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Travels in Russia

KLM Rocks Across Europe!
Santa Claus in Moscow
Television Is a Time Suck
The Reality of Irrelevance
Salute Mayor Luzhkov
Impeachment Happens
I Am Not The Only One...
I'm Back! Did Ya Miss Me?
Chechnya Burning
Weddings in Winter
The Jews Are Here!
Gailyn Goes to Town
Is There a Central Bank?
Santa Barbara is Real
Nick's Thanksgiving in Russia
Den' Rozhdeniya = Birthdays
Those Crazy Expats
It's Just a Few Drops of Vodka...
Elections Are Always Rigged
The Blind Leading the Blind
Good Russian Grooms
You Say 'Boris Berezovskiy' Fast
Too Cold to Care!
Russian Oil Towns
Sneaky Siberian Tigers
Which Way is St Peterburg?
Where am I again? Oh, yeah...
I Love Me Some Vodka
It's a Gosorg Halloween
Hunger Comes to Us All
Why Don't They Just Learn English?!
Post-Crisis, Life Goes On
Murmansk - Brrrr!
Taganka Hides Her Secrects
These are Communists
It's a Power Vaccum
The Commies are Back
Propaganda is Good for You
You Better Buy Russian!
Sex Ed Soviet Style
Party over, oops outta time!
Russian Healthcare in Moscow
What Russian Financial Crisis?
YE Prices in Russia
The Hungry Duck
Russian Caviar Mafia
Magical Mushrooms
Shhhh! We're Bear Hunting
Soviet Street Scams
Bez Dollarov
A Koshka Konspiracy
On The Dacha
The Banking Implosion
Surviving Army Life
Shashleek is Steak on Steroids
Dacha Thinking
Beach Weekend
Dos Vedanya
Hello from Vladivostok
Equality Means Only She Works
Jogging is an Extreme Sport
Russians Have Reunions Too
My Folks in Massive Moscow
Better than Fireworks
Miners Are Real Men
The Russian Mafia is the Roof
No One Smiles in the CIS
One Year Anniversary
Russian Brides Rock
Laura is My St Pete Connection
Change is in the Wind
Chuck Norris' Beverly Hills Casino
The Expat Woman's Predicament
Street Food is Yummy!
Spring Flowers Make June Leavers
The Provinces Are Provincial
Ever Take an Elektrichka?
The English Invasion
Nuttin Like New Money
Rules Are Made to Break
All Black is Russian Fashion
Easter Memories = Easter Dinner
Politics, Russian Style
Theresa Tries to Russify
I Go to Gay Clubs Worldwide
I Hide on Women's Day
New & Shiny: Nizhny Novgorod
Psst! Wanna job in Moscow?
Fili Park Has All the Bootlegs
Web Page Reactions
Take a Break at Dom Odaha
Expat Living in Moscow is Swank
Why Are You Remonting?
They Look Like Telephones...
In Need of a Decent Hairstylist
Smashing Bottles in Red Square


Russia, October 12, 1998

Is Yeltsin 'The Man'?

We are all waiting for The Man

Johnson's Russia List, Monday, 12 Oct 1998

Waiting for the Man

By Will Harte

It is just after eight in the evening and already another bright fall day in Russia has slipped into darkness, lying down to await the lover she knows will come. Winter. What will he bring her? Roses? Sweet Promises? A frigid kiss that sears the heart?

The manner in which Russia has dropped the charade of post-Soviet prosperity over these first few weeks of autumn is stunning, both for its speed and because it all seems so final. Like that first cold front coming in and erasing any hope of a return to summer, the August 17 devaluation of the rouble and almost instantaneous collapse of the country's house-of-cards economy ran a chill through Russia overnight, laying bare the ephemeral nature of President Boris Yeltsin's reforms and leaving everyone wondering out loud about trouble ahead.

Two weeks later, after Yeltsin had dismissed Sergei Vladlenovich Kirienko as Prime Minister and recalled the ôheavyweightö Viktor Stepanovich Chernomyrdin, President Clinton was in Moscow trying to talk up support for his friend Boris. While Clinton ended up looking like someone who had walked in on a heated argument, he at least had the sense to leave quietly. As a result, Russiansùwho cannot understand what in the world all the fuss over Monica Lewinsky is aboutùhardly took note of the president amid the start of a new school year and the growing crisis in the Kremlin.

If no one here stopped to ask just how much responsibility Clinton and his foreign policy team bore for this latest trauma to Russian society, it was only because people were too busy keeping an eye on the rouble-dollar exchange rate. Arcing, curving, swooping, spiraling, the rouble underwent an unnerving evolution beginning in late August, mirroring various sordid events occurring on Russia's political arena. Of course, it did not help things that the country's financial system had collapsed, or that people's savings in all major private institutions had been frozen by the Russian Central Bank. Four years of increasing consumer confidence were dashed. Panic hit the streets.

Against this background, Yeltsin in early September attempted to force the unsavory morsel of a resurrected Chernomyrdin down the nation's throat. Deposed as prime minister in the spring and now, almost unbelievably, called on by a president clearly losing his marbles, the dull but dangerous Viktor Stepanovich was soundly rejected in two votes by a parliament quickly losing its patience. Politicians and pundits began predicting civil warùan old but potent threat around hereùand after several tense days as the world watched, word came from Yeltsin's dacha that Chernomyrdin was being passed over for the compromise candidate, Minister of Foreign Affairs Evgeny Maximovich Primakov. Boris could not have made a better choice, and for the time being Russia was back from the brink.

Primakovùwhose real name is Finkelstein but has earned the moniker ôthe sphinxöùcomes to the Russian White House with the most impeccable of credentials. Cold war spy master, Gorbachev confidante, savior of the KGB after the fall of the Soviet Union, and the man who has brought about a renaissance in Russian foreign affairs, Primakov is wily and well-spoken. A smooth, no nonsense foreign minister for the last two years, Primakov was the debonair Elephant Walk maitre d' to Madeline Albright's gum chewing diner doll, delivering up diplomacy on platters palatable to all from Saddam Hussein to William Cohen.

Unfortunately, the appointment of Primakov as Prime Minister promises to do little in the short run to make the lives of his countrymen any better. Russia is in a rut, and while Evgeny Maximovich is perhaps the only man who can hold Russia together until the next election in June, 2000, the direction this country is heading is dictatorship, not democracy; Pinochet, not privatization. Primakov is known for the strength of his convictions, and respected for his ability to lead. However, whether he can lead Russia out of its current mess with at least a remnant of the country's former free market system intact will depend to a large degree on the Russian people themselves. How much more of Yeltsin can they take? As last Wednesday's muted national day of protest showed, Russians may be calling for Boris' head on a platter, but they are not yet ready to put it there.

A guy I know here, Anatoly, tells the following story about a friend who recently emigrated from Russia: Settling in Germany, his friend buys a bicycle and begins using it to go to the grocery store around the corner, taking daily trips and enjoying his new found freedom. Pretty soon, though, a policeman stops the Russian and orders him to dismount, pointing to a no-bicycles-allowed symbol. The friend reluctantly goes the rest of the way to the store by foot. A couple of days later, though, he is back on his bike, and blows by the sign only to be confronted once again by the vigilant officer. The Russian pleads forgetfulness in broken German and is glad to escape without a fine. The next day he flaunts the odds and ventures out again on his bicycle, only to be stopped for a third time by the now familiar keeper of the peace. He dismounts immediately and is sheepishly offering an apology when the policeman, looking around for a second, takes out his baton and starts whacking away. ôRussische schwein!ö Now Anatoly's friend understands. Now he walks to the store for his groceries.

It is hard to come to terms with this apparent need Russia has for an ôiron fist,ö as it is equally difficult to explain. Alas, as the past six years prove, democracy is unlikely to take root here any time soon. The great freedoms enjoyed by Russia today are more than offset by grotesque levels of thievery, exploitation, and violence born of these very freedoms. Russians talk constantly about the ôoligarchy,ö a small clique of fabulously wealthy Jewish men, led by the Rasputin-like Boris Berezovsky, who supposedly run both the Kremlin and the country. While reality is obviously much more complex, Russians are want to look for simple answers and a strong leader to correct the economic injustices prevalent today. Is it their history, their genes, or the exuberance with which the west fostered its ideas and values on an unsuspecting nation? It does not really matter. Russians are now waiting for the man. Whoever he is, he will carry a big stick. And use it.

Be this as it may, the overriding concern in Vologda this fall was with the rain and whether people were going to have any potatoes to put away for the winter. Contrary to scenes of long lines of frantic Muscovites at ATMs and the blustery rhetoric of politicians, most Vologodians were initially unaffected by the rouble's collapse, mainly because they had nothing in the bank to begin with. Also, people in Vologda had better things to do with their time than watch Yeltsin mumble his way Brezhnevesque through a nationwide television interview or to listen as parliament ranted on about who was to blame for Russia's mess. People here knew the score. The country may be broke, but the Russian Central Bank just put the finishing touches on a gleaming regional headquarters in Vologda. Standing out on the bank of the Vologda River before half-submerged fishing boats, rotting log houses, and the crumbling carcass of an unfinished hotel begun years ago, the glass and stone palace is a fitting symbol for Russia in 1998.

Anyway, as I said, people had better things to do than play chorus to the cynical farce being acted out in Moscow. After all, mother nature offered up one of the warmest, sunniest autumns in memory, and what with all the rain northern Russia had got this summer, it was a banner year for mushrooms and berries here. Vologda's forests and bogs were awash in edible gifts and the bounty to be found was truly amazing. Blueberries, cloudberries, bilberries, cranberries, white mushrooms, brown mushrooms, ôlittle foxesö.à Russians were out and about en masse this fall, pushed by the prospect of ôgolod i kholod,ö hunger and cold, this winter, but pulled by the soft morning light and the thought of a warm bonfire at day's end. ôZa gribami,ö looking for mushrooms. No phrase quite conjures up the potent images these two words do. Try, if you can, to imagine the smell of pine trees and rotting leaves and sour cigarettes and sunlight. This is Russia's essence. This is why it will survive the latest crude joke called devaluation and all that lies ahead.

Six weeks into the crisis, though, even those who spent autumn in the woods have sat up and started to pay attention. Prices are higher everywhere in Vologda and store shelves have regained only a fraction of the luster they had before everything began to come apart at the seams. Locally made items such as bread, sausage, and dairy products remain roughly what they were, but even these are beginning to inch their way upward. In Moscow, the Primakov cabinet remains mired in the mud of personality conflicts and unclear goals. Just recently, someone promoted the notion of forbidding the free exchange of U.S. dollars in Russia. The instant hysteria this created in early morning Moscow reached Vologda around noon. When banks here reopened for business after their hour lunch break, people trying to unload their greenbacks quickly depleted the rouble supply in town. Yeltsin had no other choice than to appear on television later in the day and dismiss the idea publicly. Perhaps recalling that it was Yeltsin who on August 15 had told reporters that there would be no, repeat no, devaluation of the rouble, Primakov went on air in the evening, too, assuring everyone that dollars could still be exchanged in banks. Do Russians trust Primakov's word? Time will tell.

Regardless, people go about their lives today much in the same way they did before August 17. While bankers wonder whether this will be their last day on the job, pretty girls in long coats and dress hats stroll by, smiling in the midday sun. Young men in crew cuts and creased pants strut their stuff on Cathedral Hill, the still waters of the Vologda River below reflecting bright yellow birches and red maples against a pale blue sky. Elderly couples just back from the dacha stand sentry at bus stops with knapsacks full of carrots and cabbages for the months to come. Men just off the job sit together on park benches, enjoying a smoke and a bottle of beer in the growing twilight. Another day in Russia turns into night. Winter is on its way. Life is good. Life is hard. Life goes on.

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