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The in-between country Russia: Even at holiday time, citizens of one-time superpower find themselves in limbo.


SIX YEARS AFTER the collapse of communism, Russia is an in-between country. It has adopted many outward trappings of democracy. But this thin layer of legality often seems to be mere pokazukha, a put-on intended to impress those who do not know better. Throughout history, Russians have been masters at creating illusions.

Stability and prosperity have so far proven elusive in Russia. While there is no outright famine, millions of people feel economically and psychologically dislocated and are barely surviving. During this holiday season in particular, Russians may be excused if they feel their lives are in limbo.

Things are truly confusing: Some people keep commemorating the communist-era holiday of New Year, with its Father Frost and gift-giving. Others have returned to observing the religious traditions of Russian Orthodox Christmas, which this year occurs Jan. 7. Yet others have started celebrating the Western-style Christmas in all of its manifestations of crass commercialism.

The past year both raised hopes in Russia and dashed them. President Boris N. Yeltsin's re-election avoided an outright political crisis, but his health problems, which culminated in heart-bypass surgery, created a political vacuum. Many thorny problems are unresolved.

As the New Year approaches and Mr. Yeltsin resumes work, two things should be uppermost on his agenda. Unless the government swiftly moves to pay millions of Russians, who have not received their wages for up to six months, 1997 is likely to see a wave of serious unrest. Already, mine workers are fuming and restless. The armed forces could be the next, unless the officers are paid and determined steps taken about restoring some dignity to the military.

In a recent television interview, Mr. Yeltsin said he knew these were among the most urgent matters he has to address. But how? This is a tough but pivotal question.

The resilience of ordinary Russians has been their salvation over the centuries. But tempers are growing short. Desperate people sometimes are drawn to desperate solutions.

Pub Date: 12/26/96

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