though he was almost blindly loyal for more than five years and his party enjoyed the semi-official status of being the Kremlin "party of power."

So rule No. 2 is not to keel over.

"That's a sailing term that means to drift helplessly through a stream of water with your bottom up, and that's not us," he said.

Many think Yeltsin dropped Chernomyrdin because he was becoming too ambitious.

Others see the dismissal as giving the stolid former prime minister carte blanche to sharpen his image and launch a presidential campaign.

Yeltsin put him in charge of preparing for the 1999 parliamentary and 2000 presidential elections -- but purposely did not say who would be the government's candidate.

Although Chernomyrdin did not officially launch his candidacy Wednesday, he was talking like a man who soon might. "I will not play second fiddle to anyone," he said.

But Chernomyrdin seems to recognize that he has several shortcomings, both political and personal, that he must address first. For instance, he has never been an inspirational orator, which he again demonstrated Wednesday as he droned on at leisure for 50 minutes while reading through a 13-page text.

Yet he said he knows where his and his party's faults lie. "Some of us have spent too much time sitting around in offices," he said. "We should break out of this shell of Soviet and post-Soviet imagery. We need to get out and grab votes."

A drab man who spent much of his life shuffling papers behind a desk, Chernomyrdin also tried to show that he knows how to laugh at himself. He joked Wednesday about his well-known knack for using absurd turns of phrase."Our Russian language is just so rich that I might say some things once in a while that will have you all running, but in the wrong direction, away from me," he quipped.

But all did not go well for Chernomyrdin on Wednesday. The seat to his right, belonging to Alexander Shokhin, the party's leader in the State Duma, parliament's lower house, remained embarrassingly vacant for most of the evening.

And when Shokhin did show up, he issued an ominous warning to Chernomyrdin. "I think you should think carefully about what your future role in our organization should be," he said.

He was voicing the quiet grumblings of several other party members who suggest that now that Chernomyrdin no longer leads the government, his cramped style and negative image may do Our Home's future more harm than good.

Perhaps aware of this, Chernomyrdin on Wednesday kept hammering away at the point that he is now a completely new man, no longer restricted by the pressure of being the No. 2 man to the president.

Chernomyrdin showed himself at his best Wednesday when he strayed from his prepared remarks to glare into the audience and pronounce himself ready to do battle.

"For many years, you all knew me as the No. 2 man in Russia, and believe me, that was not an easy part to play. But now, today, nobody can hold me back. From now on, my style will be uninhibited, and it will be that way as long as I stay healthy, and all that," he said to cheers from some party members.

"I would not advise you to try holding me back," he said.

This theme was picked up by an unlikely fan -- Galina Starovoytova, an independent lawmaker who began her career as a prominent member of the liberal Democratic Choice faction, which was founded by Chernomyrdin's predecessor and rival, Yegor Gaidar.

"It is perfectly natural if a party drifts away from power a little bit," she said reassuringly after taking the podium. "We congratulate Viktor Chernomyrdin on his new lease on life. He is now a rich, free and sovereign man."

As the flattering speeches petered out and the 150-minute conference came to an end, Our Home faction members swarmed Chernomyrdin to slap him on the back and shake his hand.

Even if Chernomyrdin felt like a marathon runner who came up just a little bit short, he refused to let on.

"It's the first time I noticed that the sun has come out in Moscow," he said, smiling.