As rules and players change, Russians struggle to understand their politics


MOSCOW -- It's no wonder so many Russians don't have the faintest idea what to make of the bitter battle going on in the Kremlin between President Boris N. Yeltsin and the parliament.

Once there was an official script here -- for politics and everything else. Now people -- and politicians -- can say and do whatever they want, and a lot of people just can't figure out what's what.

"We used to have a caste of people trained to conduct government policy," Ludmilla Sokolova, a psychologist, said yesterday. "They knew what to do and what not to do. Now there are many politicians, and they know what not to do but they don't know what to do."

Mrs. Sokolova, 33, had just completed the daily Russian ritual of bread-buying -- standing in two long lines, one to pay, one to pick up her bread.

"Now the politicians listen to everyone," she said, "and they do nothing."

Many Russians have been trying valiantly -- and largely unsuccessfully -- to figure out what has been going on at the extraordinary session of the Russian Congress, which convened Wednesday -- ostensibly for one day but is still in session yesterday.

jTC "I've tried to follow it," said a lieutenant colonel in the army, "but it's very difficult. I don't really understand what they have done or haven't done or why."

The 55-year-old colonel, with a gray trench coat wrapped tightly over his olive drab uniform and wearing a gray tweed cap, didn't feel comfortable giving his name.

"I can't say I support this side or that side in everything," he said.

Though he couldn't make sense of the politics, he said, he was adamant that there was no danger of civil war, as some of the politicians have warned.

Many people have dealt with the confusion by ignoring it.

"I haven't been following it," admitted Irina Gracheva, 31, an engineer. "I just can't get interested in politics."

The whole thing has gotten so muddled that Mrs. Gracheva first said she favored a strong parliamentary system then criticized Mr. Yeltsin for being a weak president.

"He is too weak for a president," she said. "Every president should do something for the country so people can know who is doing what. I think up to now he hasn't done enough."

One problem many people must wrestle with is deciding for themselves what to believe. For years, people were told what was right and what was wrong.

Two generations faithfully reviled capitalism and glorified communism, and then overnight the opposing ideologies switched places.

Everyone used to know what to do -- they did what they were told. They knew what to think and when to think. And now they are on their own. Mr. Yeltsin tells them one thing, the conservative Parliament tells them the opposite. No one knows what to think, so it's easier not to think at all, and concentrate on buying bread and searching for an affordable sausage.

"I've tried to follow it," said a 75-year-old woman who was afraid to give her name, "but I have to admit I can't understand it. I read the papers -- I've always read a lot. I listen to it on the radio. And I don't know what's going on."

She does know, however, that she likes Mr. Yeltsin. "What I like is that even though there have been many attacks on him, at this Congress and other ones, he remains very strong. I like that," she said.

"It's difficult for me to understand what's behind it all," she said. "Therefore I don't know which is better, the president or the Congress. Smarter people than I am can't understand it."

The woman, wearing a fur hat so old it was worn thin in spots, said she liked Mr. Yeltsin because he had given people more freedom, to speak, to buy, to sell.

"If the worst comes to worst," she said, "I can sell my books. You can sell something now, and not be arrested. Yeltsin gave us this freedom. Much depends on the people themselves now."

She had worked in construction, and when she got too old worked in a library. The frayed cuffs were rolled up on her old gray coat.

"People complain now that they are hungry. But people who say that haven't known what it is to be hungry," she said. "In 1932, people were hungry. They were dying in the streets. They aren't hungry now."

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