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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

CONFESSIONS OF A RUSSOPHILE: Fresh Stab at Kremlinology




Whatever the reasons for Boris Yeltsin's latest Byzantine combination, I am confident that it will ultimately be justified, both here and abroad, as Russia's last best hope for freedom and democracy. Let's face it, a president who can shoot up his own parliament and have much of the world applaud him for it does not need lessons in public relations.


But I am plunged once again into the thankless task of trying to explain Russia, first of all to myself, and then to the dozens of friends and acquaintances who have called to discuss the news.


So Russia is temporarily without a government. Will we notice the difference? My cynical inner voice tells me that special interests have the matter well in hand, but perhaps I'm wrong.


Is Western totem Anatoly Chubais out for good this time, or will he come bouncing back in his usual boomerang fashion? Is Boris Berezovsky -- businessman, media mogul, self-professed kingmaker -- being rehabilitated?


It's enough to make me almost nostalgic for Soviet times. Kremlinologists, it's true, used to create endless tomes of tea-leaf readings based on the mausoleum lineups, but philosophically there was no confusions. I don't think we wasted a lot of time during the Cold War debating the fine points of Alexei Kosygin over Nikolai Podgorny. Strategically speaking, everybody was a bad guy. Except the little people of course. They were good and pure and untouched by the nastiness up top -- as if the system they lived under had been invented and was being implemented by Martians.


There were intrigues and palace coups, to be sure, but they were, mercifully, kept out of the public eye. The common man knew only that the system was corrupt to the core, and that the monolithic Soviet state would not be affected, one way or the other, by any wishes or desires of his. This left him free to go about his business unfettered by political passions.


He could drink tea or vodka in his tiny kitchen and worry about the meaning of life, or where to buy meat, not about whether Leonid Brezhnev would last until the next elections, or which banks controlled which media. And Homo sovieticus certainly didn't have to worry about keeping up with the latest developments in politics or business. They didn't call it "stagnation" for nothing.


My friend Lev told me that, in Soviet times, everybody went out to walk their dogs at 9:00 p.m., when the Vremya news program came on.


"It was the only time we could be sure of not missing anything," he said.


Being a foreign correspondent in the old days was a simpler affair altogether. You could spend your days poring over chicken entrails for clues to Kremlin high jinx, or reading the latest Foreign Ministry press reports, which amounted to pretty much the same thing. Evenings were spent meeting dissidents on dark streets or in cramped apartments, wondering whether you were doing more harm than good with your attentions.


Now there's an embarrassment of riches, and it's quite a scramble to keep up. Television screens bombard the populace with the minutiae of inside scandals. News hounds like me are glued to the tube, or rifling through tons of newsprint, trying to figure out which strange bedfellows are dominating the political scene this week.


And, of course, there's the business angle. In the 1980s, mostly all we had to do was try to separate realistic grain production figures from the chaff of propaganda. Now there's a whole new class of hacks here -- the commodities writers -- who are becoming experts on oil production or palladium futures.


It all gets tiring after awhile. Many of my Russian acquaintances are reverting to the indifference of Soviet times, ignoring the news and tuning in to Santa Barbara.


I may just join them. After close to a decade of observing Russia's transformation, I may be no closer to understanding this country than I was as a student, when I could parrot, with a knowledgeable air, received wisdom about how Mikhail Gorbachev stood no chance of becoming general secretary because his agricultural portfolio was political death.


I can say, almost as knowledgeably, that the current brouhaha is a carefully orchestrated set piece, that Yeltsin is merely flexing his presidential muscle to keep everyone off balance, and, of course, to show us he is still alive, politically speaking. Given enough time, I could come up with a dozen differing, and mutually exclusive, explanations.


Or maybe I'll just go cut open a chicken.