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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

The debate




Pete Singer felt like Santa Claus who'd got his seasons confused. It had all happened so fast: Alexei, his black double-breasted suit jacket unbuttoned, rushing in, ordering Pete to pack with the words, "Hurry up!


Chernomyrdin has just pulled out. You're running in the Yamal Nenets autonomous region. Pack, I said!" Then there was Lena on the plane: "I want you to be perfectly clear on the fact that I am doing this only because it will give you immunity from prosecution. Whatever I say in public, I don't want you ever to get the idea that I think that you would make anything but the most lousy and incompetent of politicians." Pete had had a lot of trouble untangling that sentence, but something gave him the feeling that if he asked for an explanation, he might get one. After a few minutes, he said, "Well, all politicians seem to be, you know." By this point, Lena was ignoring him.


He woke up as the airplane was descending and Alexei was stuffing Pete into the Hugo Boss suit his "brothers" had bought when Pete was impersonating a venture capitalist. A few minutes later their crew was riding away from the airport in sleds pulled by undernourished reindeer.


Pete wondered why he, too, was riding in a sled over grass. Then he wondered where they were going. Then he noticed the slit in Lena's skirt and wondered whether whatever it was she was doing just because it would grant him immunity involved being able to refer to her as his fiancee again. She looked up. He smiled. She scowled. If a woman scowls, that often means she cares, but that would only have mattered if Pete hadn't been too slow to pick up on it.


As they pulled up to a peeling colonial mansion in the midst of something rather desolate-looking, Pete whispered to Alexei, "Mind telling me where we are?"


"Candidates' debate. For the Duma. Chernomyrdin was the only viable candidate, and the election's this weekend. Break your leg."


"A," whispered Pete. "Not 'your.' A."


"Later," Alexei said seriously.


A little girl in a white blouse, blue skirt and fir-trimmed boots gave Pete a small flower bouquet and took him by the hand.


"Give the flowers to me," he heard Lena's whisper in his left ear as he walked across the stage, led by the little girl. Without looking, he extended the arm with the flowers.


"Like you mean it," came the stern instruction. Pete stopped, looked at Lena and handed her the flowers. She nodded, smiled and said, "She is way too young to become an intern anyway."


Pete and Lena took their seats next to a line of six balding men in their 40s in identical gray suits. "The rest of the candidates don't seem to have their wives with them," Pete said to Lena, pointing out his obvious advantage.


"Maybe the rest of the candidates don't need interpreters," Lena smiled sweetly.


That was pretty much where Pete lost the thread of events. Lena valiantly tried to interpret, but Pete couldn't understand much because she was talking about domestic production, price controls, wage arrears and, besides, her hair was tickling his ear.


"Try to concentrate," she whispered suddenly. "Question for you: Why do the American people refuse to understand their president?"


"The issue is not understanding," Pete answered, grateful he could talk about something he understood. "The issue is whether he respects the law. If he lied under oath, it doesn't matter what that was about."


Lena rolled her eyes slightly as she translated. The audience looked at Pete with obvious surprise. Pete realized he was losing them. This is when he remembered something Alexei had said about not being afraid to take flights of fancy, they are the stuff of good politics.


"Personally, I think Clinton and Yeltsin should trade places," Pete heard himself offering the audience, which grew instantly animated. "Yeltsin could be the patriarch, and we already have experience with a president who's losing his grip." Someone giggled and a couple of people applauded.


"And Clinton could be just the sort of macho president that this country seems to like. I mean, he would sleep with all the secretaries in the Kremlin and make them happy." The entire hall applauded. Lena was looking at him with a mixture of emotions, among which he thought he could distinguish respect. Elated, he continued: "I think the first ladies should stay. Hillary would do fine with Yeltsin, who wouldn't make any demands on her time. And Clinton would appreciate Naina's pelmeni and kotletki, which would help him to understand Russian culture. And Tatyana Dyachenko could pick out his ties!"


The audience was on its feet. A standing ovation. Pete realized he was practically a member of the Russian parliament.