Center for Defense Information
Research Topics
Television
CDI Library
Press
What's New
Search
CDI Library > Johnson's Russia List

Johnson's Russia List
 

 

February 21, 1999    
This Date's Issues: 3061  


Johnson's Russia List
#3061
21 February 1999
davidjohnson@erols.com

[Note from David Johnson:
1. Sunday Times (UK): Mark Franchetti, 'Imperfect' Children Left to Die.
2. Moscow Tribune: Lyuba Pronina, Nuclear Waste Row Erupts.
3. Jonathan Mueller: RE 3059-Rustomjee/Sachs and Company.
4. Ashok Bardhan: Re JRL 3059; Smiley/Upper Volta.
5. Guillaume Legros: Forum of Federations.
6. Andrew Miller: Stop the Presses!
8. New York Times: Michael Gordon, In Filmmaker's Ideal Russia, a 
Presidential Role?]


*******

#1
The Sunday Times (UK)
February 21 1999 
[for personal use only] 
'Imperfect' children left to die 
by Mark Franchetti 
Moscow 

IN THE "lying room" of Orphanage No 12 near Moscow, two bleak rows of
metal cots are filled with children who cannot walk. With no prospect of
recovery, they are left to waste away. For many of the 40 boys and girls,
the lying room is the final stop before burial in an unmarked grave. 
Without hope: 600,000 children are in care - 'lying rooms' 
They have no mothers or fathers to kiss them good night: their parents
abandoned them rather than face the stigma of bringing up an "imperfect"
child in a society that abhorred disability in Soviet times and is little
different today. 
Nor are the children's teeth brushed in the morning: even their bodies
are washed only once a week, and the stench is as stifling as the system
that condemns them to subhuman conditions. Some never leave their beds.
Most are severely malnourished. All suffer from excruciating sores. 
Dima, a 10-year-old boy who looks half his age, is so frail that he
cannot muster the strength to cry. His frightened eyes, set in a gaunt,
emaciated face, are turned to the ceiling. His right arm, a stick of bone
covered with dry skin, dangles to the floor. 
In the next bed Tanya, 6, is bound in a filthy cloth sack to restrain
her and tied to a bed rail. Her face is covered with scabs and she howls,
rocking back and forth incessantly. I offer futile words of comfort,
placing a hand gently on her head, which is shaved as a precaution against
lice. She grimaces, baring her few, rotten teeth, and lets out a piercing
shriek. 
Further along, desperate cries emanate from beneath the tattered blanket
of a small boy with no name. The blanket is pulled back to reveal a
skeletal figure in a large cloth nappy, soaked with urine. 
Next to a box of brightly coloured balls that no child here is strong
enough to use, a girl of 15 who weighs perhaps 50lb is propped on her side
with her face to a metal bowl of watery porridge. She spills it onto her
sheets as she struggles to feed herself. Most of the other children are
force-fed while lying on their backs. 
Adjacent to the lying room stands a bare chamber with boarded-up
windows. According to orphanage staff, this is where children are put if
they are restless. They are routinely given sedatives without medical
supervision. 

Restraints are common 

Some are tied to a bench, lying semi-naked in the foetal position,
motionless. Others are left in pools of excrement, banging their heads
against the floor. As we enter, a small group scrambles towards us, thin
hands stretched out. One girl wraps her arms tightly around my legs.
"Papa," she wails relentlessly. 
These are some of the 600,000 children who have been abandoned, isolated
and condemned in Russia. The 140 confined to Orphanage No 12, north of
Moscow, are aged between four and 18 and suffer varying degrees of
disability. Those with Down's syndrome and celebral palsy are placed here
with children who have relatively minor problems such as a club foot or
cleft palate that would be routinely corrected by surgery in the West. Some
have been sent away because of a simple speech impediment. 
From the outside, the peeling yellow single-storey building and
snow-covered playground give every impression of normality. A suspicious
nurse who opened the door took my gifts of fresh fruit and other food but
said that she had strict instructions not to let outsiders see the
children. Overworked and paid only 9.50 a month, however, she soon
relented. It was clear that the staff had long since lost the will to
conceal the horrors within. 
As I entered the lying room, I found myself retching and pulled my
sweater up over my nose. The smell - a mixture of urine, excrement and
disease - seizes the throat and grips it for hours. I had imagined talking
to the children, stroking them and making them smile. But I could hardly
bring myself to lift the covers on the small beds for fear of what I would
find underneath. 
Kate Hunt, the author of a report on Russian children's homes for Human
Rights Watch, the pressure group, said images from some of the institutions
she had visited flashed into her mind long afterwards. "It's a shocking
indictment of the state's unwillingness to look after its children," she
said. "I have been to orphanages in Romania and to refugee camps around the
world, but this was worse. There is no excuse for the level of depravity.
It's outrageous." 
In 1997, the last year for which Human Rights Watch could find figures,
24 children at Orphanage No 12 died. Sources there said the mortality rate
had risen every year since 1992. 
The root of such tragedy seems to lie in the Soviet Union's prejudice
against handicaps. Eight years after it was dissolved, the parents of
disabled children still come under pressure from doctors to
institutionalise them at birth. They are told that otherwise they will be
treated as social pariahs. 
Those who hand over their children often inadvertently sign a death
warrant. Once they are locked up, disabled children are three times as
likely to die prematurely as they would be if they were living at home. 
In 1992 Russia signed the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the
Child, supposedly conferring on its children the protection of
international law. Earlier this year President Boris Yeltsin's government
reported that despite financial difficulties, Russia adhered to most of the
convention's requirements. 
Yeltsin himself promised to take up the plight of Russia's abandoned
children. "I am very worried about those children in whose eyes we see
alarm, fear and sometimes even despair," he said in a grave radio address. 
"An end should be put to this. I want to state a warning: everything
that concerns children is a presidential priority . . . 
"Russian people were always responsive to the pain and suffering of
children, the whole community would come to their assistance. Why have we
become so indifferent?" 
That was in October 1997 and little has changed since. According to
Human Rights Watch, Russia's state-run orphanages violate 20 of the
convention's first 41 articles. Two weeks ago a UN commission examining
Russia's report held its first preliminary meeting. It is expected to issue
its response later this year. 
"Abandoned children in Russia are condemned to a life without a future,
especially if they suffer from a disability, no matter how minor," said
Sergei Koloskov of Russia's Down's Syndrome Association. 
The father of a girl with Down's syndrome, Koloskov was one of the first
Russians to defy the system by refusing to yield to pressure to put her in
an orphanage. He has since dedicated himself to exposing the cruelty of
such institutions. 
"The problem lies not just in the appalling state of these orphanages.
It also lies in Russian society and in its prejudice. These kids are looked
down upon as second-class citizens. They are seen as barely human," he said. 
"We have saved more than 100. We took them out of 'lying rooms' where
they were wasting away. Within six months we saw a miraculous recovery.
Kids who lay motionless now play, smile and eat. Many have learnt to talk
properly." 
Koloskov is being helped by the London-based Down's Syndrome Association
UK, which has launched a Russia appeal for his work. "The real tragedy," he
said, "is that all they need is love and proper care." 
Adoption is becoming easier in Russia: the government has set up a
database with the names of thousands of abandoned children. Under Russian
law, foreigners are allowed to adopt children only if no Russian wants
them. In 1996, 3,300 Russian children were adopted by foreigners, mostly
Americans. 
Not all abandoned children in Russia are held in conditions as severe as
those of Orphanage No 12. Some for children without "disabilities" have
received large donations from the West. Human Rights Watch, however, found
countless examples of "cruel, inhuman degradation". In some cases children
were beaten and locked for days in a freezing room without food to punish
them for trying to run away. 
The organisation has also catalogued incidents in which orphanage staff
pushed the head of one child into a lavatory and squeezed the testicles of
others while interrogating them about misdeeds. Orphanage directors often
order punishments to be carried out by older children. 
On my return to Moscow from Orphanage No 12, I sat numbly for a while,
sipping coffee in a hamburger restaurant, surrounded by dozens of Russian
children in brightly coloured snowsuits. This was how Katya, a six-year old
girl confined to her bed a few miles away, could have looked. 
Katya is bright, articulate and has two healthy parents. She is
paralysed in both legs, however, and so she has been abandoned to the
state. She recently joined the other children in the lying room and is
unlikely ever to leave it. 
For more information, contact the Down's Syndrome Association UK on 0181
682 4001 or Sergei Koloskov at the Down's Syndrome Association (Moscow) on
00 7095 925 6476; 
e-mail:ads@rmt.ru 

******

#2
Moscow Tribune
Feb. 19, 1999
Nuclear Waste Row Erupts
By Lyuba Pronina 

Russian environmentalists blasted the Atomic Energy Ministry last Monday
for trying to secure an amendment to a federal law that will give the green
light for other countries to dump their nuclear waste on Russian territory. 
The cash-strapped ministry, in search of money to "upgrade" the nuclear
industry, is pushing through an amendment to the law on protection of the
environment that would eliminate the unwelcome hurdle currently prohibiting
the storage of foreign nuclear waste. 
The amendment proposed by deputy Sergei Shashurin of the People's Power
group has been discussed and approved by the leaders of the Communist Party
(KPRF), Our Home Is Russia (NDR), Vladimir Zhirinovsky's liberal democrats
(LDPR), Agrarian and Russian Regions parliamentary factions, as well as by
head of the Duma security committee Viktor Ilyukhin and head of the Duma
budget committee Aleksander Zhukov. The Chairman of the State Duma Gennady
Seleznyov has filed a letter with Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov to
examine the expediency of the amendment. 
On Monday environmentalists, together with the Yabloko Duma faction,
followed with the intent to stall the amendment at the governmental level. 
"We are against this amendment because the country does not have the
capacity to process this waste," Aleksei Yablokov, co-chairman of the
Social Environmental Union, said at a press conference on Monday. Three
reprocessing plants in Krasnoyarsk, Tomsk and Chelyabinsk built in the
Soviet times are all in terrible shape, desperately struggling to deal with
Russia's own waste. To build new plants and renovate the existing ones, for
which the ministry is trying to raise funds, will cost a "colossal" $15-20
billion said environmentalists. Even the amount of money received through
nuclear waste storage would be only a small portion of what is necessary
for the construction. 
Greenpeace previously made public the negotiations between the atomic
energy ministry and the Swiss government to dispose of its 2,000 tonnes of
spent nuclear fuel and 500 cubic meters of highly radioactive waste for $10
million. This was grudgingly confirmed by ministry officials, but only at
the level of intentions. 
Among other interested parties Greenpeace named are Germany, Spain,
South Korea, Taiwan and possibly Japan. 
On Monday, the Social Environmental Union unveiled yet another document.
In a recent letter to the U.S. Secretary of Energy, William Richardson,
head of the ministry Yevgeny Adamov was courting the American side over the
possibility of permanently housing U.S. nuclear waste. 
"... given the search for ways to develop mutual relations between the
United States and Russia, including in the field of nuclear power, it seems
to us that it would be advisable to examine the question of the possible
transfer, on a commercial basis, of spent fuel from U.S. nuclear power
plants to Russia for its long-term storage and subsequent reprocessing at
the Russian Federation Minatom (Ministry of Atomic Energy) enterprises,"
the letter read. 
"We could examine different versions for implementing that approach,
both with and without the return of highly active reprocessing products to
the United States." 
The offer in itself, though seemingly "highly lucrative," is also
against the federal law on the protection of the environment. 
"Russia is virtually turning into a commercial dump for Eastern and
Western nuclear waste," says Vladimir Slivyak, coordinator for the
anti-nuclear campaign of the Social Environmental Union, who provided the
copy of the letter. 
The ministry and the deputies in favor of the amendment also seem to be
concerned about the ever-growing pile of home-produced nuclear waste.
Shashurin could not be reached on Monday. But his aide, who also took part
in the drafting of the amendment, supported the fact that Russia's nuclear
waste must to be dealt with urgently. 
"It (nuclear waste) is scattered throughout the entire country," said
the aide, who demanded anonymity. "We have no funds to reprocess this
waste, so the idea proposed by deputy Shashurin will help to raise this
money. Russia has unique technologies to reprocess nuclear waste. Countries
such as Taiwan and Japan offer us money in return for accommodating 10
percent of their waste." 
The entire program, deputies say, should fetch no less than $200
billion. "For 10 percent of their waste, we would get rid of 90 percent of
ours. This is the only way out," the aide said. Authors of the amendment
also hope the money received for the waste will help resolve a host of
social problems. 
However, environmentalists argue that the fund raising program is
nothing but a ploy. "It looks like the ministry is trying to deceive us.
They are not going to reprocess the waste. [Not having sufficient capacity]
they want to use the territory of Russia as a nuclear dump, get the money
and have it at their disposal," said Yablokov. 
"This money is aimed to fill state coffers but it will not be given to
pensioners, doctors or teachers, but will be wasted as before," said Lidiya
Popova, director of the Center of Nuclear Ecology and Energy Policy.
Environmentalists cited the example of how $1 billion provided by the
European Council was wasted over the past ten years. 

******

#3
From: "(RIA) Mueller, Jonathan D" <j.mueller@state.gov>
Subject: RE: 3059-Rustomjee/Sachs and Company,
Date: Fri, 19 Feb 1999 

Re Jeffrey Sachs: I only met Sachs once, in Poland, in 1992, but he
appeared to me more useful as a cheerleader for Polish economic reform than
as an architect of it. The Poles had plenty of economic brainpower of their
own -- maing it 'the Balcerowicz Plan', not 'the Sachs Plan'. Sach's
knowledge of the Polish economy appeared quite secondary, derived from
Polish reform economists who respected him enough to tell him what was going
on -- and without their respect and information he might have been left in
the dark.

******

#4
Date: Fri, 19 Feb 1999 
From: Ashok <bardhan@haas.Berkeley.EDU> 
Subject: Re: JRL 3059; Smiley/Upper Volta

While writing my MPhil thesis on Soviet/East European technology
in 1986-87 I remember coming across the phrase "Upper Volta with
Rockets" many times.
Mr.Smiley therefore, is unlikely to have been the first one to use 
it in 1987. Indeed, going through my notes I could locate atleast one
earlier usage: .In an article on Soviet civilian technology exports by 
David Buchan of the Financial Times (Sept.14, 1984).....
Ashok

*******

#5
Date: Fri, 19 Feb 1999 
From: Guillaume Legros <legros@ciff.on.ca> 
Subject: Forum of Federations

The CFF is a non-governmental organization based in Ottawa, Canada, 
working towards the establishment of a network among practitioners of 
federalism in all countries with elements of federalism in their 
government. The goal is to give policy-makers and practitioners of 
federalism an arena in which to share experiences and to exchange 
successful federal practices, as well as to provide information and support 
to emerging federations.
Our first major activity will be an International Conference on 
Federalism, to be held just north of Montreal on October 5-8, 1999. We will 
be inviting a wide range of participants with experience in federalism to 
discuss governance challenges in federal systems. Under the general rubric 
of Federalism in an Era of Globalization, the main themes of the conference 
will be Economic and Fiscal Federalism, Citizenship and Social Diversity, 
Public Policy and Federalism, and Intergovernmental Relations.
We are currently in the process of organizing the conference, but we are 
simultaneously trying to identify practitioners and experts of federalism 
to be part of an international network that would serve as the foundation 
for a more permanent Forum of Federations. Of course, the Russian 
Federation being one of the most important federal countries in the world, 
a solid Russian participation to the conference is critical for the success 
of our initiative. We therefore welcome any suggestions of individuals who 
would be good candidates to represent the Russian Federation at the 
conference. It is important that these people be mainly practitioners of 
federalism and that their background correspond to one or more of the 
sub-themes mentioned above.
You may wish to visit our web site (http://www.ciff.on.ca) for more 
detailed information about our activities. We hope to use our web page to 
begin a dialogue on issues related to federalism and to convey up-to-date 
information on our conference planning. The site also contains an email 
link to our secretariat located in Ottawa.
Please do not hesitate to get in touch with us if you have any comments or 
questions.

Guillaume Legros
Research and Liaison Officer
Committee for a Forum of Federations
P.O. Box 1258, Station B
Ottawa, Ontario
K1P 5R3
Canada
Tel: 1 (613) 244-3377
Fax: 1 (613) 244-3372
Email: legros@ciff.on.ca

******

#6
Date: Fri, 19 Feb 1999 
From: Andrew Miller <abcspb@online.ru> 
Subject: Stop the Presses!

STOP THE PRESSES!
By Andrew Miller in St. Petersburg

No American who spends any appreciable length of time in Russia, 
far from the "madding crowd," can avoid being impressed by Russian 
literacy: the affinity for books displayed proudly in the home (even 
the most remote country farmhouse), books from a range of subjects 
(including favorites Jack London and Theodore Dreiser), the freely and 
easily quoted poetry, the eyes that sparkle at the retelling of a 
favored episode or anecdote. What is available in Russian bookstores is 
not unfortunately, due to the restrictions of the Soviet era, yet a full 
sampling of the world's treasures of literature (Toni Morrison, Pearl 
Buck, Sinclair Lewis and Herman Melville are largely unknown), but what 
is available is read.
Likewise no American can help but marvel at the lack of 
television, and the lack of tv-watching. Even in St. Petersburg, a city 
of five million, most people can only receive four TV channels, which 
broadcast only about 16 hours per day or less and, like most Russian 
shops, close down for several hours during the day for a "pereryv" or 
coffee-break. Three of those four stations are either owned outright or 
controlled de facto by the national or local government, which may 
account for some of the lack of interest, but broadcast MTV is 
available to some select households with the equipment and location to 
receive it, but it isn't doing well.
No cynical American, viewing this, could help but wonder: what 
would the Russians do if they had full access (political and economic) 
to the "pop" culture of the West, specifically America? Would they 
reject it as sophomoric, or reject their own traditional interests - 
which many Americans would find "boring." Is Russia book-rich and 
tv-poor (or perhaps tv-rich, as you will) of happenstance or of 
refinement?
A visit to a Russian newspaper kiosk is illuminating. In St. 
Petersburg, Russia's "second capital," an ordinary kiosk offers no 
newspapers remotely like The New York Times, or even The Chicago Sun 
Times, with elaborate and detailed national and international coverage 
and extensive serious political debate. There are some few publications 
(with thicknesses of the Times' classified section), hidden away in a 
corner, which don't have pictures of naked women on the front, or for 
lack of money references to them in screaming headlines, and which 
struggle, as Phil Donohue claimed to, toward some serious work mixed 
with the sensationalism, but the vast majority are National 
Enquirer-style tabloids whose standards of journalism make The Star look 
like The Economist. It is easily possible to buy a "news story" to 
order from many financially strapped papers, many of whose journalists 
publish under false names. The national weekly "Argument and Fact" even 
boldly advertises that certain of its pages are available to political 
candidates, with a "money back guarantee" concerning election results. 
Many kiosks also offer pornographic bubble gum trading cards and 
stickers to entertain the kiddies.
The most noticeable color tabloid this week is monthly issue of 
SPEED, which has a full-length color photograph of a nearly naked blonde 
woman, clad only in a black bikini brief and a pair of black stiletto 
pumps, seated in profile, smiling rather uncomfortably at the camera 
because she is loosely draped in a coil of barbed wire. Kneeling behind 
her is a sharply (and fully) dressed bearded young man, who is smiling 
proudly. Feminism, as you may have heard, has yet to make serious 
inroads in Russia as a social or political philosophy (though nation of 
great writers, Russia has yet to produce a Jane Austen or a Willa 
Cather).
The tabloid's name, SPEED, is printed in English. Products with 
labels in foreign languages, most especially English, are popular with 
Russians, who seem suspicious of the quality of home-grown varieties. 
Ironically, if the English word SPEED were written in Russian letters, 
it would be written S-P-I-D, which is the acronym for the Russian 
translation of AIDS. SPEED bills itself as the nation's largest 
circulating newspaper.
The merry young man is Dmitry Yakubovsky. He is smiling because 
he is celebrating his release from prison after doing four years of hard 
time for heisting antique books from the impoverished (and therefore not 
very secure) Russian National Library in St. Petersburg. Yakubovsky, 
and thugs in his employ, stole more than six dozen ancient manuscripts 
worth an estimated $300 million on behalf of an Israeli collector, 
breaking in through a basement window in the library. The policemen 
charged with investigating such crimes are paid no more than $50 per 
month, but nonetheless apprehended the entire gang in impressively short 
order, a testament either to their aplomb or Yakubovsky's lack of it. 
Russia's criminal sentencing guidelines are somewhat nebulous: while 
resident in the provincial capital of Kursk, the author of these words 
saw a 20 year old Nigerian student sentenced to three years for passing 
a single bogus $100 bill at a local bank.
The uncomfortable woman is Irine, his (fifth) wife. She is a 
striking ersatz fashion model who, to great sensational effect, 
steadfastly stood by Yakubovsky during the trial (a Russian accused - 
most Russian courts do not labor with niceties such as juries or the 
presumption of innocence - appears in court inside a cage, through the 
bars of which blown kisses, knowing touches and longing looks were 
passed before gawking cameras). She stood by him, however, not as his 
wife but as his attorney (she is a summa cum laude graduate of the St. 
Petersburg State University School of Law, equivalent in Russian 
prestige to America's Yale). The marriage took place some time 
following the conviction, in the prison chapel. Yakubovsky is not a man 
to hold a grudge, or to miss an opportunity.
Before the robbery, Yakubovsky was a high-level member of the 
federal administration, heading an "anti-corruption" task force formed 
by President Boris Yeltsin (who recently sought a deal with the federal 
legislature which would immunize Yeltsin from prosecution for corruption 
following his departure from office, and guarantee him a substantial 
lifetime income - Yeltsin's part of the bargain remains unclear).
Now at liberty, Yakubovsky has himself turned his attention to 
the practice of law. Russia conveniently has virtually no restrictions 
on entry to the practice of law, a diploma for which requires only five 
years of study which can, if desired, be little more than five years of 
simple waiting, as a diploma can be easily purchased from one of 
numerous new "law schools" springing up throughout the country. 
Likewise, there is no meaningful system of licensure and discipline for 
lawyers, who cannot, as a practical matter, be "disbarred" or sued for 
malpractice as can their American colleagues, and who can practice in 
any part of the country (whereas American lawyers are limited to one or 
two states, and therefore relatively close local scrutiny) in any area 
of the law.
Yakubovsky's long list of eager clients includes federal 
legislator Lyudmila Narusova, who has been sued for slander and is under 
investigation by the federal prosecutor for claiming on a talk show that 
the prosecutor was "corrupt" and "out to get" her husband. Her husband 
being former St. Petersburg Governor Anatoly Sobchak, who fled the 
country in 1997 following his defeat by current Governor Vladimir 
Yakovlev rather than face a trial by that same prosecutor on charges of 
bribery and embezzlement while in office. Sobchak denies rumors that he 
himself will hire Yakubovsky to represent him should he return to face 
the charges. Sobchak has another course open to him, and he is 
reportedly considering it: to run for and win (even in abstenita) a 
seat beside his wife in the federal Duma, whereupon he would become 
immune from criminal prosecution. It is said that many Russian 
criminals have taken an interest in political life for that very reason. 
The precedent for a forced release from prison for a felon who is 
elected while incarcerated has not yet been established - or proscribed.
Reflecting on the foregoing account, the writer of these words 
can't help but be impressed by the fact that it's possible, and even 
easy, to write a fascinating short story worthy of Hammett, Chandler or 
Spillane simply by recounting chronologically the ordinary, everyday 
facts of life in Russia, and can't avoid the observation that, 
practically speaking, Russians really don't need to watch TV because it 
can't (not even Baywatch or the WWF) possibly hope to compete with real 
life. 
How much longer that real life will/can go on, however, is 
anybody's guess.

********

#8
New York Times
21 February 1999
[for personal use only]
In Filmmaker's Ideal Russia, a Presidential Role?
By MICHAEL R. GORDON

MOSCOW -- Nikita Mikhalkov, Russia's most celebrated living film director,
has already won an Oscar for his 1995 movie, "Burnt by the Sun." He has fame,
fortune and, as many women fans would have it, is the epitome of Russian
manhood. 
But the talk now in Moscow -- a capital skittish with economic crisis,
winter gloom and an obviously ailing head of state -- is that Mikhalkov might
even run for president. 
His latest $40 million film, "The Barber of Siberia," with a lavish premiere
at the Kremlin, appears, in a sense, to be his extravagant political
advertisement. 
The 53-year-old director says his aim is to conjure up an ideal of Russia
that its people can live by: a world of pageantry in which honor endures, love
is pure and a noble czar rules with a firm but benevolent hand. But these
days, politics is also not far from his mind. 
"Plato said that power should be a burden and not an aspiration," he said in
an interview. "I will support anyone who says it is a burden for him, and if I
support him he ought to win. People do listen to me. But if there is no such
candidate, I will have to sit down and think heavily." 
The idea of Mikhalkov's candidacy may seem like an improbable movie plot or
publicity stunt. But it reflects the disillusionment Russians have with their
political choices: an infirm President Boris Yeltsin and a slew of pretenders
widely seen as power-hungry opportunists. 
Mikhalkov, in contrast, has cast himself as Russia's political savior. Even
if he does not run, he says that he knows what Russia needs: the restoration
of the real or idealized virtues of czarist Russia. 
"The picture shows not how Russia was but how it should be," he said,
referring to his film. 
Mikhalkov's Moscow office is adorned with a large chart tracing his ancestry
back to Russia's pre-revolutionary aristocracy. With his trademark mustache,
he certainly looks the part. And his family has long been one of the most
eminent artistic families in Russia -- as well as one of the most discussed. 
Mikhalkov's father, Sergei, an author of children's books, wrote the words
to the Soviet national anthem and was the leader of the Soviet Writers' Union.
His older brother, Andrei Konchalovsky, also a film director, immigrated to
the United States and went to work in Hollywood, carefully dropping the
Mikhalkov part of his double-barreled surname, and keeping the name of his
mother, Natalya, a poet and descendant of one of czarist Russia's most revered
and respected painters. 
The younger Mikhalkov, who first became famous as an actor, chose to work
within the Soviet system. He was neither a Communist Party member nor a
dissident. As the Soviet Union collapsed, and since, he has often been seen in
the company of top politicians and figures of artistic resistance. "Burnt by
the Sun," his Oscar-winner, was anti-Stalinist. 
Before the 1995 parliamentary elections, he made a polished "feel good"
television ad in which Russian astronauts talked lovingly about their homeland
as they gazed at the earth from space, and appeared in the spot as one of the
astronauts. The commercial showed his prowess as a political image-maker, no
small concern for future presidential candidates who would like his support. 
These days, Mikhalkov is known as a moderate nationalist. He supported
Yeltsin's re-election but also has advocated the establishment of a
constitutional monarchy. He describes his politics as "enlightened
conservatism." It comes across as more of a sermon than a program. 
"We have stopped respecting ourselves, our history and our culture," he
said. "We live on top of fantastic wealth and beg all the time," he continued,
alluding to Russia's oil, gas and mineral riches. "What is shown on television
that Russians have made with their own hands? We should not have to stretch
out our left hand for Snickers." 
In keeping with his politics, his long-awaited, three-hour saga is a kind of
nationalist "Doctor Zhivago," a "Titanic" for a Russia enveloped in self-
doubt. It is an epic love story, skillfully blending his artistic, commercial
and political interests. 
An adventurous American woman, played by British actress Julia Ormond, falls
in love with a dashing Russian cadet named Andrei Tolstoy, who is played by
one of Russia's leading actors, Oleg Menshikov. The Hollywood-style love story
has a bitter-sweet Russian ending, in which the protagonists accept their
tragic fate with dignity and self-sacrifice. 
Along the way, there is a dig at rapacious foreigners. American actor
Richard Harris plays the eccentric American inventor whose consuming passion
is to turn Russia's glorious Siberian forests into a pile of timber. 
The movie, filmed abroad and on site in the Kremlin, near the Novodevichy
Monastery in Moscow and in Siberia, is Russia's leap into the world of
multimillion-dollar blockblusters, with luxuriant sets and Dolby soundtracks.
The Kremlin even agreed to turn off the illuminated red stars on its towers --
the first time that has been done for a film. 
Mikhalkov's instinct for Western marketing is, apparently, as unerring as
his father's was for hitting the leaders' and the people's tastes in Soviet
times. 
His movie comes complete with commercial "tie-ins" like Mikhalkov's
"Junkersky" cologne, which takes its name from the young noblemen who trained
as cadets, and comes in a snazzy box depicting czarist military trappings. 
About $10 million of the film's budget was provided by the Russian
government. Mikhalkov says the government money comes from a special budgetary
fund and, thus, has not diverted funds from unpaid state workers. 
Some analysts find it odd that Mikhalkov's film celebrates the reign of
Alexander III, the 19th-century czar whose rule was one of the least eventful
in Russia's turbulent history. 
But that appears to be precisely the point. Alexander III represents the
stability that Russians hunger for, as well as the old values of dignity,
self-sufficiency and generosity that have been lost, Mikhalkov explained. 
A Slavophile, Mikhalkov says he believes that Peter the Great, who opened up
Russia to the West, pushed the country forward but drove a wedge between the
elite and the people. 
For all its Russian nationalism -- the film is formally dedicated to the
Russian officer corps -- it is also aimed at an American audience, where the
big money is. Seventy percent of the dialogue in the film is in English -- a
gambit, Mikhalkov's aides say, to enable the movie to qualify for an Oscar
nomination outside the category of foreign films. 
Whether all this will advance Mikhalkov's cause in the shifting sands of
Russian politics is unclear. But, as every fresh week brings a new twist in
the alleged power struggle between Yeltsin and Prime Minister Yevgeny
Primakov, and to throw up new contenders for the post-czarist presidential
throne, some of Russia's movers and shakers are already speculating about the
movie director's prospects. 
Boris Berezovsky, the tycoon who has been locked in a debilitating
confrontation with Primakov, has talked about supporting Mikhalkov's bid.
Vladimir Gusinsky, the media mogul, said in an interview that Mikhalkov would
make a better president than many of the other potential candidates. 
Mikhalkov says it is too soon to discuss his political plans in detail. But
one scene stands out in the mind of the politics analysts here: his cameo role
as Czar Alexander III. Wearing a resplendent uniform, he gallops into the
Kremlin on a gleaming white stallion to loud hurrahs. 

********


 

Return to CDI's Home Page  I  Return to CDI's Library