4 JANUARY 1992, Page 32


A memorable coup

Martyn Harris

Every programme on Buddhism starts with a thundering gong and booming prayer pipes, and so it was with The Rein- carnation of Khensur Rinpoche (BBC1,10.15 p.m., Sunday). But this was the only crash- ing cliché in a story of a four-year-old child who is taken to be the reincarnation of a High Lama, and is removed from his par- ents in Tibet to a monastery of his follow- ers in southern India. The child revealed himself through omens, divination and dreams. The dead lama's disciple travelled to meet him by bus and train across the prosaic landscape of urban India, and there was a powerful sense of parallel worlds throughout the programme. On the one hand were the plum and saffron robes, the yellow cock- ades, the clicking prayer wheels — the world of magic and unreason. On the other hand were modernity and machines: a child playing with a Lego train while priests mumbled mantras over him. I was part angry at the exploitation of a sweet child by silly old men; part won over by the power of their faith and the beauty of their ritual. The final confirmation of the boy was via an Oracle, who spoke to the mortal world through a medium. This was a chap com- pletely swallowed, but for his eyes and mouth, in a heavy gold costume. In a trance he writhed and mumbled. But then his head-dress slipped over his eyes and he twitched his brow to move it, and it was the moment I stopped believing and returned to finding it repugnant. The television image of 1991 must be Boris Yeltsin, climbing onto that Red Army tank outside the Russian parliament building — and this is true, I think, whether Yeltsin turns out to be the Dan- ton, the Bonaparte or the Lord George Brown of the second Russian revolution. I saw the sequence again this week in A Very Russian Coup (Channel 4, 10 p.m., Sunday) and was moved again by the sense that it is on these moments of heroic conviction, or maybe simple bravado, that history turns. Would I know, would you know, after all the years of fudge and trim that make up a life in politics — or any life for that matter — that this was the moment. of zrisis and decision? Would we clamber onto the tank, or would we let the moment pass and he swallowed up in time's whirlpool with all the mass of ordinary men? The plotters of the coup had missed their moment, and you could see them dwindle in front of the camera. Deputy premier Valentin Pavlov appeared at the putchist's press conference grinning and swollen with drink, then later in a nicotine-stained inter- rogation cell. Asked about the pre-coup planning meeting, he could remember lit- tle: 'There was coffee with just a little alco- hol — and then I must have had some kind of blackout.' The former defence minister and co-conspirator, Marshal Yazov, appeared at his first interrogation behind a fence of medal ribbons, but at his second in a cheap track-suit top. Did Pavlov always drink? he was asked. 'I haven't met him often,' said Yazov. 'But I never saw him sober.' So the putchists stood revealed as opportunists and piss-artists.

The thesis of Jon Snow's useful pro- gramme was that there is another coup on the way, though there wasn't any hard evi- dence to sustain the argument: just the apparent misery of the Russian people and the rudderless state of the Red Army, win- tering in tents on the Ukrainian steppe. A former foreign minister put the odds on renewed revolution at 50-50 then, on reflection, at 3-1 against. The Russian peo- ple have tried communist totalitarianism and they have lost four million dead fight- ing the fascist variety, so there seems little option but the middle way, however slow, painful and cold it seems in the January of 1992. I am off to Russia next week to see for myself and will quote the new odds when I return, in a month from now.