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Title: Russian roulette. By: O'Rourke, P. J., Rolling Stone, 0035791X, 9/19/96, Issue 743

Database: Academic Search Premier



I came back to Russia to find Moscow crowned in an arc of lights --Camel Lights. This being spelled out in tall letters atop a downtown high-rise. And the city below sparkled with ads for Sony, Coke, Levi's, Visa, Pizza Hut, Sprint and Nike. Human liberty had come to Moscow.

Well, one kind of human liberty, anyway. Many important and noble rights were denied to the citizens of the old Soviet Union. You wouldn't think the right to tout gym shoes would be foremost among them. "A world without advertising" conjures visions of Colonial Williamsburg, Va., the Lincoln Memorial and Yosemite National Park. But in fact that world is more like being inside the chain-link fence at a self-storage facility or on a military base or in jail. Without crass and importuning commercial expression, human desires and intentions are rendered invisible. All those people on the street, what do they want? Where are they going? They could be lining up to see "Independence Day." Or they could be lining up to tell on you. What succeeds with this public? What fails? A government could say the most popular flavor of ice cream is asparagus. How would you know? And what are all those buildings for? What goes on in them? (The answer to that question -- in a country without profit or loss, with little to sell and less to buy -- was, in brief, nothing.)

Now everything is going on in Moscow. Crowds load the sidewalks, moving briskly. The masses are actually massed. The masses are finally progressive. Except each constituent part of the masses is headed in his own direction. And he'd better be careful. The pedestrian crosswalk is not yet an idea in Russia. Cars, trucks, city buses approach intersections with the same speed, and the same inclination to swerve, as avalanches. Nor is this traffic the tinny, puttering, tacked-together output of the Soviet industrial pre-Cambrian age. You might stand in front of that stuff and watch it fall apart as it hit you. But now there are Volvo semis and Mercedes sedans and solid little Opel coupes barreling down... crash. Oops.... barreling down into one of a hundred gaping holes in the street, part of a fury of construction that envelops Moscow in a glorious aureole of mud, dust, bulldozer exhaust and jackhammer noises.

The place is hopping, happening, swinging, smoking. Factually smoking. You can fire a butt anywhere in Moscow, and nobody fakes a cough or pulls a C. Everett Koop mug on you. These people are busy. They have lives. And this vast liveliness does something unlikely to Moscow: It makes the city almost beautiful.

The Communists wanted to turn Moscow into a showplace and couldn't get it right in 74 years of trying. From Stalin through Khrushchev, most building was done in the style of TragiComic Classical. The architectural forms of the ancients were reproduced in badly poured concrete and gross-out scale. Thus poky offices are entered through arches more fit to be sitting at the end of the Champs- ffl90lys ffl82es, and nasty warrens of slum housing are fronted with Ionic pillars as wide as tennis courts. Lavish detail was applied in a kind of Socialist realism rococo. An edifice the size of the Empire State Building would be decorated as if it were a Victorian garden folly.

In the 1960s the crudest form of modernism was discovered. Structures from the last quarter-century of Communist rule look like what Donald Trump would build if he had to do all the construction work himself and couldn't borrow money. At all times gigantism was much relied upon. A joke from the Soviet period: "Visit the Moscow Trade Fair and see the world's largest transistor."

The city's main streets are so wide that you can't hit to the far curb with a 3-wood. Driving anywhere in Moscow is a half-day excursion because the streets were laid out not with a view to getting anywhere but according to what made the best parade routes. And traffic signals are timed to let three battalions of crack airborne troops and a hundred missile launchers through before the yellow caution light comes on.

At least now there's something to do while you're waiting to cross the street. You can have dinner. Moscow is engorged with good places to eat. I spent my first night in the Hotel Metropol's restaurant, a Kublai Khan's worth of stately pleasure dome with a fountain in the middle and enough space to fly a radio-controlled model airplane. A full orchestra was playing (among the selections: an instrumental version of Billy Joel's "Honesty"). You have heard of Tiffany lamps. The restaurant at the Metropol had what looked to me like an entire Tiffany ceiling. The cooking was French to such an exquisite degree that the garlic breath from my escargots melted a hand towel when I got back to my room.

The next night I went to Uncle Gillie's, which had California cuisine in perfection. My chicken had not only been allowed to roam free, it had been given aroma therapy and stress counseling. The night after that, I went to Il Pomodoro for Italian food authentic enough to satisfy the Gambino family, Russian versions of which were eating at several other tables. Then there was the Starlite Diner, built in America and shipped in modular sections to Russia. Here even the water was imported from the States. A great burger, and the Starlite is the world's only diner filled with Republicans -- international bankers in pinstriped suits crowding the booths, drinking milkshakes and bobbing up and down to the Four Tops.

"Tomorrow night I want caviar, blinis and borscht," I said to my dinner companion, Dmitry Volkov, correspondent for the Sevodnya daily. "Where's a Russian restaurant?"

"There aren't any," said Dmitry.

And there aren't any Russian products in the stores either, other than vodka, fish eggs and a few tourist tchotchkes. There is a simple reason for this. The Russian stuff is no good. Even the smallest, simplest items stink. The way you use a Russian match is: After you strike it, you put it back in the matchbox. The used one's as likely to work as any of the other matches in there. In the old days the soda pop tasted like soap, the soap lathered like toilet paper, the toilet paper could be used to sand furniture, the furniture was as comfortable as a pile of canned goods, the canned goods had the flavor of a Solzhenitsyn novel, and a Solzhenitsyn novel got you arrested if you owned one. Now the Russians have discovered brand names. Easy to sneer at this. But there's a reason why, when we go to Florida, we don't drink Ocala-Cola.

Think what American shopping preferences would be like if Wal-Mart were suddenly filled with the wonderful products of an advanced civilization from another world -- typewriters that could write things by themselves, safe cars that could go twice as fast as our own, televisions that received intelligent programming, shoes that made us sexually irresistible. The Russians are getting all these things.

Especially the shoes. Shoes are to Moscow what T-shirts are to Jimmy Buffett concerts. Shoes rule the store displays, particularly women's shoes -- pumps, mules, sandals, boots -- all of them with the highest possible heels, even the clogs and espadrilles. High heels and nude hose define the Moscow look and are worn with thigh-flaunting skirts so that even policewomen and female army officers are tottering around, knees in the breeze. The ensemble is not always chosen on the best of fashion advice. Often the effect is sausage on a stick. But what the hell. This is a country where, in 1988, when I was covering the Reagan-Gorbachev summit, I saw a near riot in the shoe section of the GUM department store. Scores of women were pushing and shouting for the opportunity to buy Bulgarian sneakers.

Now, GUM is a mall, fully American, not counting 74 years of Soviet maintenance on the greenhouse roof, which leaks, and containing more than a hundred private stores, which sell everything from high heels to nude hose.

Plus you can shop 24-7 in Moscow at thousands of Plexiglas and plywood kiosks that have been built in parks, under bridges, on railroad and subway platforms, and along every footpath wide enough to walk a dog. A full half of these kiosks are marketing the instant miniparty with wares consisting of Marlboros, hooch and audiocassettes. I understand almost all the tapes are pirated. This was soothing to the conscience. I could buy Chrissie Hynde and know that not a cent would go to PETA.

The tapes are pirated but still expensive. Everything in Moscow, except the 30-cent subway, is expensive. Drinks, meals and hotel rooms are as high as they are in New York, and retail prices are no better than in most places on the VAT-plagued continent of Europe. Yet the average wage in Russia is $143 a month. Though obviously not in Moscow. Unless everybody is fibbing. Which they doubtless are. Even so, how do Muscovites make ends meet? Apparently by selling enormous quantities of stuff to each other. But how do they get the stuff? This is a country that no longer seems to manufacture anything but fireproof matches. With whom do the Russians trade those?

Economists say that Russia is living off its extraction industries --exporting mineral ores and timber. But, looking around Moscow, one wonders. Billions of dollars are being spent by big corporations trying to get in on the ground floor of the enormous Russian market, hoping that Russians will buy things with... billions of dollars being spent by big corporations trying to get in on the ground floor of the enormous Russian market.

Whatever. It doesn't seem to be doing the Russians any harm. They look good. Physically, that is. Sartorially they're a bit ill. People seem to have been shopping at Alien Gap. Their clothes are similar to ours but always with some subtle extraterrestrial touch -- five breast pockets on the plaid shirts, khakis with pleats in the back. Then there are the rich folks, the New Russians, as they're called. The women have, I think, covered their bodies in Elmer's and run through the boutiques of Palm Springs, buying whatever stuck. All New Russian dresses certainly appear to be glued on -- flesh tight, no matter how vast the expanse of flesh involved. Hair is in the cumulonimbus style. Personal ornaments are astonishing in both frequency and amplitude. There was a David Bowie concert in Moscow on June 18, and according to the Moscow Times, the loudest sound from the expensive seats was the rattle of jewelry. New Russian guys shop at Goofy Suits. I saw one fellow in a navy-blue three-piece with stripes of the size and color used to indicate no passing on two-lane highways. Shoulder pads are as high and far apart as tractor fenders, and lapel points stick out even further, waving in the air like baseball pennants. Men really wear black shirts and white ties. And the ties are as wide as the wives. If you dress like John Gotti in Moscow, you'll be mistaken for a Mormon missionary or an FBI agent.

These gibes, however, are made from a distance of 4,800 miles. Keeping a straight face in the actual presence of a Russian suit is easy because that suit's probably a size 52 long and a little tight through the armholes even so. Russians are big. Russians are enormous. Being an average-size American in Moscow is like being a girl gymnast at a Teamsters convention. And these are Russians who were raised on potatoes and suet and bread that you could use for a boat anchor. Envision them after a generation of good nutrition. Twenty years from now, Americans may ask themselves if winning the Cold War was worth losing the Super Bowl.

The Russians already have American professional athletic manners. Russians are ruder than fans, ruder than players, ruder than coaches. Russians are -- I've thought this over and stand by what I say -- ruder than owners. If Izvestia had a Miss Manners column, it would be written by Marge Schott.

Russians don't, won't, can't line up for anything. At every turnstile, ticket booth or cash register, they shove in from all sides like piglets on a sow. They have no sense of personal space. They'll walk across an empty Red Square to stand on the toes of your shoes. Pushing, pulling, hollering and gesturing wildly are appropriate to all social occasions. Funerals must be something to see. It's a wonder everyone doesn't wind up in the casket. (Although, under Stalin, I guess that's almost what happened.) Every question or request, at even the most "Western" hotels and restaurants, is met with a grudging, laconic response.

I asked a long-distance operator, "Will you put this call through to the United States?"

"Maybe," he replied.

I called room service, and a male voice on the other end of the line said, "What room is this?"

"Five-oh-two," I said.

He said, "OK." Then he hung up.

I was at Sheremetyevo-l, the main airport for domestic flights and one of Moscow's four dirty, crowded, stupid aviation facilities, all located at inconvenient distances from the city. My flight was superdelayed, double overbooked and probably about as safe as flying cargo on ValuJet. I'd made an acquaintance with a Pakistani engineer waiting for the same plane, and he'd lost all patience. He wrestled his way to the ticket counter and started grilling the clerk: "Why are you not telling the truth? When are we really going? How often are you going to say it is time to board when the aircraft is not even here?"

The Russian passengers had been doing a lot of grousing themselves, but instead of agreeing with the engineer, they circled this obviously un-Russian man and began making faces. An extra-big passenger in a purple track suit flicked his fingers and said, "Go back. Go back," referring not to the end of the line, since there was no such thing, but to the engineer's country of origin. It looked like an ugly event was developing, and I was feeling conspicuously foreign myself. But the engineer had lived in Russia for a while. He ignored the flak and lit into the ticket clerk with new fury: "You cannot treat me this way! I am business class! You are a terrible airline! For what you charge for my ticket, I could fly to America and get free drinks!" I didn't know what the ticket clerk was going to do. But what she did was laugh. And kept laughing. And the crowd laughed.

"I will promise you," said the ticket clerk, catching her breath, "we will leave at 2 a.m. I will... [long laugh] promise you."

I elbowed my way toward the engineer. The Russians smiled at me, patted my back, gave me nudges and encouragements: "Now you're getting it." "Attaboy." "That's the stuff!" "That's the pepper!" I suppose they were saying. The Russians have NBA manners because in Russia rudeness is a sport, a contact sport.

Suggested slogan for post-Soviet tourism promotion campaign: "Russia --Barge Right In."

People who weren't in Russia before 1991 sometimes think Russian rudeness is a product of freedom. "I guess the Russians are finally free to be rude," these people say. They're wrong. Manners were worse yet in the U.S.S.R. and were accompanied by a public atmosphere of defeated fatigue and indefatigable suspicion. Plus half the people were drunk --a thrashing, helpless, hello-coma kind of inebriation that I saw almost nowhere on this trip except occasionally in the mirror.

Socialism causes discourtesy. When no one owns anything, everything is up for grabs. When the individual counts for nothing, he's treated like nothing counts. The only moral precept ever taught in the Soviet Union was Marx babble for, "Share your toys with your little brother." The result was a foregone conclusion to anyone who's had a sibling: "Sure, half-pint, you can play soldier with me. You're an Iraqi and I'm a Stealth Bomber. Whack! You never saw it coming."

Of course, freedom has brought its own tribulations to Russia. In St. Petersburg I had a hotel room overlooking a street clogged with double parking. There was a moment one afternoon when the security systems of five different cars were wailing, honking, shrieking, beeping, howling and making whistle sounds like incoming mortar shells. Thus was proved what philosophers have told us: Freedom is alarming.

Definitely alarming is the sight of a respectable grandmother begging on the street. The old folks are broke in Russia. The increase in pension payments has been modest while inflation has been indecent. In 1988 one ruble was worth $1.59. In 1996 $1 is worth 5,020 rubles. And though money was printed with abandon, the government ran out of it anyway. At the end of the first quarter of '96, pensions went unpaid. Then the panhandling golden agers were all over the place. Passers-by do give them money, however. I said Russians were rude. I didn't say they weren't good. And there would be more begging, except the ties of family and friendship are necessarily strong in a population that has been used and abused for all of recorded time. Much of what we would call nepotism and cronyism is social insurance to Russians.

Things are better as of midyear 1996, thanks partly to a pre-election splurge in public spending. But there's still gross poverty in Russia. I talked to economist Sergei Pavlenko, the director of the Working Center for Economic Reform of the Russian Government (one of the things Russians better reform is the titles of their departments). He estimated the Russian poverty rate at 25 percent. You can compare this with the 10 percent poverty rate claimed by the Communists before 1991. But don't. Pavlenko said he had to wonder what the Communists considered poverty. The Soviet government fixed the poverty line at 75 rubles per month. That was $119.05 at the official ruble exchange rate. But the official exchange rate was a joke. The black-market rate varied from 10 to 15 rubles to the dollar, so 75 rubles was really something between $5 and $7.50. People were getting nothing under the Communists, too. It's just that they knew how much nothing they were going to get and when they'd get it.

No one who has experienced poverty would call it subjective, but want, like sadness, can be hard to measure, especially in a country used to secrecy about material goods. (Russian authorities have been inclined to steal everything since at least the reign of Ivan "Moneybag," 1328-41.) Pavlenko suggested looking at what was more easily seen. "Consumption is up," he said. "Life is better for most people." The crude cement-megalith worker housing on the outskirts of Russia's cities looks as wretched as it ever did. But air conditioners poke out of the cracked and dirty windows, and television satellite dishes sprout from the stained and crumbling balconies like gourmet mushrooms growing on ordure. Cars are parked in the rubbish-strewn lots between the buildings. And in Moscow, in the midst of one of these deprived neighborhoods, there's a drive-through Mickey D's.

Pavlenko said that about 8 percent of the Russian work force is registered as unemployed -- not a shocking number by European standards and not bad at all for a country undergoing a complete barn-burning of its economic structures. Pavlenko believes that many of the unemployed do in fact have jobs in the "illegal" economy. (Illegal earning its quotation marks because Russian jurisprudence is in such a state of confusion that every enterprise probably violates some law.) Anyway, much Russian breadwinning is of an informal nature. The way you hail a cab is that you don't. You hail any car, and if the driver feels like it, he'll stop, negotiate a fee and take you where you want to go.

What with omnipresent jitneys, cigarette smoking everywhere and the pleasure of walking down the street sucking on a beer -- something the most genteel Russians in their zoot-suit best do without compunction --Moscow and St. Petersburg often feel freer than New York or San Francisco. Freedom is an end in itself, a rear end sometimes, but what good thing in life doesn't have its butt-hole moments? Better an unfair distribution of wealth than a perfect equality of fear. Freedom is the Rosie O'Donnell of political conditions. Its very double chins and blimpy knees endear it to us. Car alarms are a symphony of property rights. Traffic jams are celebrations of individualism. A traffic jam is a better sign of human felicity than a political rally. Which societies are happier, those with gridlock or those with massive demonstrations? Even the crime in Russia is swell. Hooray for crime. At least murder and theft are illegal now instead of being committed by the state with full sanction of the law.

You definitely can get pickpocketed, burglarized and mugged in Russia these days, or even shot if you put your mind to it. Moscow is no longer as ridiculously secure as it was under totalitarianism -- a town as safe after 9 p.m. as the tomb it resembled. But to anyone who has experienced an American city's criminal shark tank, the Moscow streets seem filled with bluefish and tuna.

Russian crime is more likely to be the organized kind. Here, however, there is real mayhem. The U.S. State Department predicts that there will be roughly 50,000 murders in Russia this year. More than half will not be solved. Sergei Pavlenko told me that four businessmen a day are killed in Moscow. The key word is businessmen. Russia does not yet have an effective system of civil law. The only way to enforce a contract is, as it were, with a contract and a whole bunch of enforcers. What would be litigiousness in New York is a hail of bullets in Moscow. Instead of a society infested with lawyers, Russia has a society infested with hit men. Which one is worse, of course, is a matter of opinion and may depend on whether you went to Harvard Law or, say, my high school.

The reliance on muscle means that criminals have a cut of everything mercantile or financial happening in Russia. This, combined with endless political highbinding and universal bureaucratic jobbery and graft, leads to an atmosphere of corruption so pervasive that expatriate residents sometimes refer to the country as "Big Arkansas."

Still, the place is a lot more fun than a KGB torture cell. On my first evening in post-Communist Moscow, after my lavish dinner, I ambled through the busy midnight streets to the Hungry Duck. An enormous circular bar occupied what looked like a trading pit from the Chicago commodities exchange. But there were no wheat futures -- hell, no future, period -- in the U.S.S.R. God knows the room's Soviet-era purpose, but the current purpose was clear. A thousand twentysomethings -- Americans, Russians, Germans, British, Fren ch, Australians, Japanese, the foot-soldier employees of all the corporations that have invaded Moscow, the Anne Klein-ed and Brooks Brother-ed sentinels who man the mouse pads and keyboards of capitalism's front lines -- were having a Thursday night screen saver. Happy youth was pressed breast to pec in one raving mass while 50 people danced on the bar top and giggling waitresses passed out free vodka shots from some booze company promoting a new brand. Ties were yanked off. Blouses were unbuttoned. Beer spills were whipped to foam by flapping loafer tassels. Arms waved in the air. Legs waved in the air. Whole bodies fluttered in the smoky space above the crowd. And on the sound system, through speakers so big they would have done Stalin proud and played at volume enough to wake the old shit in his grave, Coolio sang "Gangsta's Paradise."

However, I was not in Russia for the purpose of experiencing a tremble-limbed, puke-bubbling, liver-contusioned, swollen-brain-s tem-of-a-soul's-high-colonic, peeled-psyche, life- regretting, de ad-skunk-in-the-road hangover, such as the one I had after visiting the Hungry Duck. I was there to cover a presidential election. A momentous election. This was the first time in the 1,100-year history of the country that a national leader was being freely chosen by democratic means. And this might be one of the most important elections in the saga of the world. Because running neck and neck were Boris Yeltsin, the man who almost single-handedly removed the Denver Boot of Bolshevism from the now freely spinning snow tire of Russian society (to coin a metaphor), and Gennady Zyuganov, a goddamned Communist.

Was the Soviet Union about to reunify? Was the Evil Empire coming back? Would the Russians vote themselves voteless? Would the tanks roll again? (The military commanders will have to pay some heavy bribes if they plan to park any armored vehicles near Moscow's more fashionable restaurants.) Or would Russia continue on the straight and narrow path of modern political economy, eventually turning into a gigantic frozen Singapore? (Picture Lee Kuan Yew trying to cane a full-grown Russian.)

Who would win the election? Everyone was fretting. America's newspaper editorial writers chewed up hundreds of column inches out of anxiety. Television newscasters furrowed their brows so hard they were in danger of popping their hairpiece glue. International leaders were on the edges of their seats, leaving vast areas of butt dangerously unsupported. Strobe Talbott had kittens.

The only people who seemed to be unconcerned about the Russian elections were the Russians. When questioned about the vote, Russians, even loyal partisans, campaign volunteers and candidate advisers, prefaced their answers with a shrug -- the kind of shrug that can be delivered only with Russian-size shoulders. I asked a Russian friend who would be the next president. He shrugged. "Yeltsin."

"How much will he win by?" I asked.

"I didn't say he would win. I said he'd be the next president."

Russian stump appearances are infrequent and uninteresting. True, Yeltsin did a weighty boogaloo on the stage at a Rostov rock concert. But the only excitement this brought to the campaign was the way Yeltsin's hip rotations put a couple of young backup singers in fear for their lives. Yeltsin posters hung from almost every lamppost in Moscow, but they were all the same -- an overcolored photograph of the hulking Boris shaking hands with the bulky Moscow mayor, Yuri Luzhkov, and the caption read, Moscow has already decided. Imagine a poster of Clinton hugging San Francisco mayor Willie Brown over the slogan, California, you've made your mind up.

And you might as well imagine Clinton -- and Dole while you're at it --since the Russians liked neither of their leading candidates. A vague and slippery advocate of a bankrupt ideology was running against an overreaching, sleazy BS artist. This was worse than Bill Clinton vs. Bob Dole. This was Bill Clinton vs. Bill Clinton. At least nobody's wife had written a book called It Takes a Gulag.

Choose and lose was the Russian attitude. And no Russian would make the mistake, made so often by deep-think pundits and public thumb-suckers in America, of confusing democracy with freedom and justice. Great Britain was a free country long before it was a democratic one. And Teddy Kennedy keeps getting elected in Massachusetts.

Russia is freer than it used to be, but a terrible and arbitrary power is retained by the state. This was the real issue. And between that and language difficulties, the Western press tended to get at cross-purposes with Russians when discussing the election. I watched David Frost on a satellite channel in my hotel room as he interviewed a Russian commentator. "We have this English phrase," said Frost, "to 'give people marks from one to 10.' What do you give Yeltsin on the free market? Do you give Yeltsin, say, eight out of 10?"

The Russian commentator was indignant: "Yeltsin should not be giving people anything. People should work to get things for themselves."

Enormous state power exists whether the head of this state is elected, elects himself or invades from outer space. And with such power goes tremendous governmental inertia. This either means that no matter who gets elected, nothing will change, or it means that all the changes will keep happening no matter who gets elected. The Russians don't know, and busy as they are at the moment, they're not that eager to find out. As for Zyuganov and his ilk getting in, would that be so different from the corrupt bureaucratic Soviet holdovers, the so-called dingycrats, who run things now? Or much different, really, from being pushed around by the New Russians? These parvenus are mostly former members of the party nomenklatura. They were at the heart of the socialist beast, and when it collapsed they found themselves in perfect position to feast on the carcass.

Drinking with Dmitry Volkov one night, I said, "Maybe you should have cleaned house in Russia. Maybe after the attempted coup in 1991, you should have hanged the Communists."

"No," said Volkov. "What would it have mattered if Goebbels had hanged Himmler?"

I spent a drizzly election day roaming the capital with Jonas Bernstein, a reporter for the Moscow Times. Voter turnout was pretty fair -- 70 percent, according to journalists more observant than me. I did notice plenty of polling places at schools and government offices, just like in the United States. And they were being visited. But no one was on line. Of course, no one ever is in Moscow. I should say no one was on clump. People just ambled up and voted in a casual and perfunctory manner, the way people go out for the Sunday-morning papers, which, it being Sunday, people were also doing. Democracy is supposed to mean a change of government without riot, putsch or insurrection. To be boring is democracy's great virtue. And this virtue was much evident in Moscow on June 16, 1996. "Is it time for a drink?" asked someone, probably me.

That night I wound up -- I don't know how, probably something to do with getting that drink -- in the motley company of a friend, California congressman Chris Cox; Cox's friend Richard Conn, who's an American attorney now weed-whacking Russian legal thickets; and a friend of Conn's, Russian chess champion Gary Kasparov. Kasparov, who at his own expense had been stumping for Boris Yeltsin, took us to the campaign headquarters. This was a big, sorry slab of a modern hotel, a place where visiting Commie dignitaries used to be parked. There weren't any flags, signs, spotlights or festoons of bunting outside, just some police with machine guns. The lobby was large, dim, empty and covered in blocks of marble that didn't match up along the edges. Nowhere to be seen were crowds of bustling hangers-on, self-important minor functionaries, frantic strategists, hyperventilating pollsters, fuzz-faced volunteer kids or scurrying, ferretlike George Stephanopoulos characters. The place seemed to be made of American political anti-matter.

We went to an upper floor and sat in a room with half a dozen Yeltsin aides. I guess they were key aides. It's been my experience in political campaigns that all aides are key aides, if you ask them. They had two computers, and these were bringing favorable news. The polls had closed in the far east, in provinces so much on the other side of the world that I think the favorable news was that Yeltsin was doing OK in the Iowa caucuses. On a desk were bottles of brandy and beer and plates of homemade pickled tomatoes and pieces of trout on toast. The atmosphere was jolly. Chris Cox is a conservative Republican, and everyone wanted to shake the hand of a person who had been elected on the astonishing platform of promising the electorate worse benefits. And everyone wanted to shake hands with anyone who had the good fortune to know such a man. The Russians are as cozy, good-natured and hospitable in private as they are like a wadded-up ball of New Yorkers in public.

The key aides showed us around the campaign offices, which consisted of other rooms with a few people sitting in them. Kasparov talked about his chess match with IBM Deep Blue. The computer was both easy and hard to defeat. "It was predictable, but it never made mistakes."

"Unlike Yeltsin," I didn't remark.

So much for a seasoned journalist's privileged look at the inside workings of the Boris Yeltsin presidential campaign. Joe Klein seems to get so much more out of these things.

From campaign headquarters we went to a party for Yeltsin supporters --big men arriving in big cars driven by big chauffeurs, drinking behind big gates with women in big heels. Any resemblance to $1,000-a-plate political fund-raising dinners in Washington, D.C., is exactly what makes democracy tick. Here, at least, I picked up some inside poop, a whispered secret of huge import. I swore up and down to keep my mouth shut. Ex-general Alexander Lebed, now running third in the presidential race, would be offered a top post in the next Yeltsin government.

After the party we drove to the Yeltsin campaign's media center. This was at the offices of TASS, which used to be the country's official government press agency and is now, hmm, the country's official government press agency. (Conflict-of-interest laws in Russia exhibit, as you might have guessed, a certain conflict of interest.) Jonas Bernstein was there. "Lebed will be offered a top post in the next Yeltsin government," he said.

No dignitaries or even dignitary representatives were present. About 50 reporters, mostly from America and Western Europe, milled around diligently interviewing one another. On a large-screen TV, a Russian news program was posting election results. There weren't any yet. Nothing was happening. Maybe over at Zyuganov's.... "Nothing was happening," said Jonas. It's moments like this when a veteran newsman has to pull off his Burberry, push up his blazer sleeves and get to... but they'd closed the bar.

Of course, this election was not just about Gennady Zyuganov and Boris Yeltsin. There were plenty of other candidates. And wouldn't practically anybody be better than a corrupt, megalomaniacal drunk guy or a fellow who wanted to return to the glory days of Yuri Andropov? The other candidates answered this question the way Ross Perot does: no.

Alexander Lebed is a successful former army general of humble background and unblemished personal character. That's all anybody knew about him. And suddenly everyone thought he had all the answers. The Russian political system is so different from our own. Lebed became famous when he ended ethnic hostilities in Moldova by, I believe, threatening to shoot everybody unless they quit shooting each other. Now he was going to end corruption by shooting everybody in Moscow, or something like that. There was a momentary flurry of Lebed enthusiasm among Western election kibitzers because Lebed had been seen in the company of a free-market economist. Maybe Lebed was the guy who could bring Russia both the discipline it wanted and the capitalism it required. Then the kibitzers remembered that that was what Franco was supposed to do in Spain.

Lebed, whose name means, improbably, "swan," is the size of a two-car garage. Indeed, most of the candidates were chunky. Russian voters don't seem to like the looks of a hungry politician. There's no such thing as a "slim victory" in Russian elections. Lebed has a shockingly deep voice. He makes Brad Roberts of the Crash Test Dummies sound like he stepped on the cat. Since Lebed speaks no English, he is dubbed over on American TV. And you can't get the full effect of the man without hearing his sonorous rock-slide basso as he makes terse but sweeping pronouncements such as, "There will be no more Communism in Russia. [Ominous pause] I repeat, [very ominous pause] for idiots. [Pause more ominous yet] There will be no more Communism in Russia."

On the TV at the media center, a Russian newsman was interviewing Lebed. Lebed's lips barely moved, his features were immobilized in the gravest of scowls, he didn't blink much. Someone asked Richard Conn, who speaks Russian, "What's he saying?"

Said Conn, breathing raspily and speaking in his best James Earl Jones voice, "Luke... it is your destiny..."

Lebed seemed to be running on the You're Scaring Me ticket, which was more popular than you might think in Russia, being comfortably familiar, I guess. Meanwhile nut-house nationalist and screaming xenophobe Vladimir Zhirinovsky had a We're Scaring You platform. Zhirinovsky was a leftover from a previous American panic about Russian political trends. In 1993 his Liberal Democratic Party (so called because Zhirinovsky is a big liar) scored well in parliamentary elections. For a moment it looked as if Russia might get serfs, czars, Rasputins and Cossacks again. What the threat was in this, I'm not sure. Unless it meant Russia was also going to get Tolstoys, Turgenevs and Dostoevskis again who'd write more 9,000-page novels full of characters with names like Talkyourearoff Fullofcrapsky, and then we'd all have to go back to European-literature class and read them. But the Russians are so over the Zhirinovksy thing.

There's an element in the Russian electorate of "Mom, Dad, if you don't buy me a Jeep, I'm going to kill myself." However, the empty-the-medicine-cabinet, hack-my-wrists-with-a-broken-Blind-Me lon-CD vote was now going to the pinkos. Of which there were several in the race besides Zyuganov.

Martin Shakkum was offering all-natural, fragrance-free Communism --Communism without the Communist Party. This is the Bob Dole campaign approach, letting you get gun control, abortion on demand and affirmative action without voting for a Democrat.

Svyatoslav Fyodorov advocated mini-Communism. Instead of workers owning all the means of production, they'd just own the means of production within arm's reach. Thus, rather than one big socialist muddle, Russia would have lots of little ones.

For those who really couldn't learn from history, there was Mikhail Gorbachev himself. In the West, Gorbachev is a darling of the scrambled eggheads and candy-pants internationalists. Time named him Man of the Decade. He's big on the think-tank circuit. The sappy flap-tongues who litter America's opinion industry think Gorbachev invented world peace. But in Russia he's the guy who gave away the farm. He got about 1 percent of the vote, and that probably by mistake.

Plus there was Yuri Vlasov, running as an unconscious satire on the Russian fondness for strong leaders. His only qualification was being an Olympic weightlifting champion.

And nearly last and definitely least was Vladimir Bryntsalov, an entrepreneur of murky antecedents who now owns Russia's largest pharmaceutical company. I cannot improve on the description of him in the June 13 USA Today: "Makes vaguely socialistic promises while flouting wealth. A fringe candidate, Bryntsalov boasts of his sexual prowess and shows off his young wife, who bared her behind on camera." This may have been great back when Jack Kennedy was running for president, but such behavior should not be encouraged among the recent crop of would-be U.S. first ladies.

The only reasonable candidate was Grigory Yavlinsky, a liberal economist. Though the terminology must be explained. By "liberal" the Russians don't mean some hole in the secondhand smoke with a lot of big ideas about government programs to increase self-esteem. They mean someone who supports individual freedom, property rights and minimum necessary powers for the state. In Russia our William Greider would be over in Red Square locked in the tomb with Lenin. But Yavlinksy, like any good liberal -- that is to say, conservative -- had no answers not complicated by the awesome tangles of reality. He had no answers "for idiots." My excellent translator, Anna, told me, "All my friends at college voted for Yavlinsky." She shrugged. "But nobody else did."

Nothing much happened during the first round of balloting. And nothing at all happened during the runoff. Zyuganov said he was out of money and didn't do any more campaigning. And a week before the final vote, Yeltsin disappeared completely, showing up only in an undated videotape, looking ashen, speaking slowly and sitting with a pained rigidity, as though he thought he might have a load in his pants. There were rumors that he'd been drunk, rumors that he'd had a heart attack and rumors that he'd never need liquor or a cardiovascular specialist again. Surely this was a coincidence. The two most powerful nations in the world were having presidential elections in the same year, and in both countries the most important campaign issue was, "Is one of the candidates dead?"

A lack of international Com-munist conspiracy also kept the hustings quiet. For most of this century, when a Communist was running against an anti-Communist anywhere in the world, Kremlin money went into play. But in Russia the Communists didn't have Russia around to stir up trouble. True, Zyuganov did make threats about taking to the streets if Yeltsin was seen to be cheating. But much of the Communist support was coming from pensioners. The prospect of angry mobs in walkers, throwing their false teeth at police, had nobody very concerned.

Yeltsin fired some of the more appalling members of his inner circle, including Defense Minister Pavel Grachev, whose pet project had been the war in Chechnya, along with scandal-tainted bodyguard and asshole buddy Alexander Korzhakov, reputedly the only person in Russia able to tell Boris, "You've had enough to drink." And what a busy job that must have been. On an overseas trip in 1994, Yeltsin was rumored to be too drunk to meet with the prime minister of Ireland. Imagine being too drunk to meet with the prime minister of Ireland.

How fired these jacklegs stay, however, remains to be seen. Yeltsin is famous for throwing people out of government's front parlor, and then you go around the back and find them eating pizza and drinking beer in the political rec room.

Yeltsin also declared peace in Chechnya. And declared peace in Chechnya. And declared peace in Chechnya. The war coming to the same abrupt end as the Vietnam War did when Richard Nixon was elected in 1968.

Alexander Lebed was duly co-opted and made head of the Security Council, a distinguished post with no readily distinguishable powers. Lebed promptly claimed he'd foiled a coup by top generals opposed to the Grachev sacking. Then Lebed said there hadn't been a coup, but he'd foiled it anyway.

Zyuganov had a weird poster showing Jesus Christ holding a hammer and sickle over his head with the slogan, The 2,000-Year Daydream of Mankind. Zyuganov declared that if elected, he'd appoint a coalition government, which would include Alexander Lebed and such Yeltsin loyalists as Moscow mayor Luzhkov. Then Zyuganov went to a long, private meeting with Yeltsin's prime minister, Viktor Chernomyrdin. It was a World Wrestling Federation moment.

Under Russia's system the electorate does have an op-portunity to cast its ballots for Nobody. But perhaps the Russians figured that they'd had enough nobodies to vote for already. Sixty-five percent of the eligible population came out on July 3, and they gave Yeltsin a 13.5 percent victory margin. It wasn't quite the drubbing that Ronald Reagan gave to Walter Mondale. But was Zyuganov really as pro-Soviet as Mondale had been? Anyway, the Russians decided to stick with the evil that they knew rather than the evil that, for 74 years, they'd known even better. And so the whole world and its journalists breathed a sigh of relief. The crisis was past, the course was steady, Russia continued along its way on the march to...

Smithereens. A fare-thee-well. The stars. Sir With Love. Hell in a handbasket. A different drummer. The toilet. Because who knows where Russia is going? Russia is "a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma tied in a hankie, rolled in a blanket and packed in a cardboard box full of little Styrofoam peanuts," said Winston Churchill, or something on that order.

A few days after the election, I took the night train to St. Petersburg. It was still dusk when I left at midnight. I dozed for a while in my compartment, but by 4:30 the sun was up. I sat on my bunk watching the dormant countryside, sipping terrible sparkling apricot wine that I'd bought by accident at a party-hearty kiosk. The meadows, marshes and birch forests were spread with a low-hanging mist and dusted with Queen Anne's lace. The tilled land looked half-fallow. In the little clusters of farmsteads, only the corrugated roofing and the occasional single thread of electric wire indicated modern times. The houses were built of logs with gables, eaves and small, deep-set windows decorated in hand-carved fretwork. They were dwellings of another century, and not the 19th. Potato plants grew up the front doors. Open wells and outhouses stood in the yards. I counted one truck and a motorcycle. This is the part of Russia that's closest to Western Europe. This is one of the most developed regions in the country, the ancient route between the nation's two capitals. And for one complete hour, looking out that train window, I did not see a paved road.

In the morning in St. Petersburg, I went to the Winter Palace. From across the Russian-size expanse of Palace Square, it was an impressive building, becoming less so as I walked toward it, following the path that charging Bolsheviks didn't actually take when they didn't really storm the Winter Palace, which wasn't in fact defended by the czar and his minions but by members of a moderate provisional government. But it made a great visual in the Sergei Eisenstein film October, and that is more than the Winter Palace does in person. It is painted call-the-lawn-service green picked out in lardy white and cheap gilding. Ugly statues and clumsy urns line the cornice tops. Whole families of servants used to live up there, performing such tasks as keeping the royal plumbing from freezing by dropping hot cannonballs into the cisterns. They built huts between the chimneys and fed goats on the grass that grew on the roof.

The building was designed in 1754 by Bartolomeo Rastrelli, who spent most of his life in Russia -- and it shows. The look is Go For Baroque. In unimaginative decoration, coarseness of detail and infelicity of proportion, the Winter Palace has everything Stalin would want 200 years later.

The Hermitage art museum, housed inside, is not much better. There is spectacular art -- El Greco's The Apostles Peter and Paul, Lucas Cranach's Venus and Cupid, Filippino Lippi's Adoration of the Magi, Leonardo da Vinci's Benois Madonna, Rembrandt's Descent From the Cross. But there is so much art that just as a statistical matter, some of it would have to be spectacular. And most of it's junk. There are rent-payers by Titian, Peter Paul Rubens factory seconds, Watteaus painted by the yard, rooms full of Dutch genre paintings that explain the phrase "in Dutch," and a clutter of Fragonards that should have gone to the guillotine with Marie Antoinette. All of this slapped on the walls at random, hanging in full sunlight in galleries with the windows standing open.

The place looks like the Art Club for Czars. Which it was. Catherine the Great bought European art collections wholesale and shipped them to her private quarters. "Only the mice and I can admire all this," she gloated.

Standing in the Hermitage, one realizes just how far out in the suburbs of intellect and aesthetics that Russia is. And always has been. This is a country that didn't even become medieval until Ivan the Terrible introduced feudalism in the late 1500s, a country where the small landowner was known as a smerd, a "stinker." Russia never had a Renaissance, never had a Reformation. There was no Enlightenment here, no Romantic period, no Rights of Man, no government reform. What little Industrial Revolution that Russia experienced was nipped and twisted by the Communists. Russia never had a Roaring '20s, a Booming '50s, a Swinging '60s or a Me Generation. There was just one Them Generation after another. Russia has gotten all of Western civilization in the last five years. I only had two semesters of Western Civ., and I almost flunked.

How will the Russians react? They may adopt our ideas, our way of living and our point of view. They may join the great world culture of refinement, humanization and progress. Or their response may be, as graffiti I saw on a Moscow factory wall put it, "Fuck Yuo."




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