In Baltimore, St. Petersburg mayor is energetic spokesman for a new Russia Sobchak blazes a path to future

June 27, 1993|By Scott Shane | Scott Shane,Staff Writer

Anatoly Alexandrovich Sobchak was in Baltimore -- let's face it -- to ask for American help. But the first post-Communist mayor of St. Petersburg is not prepared to humiliate himself in the process.

Asked about the similarities of aging port cities such as his and ours, he passes up the opportunity to dwell on St. Petersburg's predicament. Instead, he talks about streetcars.

"I think it's a big mistake that you got rid of streetcars in Baltimore, because you have too many cars polluting the air," Mr. Sobchak says. "In St. Petersburg, we're preserving the streetcars, which carry 40 percent of all passengers."

Leading a delegation from St. Petersburg to Baltimore and Washington in search of aid and investment last week, Mr. Sobchak was at back-slapping ease among the big egos of top American CEOs, senators and super-consultant Henry A. Kissinger.

He is no supplicant, come to gawk at America and plead for handouts. But neither does he resemble the glowering Soviet-era bureaucrat abroad, whose permanent sneer for capitalism was punctuated by sneaky side trips to Kmart for batteries or pantyhose or all the other items unavailable at home.

Embracing capitalism

Mr. Sobchak remarks with no trace of embarrassment that Russian building technology is "40 and 50 years behind yours." He says his favorite light reading is Russian translations of Erle Stanley Gardner, speaking fondly of "the lawyer-hero, Perry Mason, and his secretary, Della." He speaks of his country's "75 years of isolation" after the Bolshevik takeover and says every Russian schoolchild should have a chance to travel.

"They should see life abroad with their own eyes," he says in an interview after a luncheon with Maryland officials at the Engineering Society in downtown Baltimore. "That way, we'll rid ourselves faster of the Communist mentality -- that everything should be equal, that it's bad when a person is rich and achieves success."

Mr. Sobchak, 55, may be the paradigm of the post-Soviet Russian politician. He is smoother, better educated and six years younger than President Boris N. Yeltsin. He has all of Mikhail S. Gorbachev's easy confidence with foreign big shots but does not lug the weighty baggage that came with being general secretary of the Communist Party.

He is criticized at home for arrogance and for seeming to be bored by the nitty-gritty details of running a city. Nationalists consider him a sellout to the West. Radical democrats mistrust ++ his ties to the Soviet establishment, though he joined the Communist Party only after perestroika was well under way, in 1988, and quit in disillusionment in 1990. People naturally blame him along with all other politicians for the inflation that has hurt living standards.

But Mr. Sobchak still has political capital from his role as a hero of the failed 1991 coup, in which he faced down top generals to prevent troops from occupying St. Petersburg, and from earlier episodes in which he publicly accused Politburo members of lies and corruption. His telegenic looks and his sharp oratory have given him a high national profile.

Back home he is driven in a Volga sedan, the classic vehicle of the regional Soviet boss -- but not a black one, the color traditionally associated with the Communist bureaucracy. "I prefer white," he says.

He is as likely as any politician on the current scene to be the leading candidate to succeed Mr. Yeltsin after the latter's term expires in 1996.

But he already has mastered the coy manner of a U.S. politician in denying a burning ambition to run.

"I think it's premature to pose that question," he says, evidently -- pleased to be asked. "I have wonderful work in my favorite city, which I should head until 1996."

He says he might just return to St. Petersburg State University, where he had been a prominent legal scholar. He may run for a second term as mayor. Or he may even take the advice of his lawyer-daughter Maria, 25, and found a law firm, "Sobchak and ** Daughters." (His other daughter, Ksenia, 12, also wants to be a lawyer.)

On the other hand, he notes, it so happens that his term as mayor will conveniently expire "the same day" as Mr. Yeltsin's term as president.

Writing new constitution

Meanwhile, Mr. Sobchak is busy playing the role of a Russian founding father. A legal scholar of considerable reputation before the first contested Soviet elections in 1989 catapulted him into politics, he is playing a key role in writing the new Russian constitution.

He chairs one of five "sections" of the current constitutional convention. The section is a contentious group of 100 leaders of new political parties, 58 people from trade unions and professional organizations, and 20 from religious confessions.

Based on this experience, he reassures Americans who worry about the return of the Communist Party to power: "There are seven different Communist parties in St. Petersburg alone, and 20 in Russia, and they hate each other even more than they hate the democrats."

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