BORIS YELTSIN IS UNWELL
John Simpson discovers that reports of the Russian leader's imminent death are greatly exaggerated
Moscow SO BORIS is still with us. They had to get a camera into his hospital to prove it, but there he was, all right: the face, as ever, like a party balloon with a slow leak, the hair arranged as if with a blow-torch, and the general appearance of someone who has spent the night outdoors in a wheel- barrow. And still the appalling taste in sports-shirts. If it hadn't been for a partic- ularly virulent example, decorated with what looked like a ghostly blue hand across the presidential shoulder, nobody would have noticed there was something rum about the official photograph which had been issued to the press in order to reassure everyone about Yeltsin's condi- tion. But you couldn't forget a sports-shirt like that; it ached in the memory like an old wound. Some bright character checked the files and found the photograph was virtually identical to a video which had been taped somewhere altogether differ- ent, months before.
So was this the post-Communist equiva- lent of, say, Chernenko's cold (when he was actually dying)? Or Andropov's slight internal disorder (ditto)? Or the photo of Mao swimming the Yangtse river, when in fact he was too gaga even to recognise Madame Mao (his good fortune there, of course)? Clearly not, as it turned out. A lot remains unchanged in Russia when it comes to the details about goings-on at the very top. It took a television interview with the man himself, a week after he went into hospital, to confirm finally that he 'What are you up to now, Harold - cooking or cross-dressing had indeed suffered a heart attack, and would have to stay in hospital much longer than his doctors had originally suggested. No wonder rumour still plays so important a part in Russian public life, and that the suggestion that the Yeltsin photograph was faked swept through Moscow so fast. Peo- ple in Russia have always known that most things are withheld from them, but nowa- days the newspapers, radio and television tell them so openly.
I arrived in Moscow a few hours after the first announcement that Yeltsin had been taken to hospital. A dozen or more journal- ists were on the same flight, and we headed for immigration and customs with the com- petitive enthusiasm of relatives wanting to hear the will read. By that stage it was already plain that the old bruiser would survive, but in Russia it's better not to take things on trust. You have to get there, and stay there, and be prepared for anything.
Once, in the late 1970s, I arrived in Moscow armed with a visa and permission to film a number of news stories. My driver met me with the news that the death of one of the oldest men in the Politburo had just been announced: it was touch-and-go for all of them in those Brezhnevite days. I was delighted: what could be better than a solemn planting beside the Kremlin Wall, at which half a dozen bulky Politburo wives would reveal themselves in public for the first time, Brezhnev himself would shuffle sclerotically around, and the new pecking order would reveal itself, in the way that ancient tortoises clamber over each others' shells? I rang the government office which in those days policed the activities of for- eign television journalists. 'But,' said the voice at the other end patiently, 'you did not request to film this ceremony when you sent us your proposals.' That was five weeks ago,' I shouted. 'Five weeks ago Mr Grishin was still frisking around with the rest of the Politburo." You should have made your request then, even so.'
Nowadays, sadly, Boris Yeltsin looks more and more like one of the old Polit- buro saurians: slow-moving, Slavic, encased in clothes that would probably stand up without him. And yet you only have to walk through the centre of Moscow to realise how things have changed here during his three-and-a-half years in power. The pub- lic buildings have been cleaned up and repainted, in honour of VE Day. Adver- tisements now add life and colour to a city which always looked half-dressed by com- parison with Western Europe. New cars are everywhere, and not all of them belong to the proliferating mafiosi. Food queues have disappeared; in Moscow at least the distribution system seems at last to have caught up with demand (though we await to see what happens during the winter). At the top end of the scale, inhabited only by the deeply corrupt and the very newly rich, dinner for two at the newly refurbished National Hotel in Manezh Square costs $800; they have wisely removed the plaque outside which recorded Lenin's stay here in 1918. In general, people are much bet- ter dressed, (except for Boris Yeltsin) and there are fewer beggars nowadays. In 1992 I was profoundly gloomy about Yeltsin's chances of pulling the country through; now it was a genuine pleasure, as I walked through what was once Marx Square, to realise how wrong I had been. Marx's stat- ue, too big to shift, still stands there, look- ing aggressively towards the Bolshoi Theatre as though he would like to change tonight's programme the hard way, but he and the hammers and sickles which deco- rate everything are the last obvious signs of Communism.
I wandered on past a pile of red marble blocks which had once formed the plinth of a statue to the Bolshevik revolutionary hero Yakov Sverdlov. I watched in August 1991, after the failed coup against Gor- bachev, as the statue was lifted by a crane and dangled in the air like an executed robber, while a choir sang the imperial Russian anthem. It was Sverdlov who gave the orders to shoot the Tsar and his family in 1918 at Ekaterinburg, later renamed Sverdlovsk in the murderer's memory.
When the statue had been removed the crowd started attacking the plinth with hammers, handing out the fragments to the onlookers as mementos. Nowadays my bit lies on a shelf at home in front of a bronze statuette of Nicholas II, a reminder of the thoroughness with which the whirligig of time brings in his revenges. Incidentally, Boris Yeltsin was the Com- munist Party boss of Sverdlovsk, and in 1978 it was he who ordered the bulldozing of the house in whose cellars the imperial family had been murdered, to prevent its becoming a place of pilgrimage for the 60th anniversary. So Yeltsin, and the enor- mous country he rules, are both greatly changed without necessarily changing very much at all. Yet he may be preparing the way for someone distinctly more disturb- ing. Next May, or perhaps before, his term Bad news, I'm being posted abroad.' of office will end and presidential elections will take place.
I went round to see the headquarters of the reassuringly-named Liberal Democratic Party, whose leader is regarded by a sur- prising number of observers in Moscow as a serious contender: the arch-nationalist, extremist and occasional thrower of orange juice, Vladimir Zhirinovsky. His deputy, a colourless figure called Zhibrovsky, explained to me that the boss was out of town, and welcomed me into the presi- dent's office in his stead. Ten minutes of boring explanation about the party's views on Bosnia later, Zhirinovsky himself burst into the room, accompanied by a number of unpleasant stormtrooper types, and started barking angrily at the deputy who had usurped his office. It was like hearing Hitler bawling out Ernst !Ohm.
The deputy meekly introduced me, and Zhirinovsky gave me a limp handshake and a brief dismissive glance before going back to the serious business of telling his deputy off for his act of lese-majeste. My colleague and I, together with several of the thugs, moved quietly out of the room: the audi- ence was over. To us in the West Zhiri- novsky might appear to be a clown, but an increasingly large number of Russians across the country like the fact that he says what he means and doesn't care what for- eigners or effete intellectuals in Moscow think. He is the only political leader who bothers to tour the country, holding meet- ings and appearing on local television; while his rivals spend their time on the intricate politics of the Duma in Moscow, he makes two or three trips to the hinter- land every fortnight, canvassing votes. Given his views about using nuclear weapons, and regaining Russia's lost pres- tige, and dealing with the Jews, we should still be worried.
Boris Yeltsin's prime minister, Viktor Chemomyrdin, certainly seems to be. He plans to contest next year's presidential elections, and would much prefer it if Yeltsin stood down to give him a clear run. Yeltsin, however, has been giving the impression he is serious about wanting another term. He cannot win, since he is now so unpopular; but he could split the pro-government, moderate vote and let Zhirinovsky in. It all makes the presidential heart attack much more significant.
A little thinner, his face blotched with red, Yeltsin talked enthusiastically to his television interviewer about playing tennis again. His doctors may have something to say about that. As Harold Macmillan found in 1963, being in a hospital bed renders you peculiarly vulnerable to your political rivals. Yeltsin, the born-again Communist apparatchik, the one-time party boss of Sverdlovsk, may well be looking at his doc- tors now and thinking to himself: whose side are they really on?
John Simpson is associate editor of The Spectator.