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Jewish World Review Jan. 6, 2000 /27 Teves, 5760

Paul Greenberg

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The changing of the czars, or: The more Russia changes ... -- WHO WOULD HAVE THOUGHT that the first great moment of Boris Yeltsin's leadership -- his standing atop that tank in defiance of the old order -- would also be his last? In the political history of free Russia, which is a short volume, the greatest hero and the greatest goat turn out to be the selfsame inflated figure: Boris Nikolayevich Yeltsin. He floats past above all, like a giant balloon, now punctured.

History masks itself in absurdities, ironies, cruel jokes. Maybe that is what Hegel meant by "the cunning of reason.'' At the end of Czar Boris' half-comic, half-tragic, always dramatic trajectory, the ironies assail. And they seem the same old, unchanged ironies of Russian history:

A land that longs for order seems forever on the throes of disintegration.

A language that has birthed great literature in the darkest of times now produces bureaucratic platitudes and hollow speeches at the dawn of freedom.

A culture resonant with music, famous for its dancers, wild for poetry, legendary for mathematical inventiveness and scientific genius, seems to have gone underground. These days the longing for mediocrity in Russia becomes almost palpable.

Boris Yeltsin's own bleary explanations for his abdication sound like nothing so much as the confessions of the drunk on the next barstool -- a mix of candor and self-pity, truth and pathos. His public announcement had a private sound:

"I want to beg forgiveness for your dreams that never came true. And also I would like to beg forgiveness for not having justified your hopes. I beg your forgiveness for having failed to jump in one leap from the gray, stagnant totalitarian past to the light, rich and civilized future.''

But even as he begged forgiveness, Czar Boris took the precaution of accepting a pardon, as if he were formally ending democracy and making kleptocracy official.

On his first day in exile, with a pension and dacha waiting, Boris Nikolayevich was reported in the best of spirits. And why not? His sweeping pardon and lifetime privileges made Gerald Ford's treatment of Richard Nixon look miserly. Russians have always had a gift for forgiveness, and their new leaders are still capable of the grand gesture, at least toward one another.

It's now hard to remember all the talk of legitimacy and the rule of law in a new Russia. All of that seems to have vanished with the old, hopeful Boris Yeltsin, and a future that promised something better than criminal immunity.

Hope has shrunk since those giddy days, and now Boris Yeltsin's leaving power is as welcome as his assuming it. At least without him, there may be some consistency to the chaos that succeeded Communism.

At this point, Russians might gladly settle for even the appearance of stability. If the rule of law is too much to hope for, a regulated corruption would be a step up. At least people would have some idea of what to expect. Better a predictable injustice than whatever it is Russia now has. It looks a lot like dissolution.

Besides, there's a war on, and -- at least in its early stages -- war wonderfully concentrates the mind, the senses and a sense of national unity. No wonder it is the first resort of dictators, right up there with inflating the currency. By now Russia's leaders have tried both expedients with indifferent results.

All that's clear today is that the Yeltsin interregnum is over. Just what it came between is yet to be determined -- dictatorship and democracy? Or just one autocracy and another?

So far Boris Yeltsin's successor has played on the themes of Russian national consciousness like a maestro. Vladimir Putin promises order at home and force abroad -- always a winning combination in a country where the most popular ruler of the century has been Stalin.

There may never have been a Man on the Street interviewed in Russia who failed to say, "Stalin was fierce, but Russia was strong and we knew what to expect. This country needs a strong leader.'' It's as if that tribal, primeval sentiment were part of Russians' DNA.

More than the Russians yearn for liberty, they welcome order -- a little order, if a lot can no longer be assured. Maybe the longing for chains has something to do with Russia's geography: the exposed plains that have left a whole people agoraphobic, longing to be herded to safety. That from time to time the people are conducted to a slaughterhouse instead does not seem to have affected their faith in Power, which in Russia tends to be a term with assuring rather than fearful connotations.

The names of the three prongs upon which Russian society has long rested -- autocracy, orthodoxy and nationalism -- may change from time to time. At one time, the same guiding principles were declared to be party, ideology and internationalism. Only the names changed. And now Vladimir Putin is pushing the same, fungible ideas again -- and with such perfect timing and instinct that he seems to have stolen the thunder of both the Communists and nationalists.

But somewhere in Russia, one has to believe, the spirit of freedom still awaits the thaw. Boris Pasternak ended "Doctor Zhivago'' with the young daughter of Zhivago and Lara surviving the terror somewhere in the blank Russian interior, "where the language is still pure.'' Some things never fade, like timeless hope, as simple and stirring as a simple tune on the balalaika. The pronunciamentos of the politicians are always changing in the empty pageant of Russian power. But other names endure: Pushkin, Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Solzhenitsyn ... their words will remain.

To quote from Pasternak: "The proclamations, the tumult, the excitement are over. Now something else is growing, something new. It is growing imperceptibly, and quietly, as the grass grows.'' Despite everything, certainly everything official, something new and hopeful still grows in Russia. On the basis of nothing more than faith, and on the basis of nothing less, call it freedom.

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©1999, Los Angeles Times Syndicate