Boris lights up the Internet The Web: Russia's President Yeltsin makes his first foray into a cyberspace chat room, and 22,000 join him.


MOSCOW -- Elizabeth from Ireland swooned over his magnificent head of hair, Caracas, Venezuela, wanted to know what he thought of Mikhail S. Gorbachev, the last Soviet leader (not much!) and "joecurrious" wondered if Russia was ready for a woman president.

Unencumbered as he was by talk show candor or even diet tips, he had a handle powerful enough to persuade thousands of people around the world to try to crowd into a half-hour chat room yesterday afternoon.

Boris N. Yeltsin was online, invited into cyberspace by MSNBC.

"This is my first live Internet experience," the Russian president confessed as he entered the World Wide Web shortly after 1 p.m. Russian time (5 a.m. EDT).

Chris Donohue, the moderator for MSNBC, screened questions in the United States, while Kremlin translators turned Yeltsin's answers into English and a typist tapped his responses into a computer terminal.

He had high hopes for his Internet audience.

"I think that you will ask me about the G-8 summit in Birmingham," he predicted, referring to the meeting Friday in England where leaders of the world's seven major industrialized nations, plus Russia, will get together to sort out important international affairs. "Does Mr. Yeltsin have friends among other world leaders?" asked Michael in America. "Do you ever hope to see each other socially?"

The president saw his chance.

Of course, he said, the guest must be referring to the Group of Eight (called the Group of Seven until Russia was allowed to join recently). Of course, he was friends with leaders of those countries.

And what about a woman president? asked "joeccurious." Perhaps Yeltsin's daughter, Tatyana Dyachenko, would be suitable?

"Never," Yeltsin said firmly. "Our society is not prepared for it, not for my daughter or any other woman at this time."

Donohue, the MSNBC host, went on to Elizabeth from Ireland.

"You have wonderful hair," she said to Yeltsin. "Irish have wonderful hair. Do you have any relatives in Ireland?"

"I am from the Urals, where there is a connecting line between Europe and Asia," Yeltsin replied. "In fact, I know that these people from the Urals have never reached Ireland, so that is excluded, absolutely."

Still, he couldn't ignore the compliment to his thick, wavy, white hair.

"I wouldn't say that it would attract everyone's attention," Yeltsin said. "I am taking care of my hair. The women in my family are always looking after me."

Ronald in Toronto got serious, asking about crime and low police salaries. Crime, Yeltsin said, decreased by 17 percent last year. And just because policemen get low pay doesn't mean they aren't doing their jobs, he said.

Viktor Krasin from Russia asked if Moscow would join other countries in trying to prevent India from developing nuclear weapons. India has been in the news in the last few days for setting off underground nuclear explosions.

It was a sensitive question because the United States has been suspicious that Russia has been helping India with its nuclear program. Yeltsin answered circumspectly: "I will do my best to resolve the problem with India."

On one question he was unusually unequivocal.

Caracas asked: "Mr. Yeltsin, what do you think about Gorbachev yesterday and today?"

Replied Yeltsin: "Yesterday, I thought about him. Today I don't think about him at all."

A few minutes later, Yeltsin signed off. He rather liked this Internet, he said. So did the world.

MSNBC reported 4,000 questioners on the Web site; Russian officials counted 22,000 people watching the chat -- and 20 unsuccessful attempts by hackers to disrupt it.

Pub Date: 5/13/98

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