MOSCOW -- Russian television viewers have a pretty high threshold for amazement. That's understandable in a country that has recently watched a coup attempt, its empire die, an internationally broadcast assault by the president on Parliament, and a brutal war.
But even for Russia, the sight of the stolid, dour prime minister, Viktor Chernomyrdin, negotiating live, on television, with the leader of a band of Chechen terrorists provoked amazement here yesterday.
People could talk of almost nothing else, as Mr. Chernomyrdin, his tanned, oval face peering gravely across glasses at a mesmerized nation, shouted encouragement to Shamil Basayev, the Chechen commander who held up to 2,000 hostages in southern Russia and led the attack in which scores of people have so far died.
"Shamil Basayev," Mr. Chernomyrdin screamed into the phone yesterday morning, as ever unsure of how to address the rebel leader, and, like many Russians, having trouble with a long-distance call. "Everything is set. It will all be over in a matter of minutes." During other conversations in the last two days -- all carried live on every channel in the nation -- Mr. Chernomyrdin had promised Mr. Basayev that he would order a stop to all fighting in Chechnya, solicitously inquired whether he needed more time for a particular decision, and guaranteed that nobody would shoot him or his men.
Most of the hostages have now been released and Mr. Basayev and his band are wandering in a bizarre caravan in school buses toward Chechnya, along with some innocent "volunteers" held as insurance. While nothing is yet over, Mr. Chernymordin has seized the imagination of a nation that is absolutely sick of politicians. Perhaps it was the honesty of a politician sweating and straining before the nation; perhaps it was emotion packed into a man many thought had no feelings. But what happened on television has almost overshadowed what happened in Budyonnovsk.
"It was incredible," said Katya Amachenova of the television performance, expressing the common, open-mouthed view of the whole experience. "At first, I thought Chernomyrdin had lost his mind. But what choice did he have? He was very calm," said the secretary interviewed on her way home from work yesterday. "He acted like a leader. We haven't seen that in a while."
That is an allusion not to Mr. Chernomyrdin but to his boss, President Boris Yeltsin. The prime minister was left alone to manage the crisis when Mr. Yeltsin fled to a summit meeting in Halifax, Canada. He was not consulted when Mr. Yeltsin twice decided to use force -- both attempts failed badly -- to free the hostages. When a few hostages were released Sunday, it was not the Chechens, but the Russian security forces that were quickly denounced.
Even now, Mr. Chernomyrdin is on shaky ground. He cannot afford to be too completely united with Mr. Yeltsin, whose popularity seems to fade each day. But he works for him, and there is danger in making him look foolish or a man of the past.
His actions seemed to be a genuine attempt to resolve a seemingly impossible impasse. Faced with few choices and little guidance, the prime minister, notably famous for not being the type to roll the dice, did just that. He decided to attempt to talk the many hostages held in Budyonnovsk to freedom, granting the Chechens ground that Russia had never before even been willing to discuss. It seemed ridiculous until it worked. Everyone knows that you don't negotiate with terrorists. It only encourages others.
But there are a few other things many people in Russia -- especially Mr. Chernomyrdin -- know. Mr. Yeltsin was not likely to do much about this problem except assign blame. As the person left holding the bag, Mr. Chernomyrdin was going to get most of it -- and he still may if things go awry.