In Moscow, Clinton is talk of the town

January 15, 1994|By Will Englund and Kathy Lally | Will Englund and Kathy Lally,Moscow Bureau

MOSCOW -- If things had gone a little bit differently, that FTC could have been Big Brother looming on the television screen over a darkening Red Square yesterday afternoon.

But instead of the all-knowing, sinister face of totalitarianism, it 11 was a crinkly eyed Bill Clinton, beaming encouragement and cheerful American get-up-and-go.

Vladimir Sivolapov, his wife, Irina, and daughter, Yana, 9, were out for a stroll in the biting wind and freezing slush, when, as Mr. Sivolapov put it, they encountered Mr. Clinton just outside the domed St. Basil's Cathedral.

Actually, they encountered a big television van, on which a large screen had been mounted along with a remote feed to the national television studios at Ostankino, where Mr. Clinton was holding forth.

Mr. Clinton had just brought to Russia the electronic town meeting, which he has used so handily in America. The family stayed to watch and liked what they saw.

"He's a very pleasant, energetic man," Mrs. Sivolapov said. "He is obviously quite aware of the economic situation here, and that's why he gave advice. And he has the right to do that. He was quite sincere. He came here to help us."

Mr. Sivolapov said he couldn't imagine Boris N. Yeltsin going to America, picking up a microphone and waving to the studio audience.

Mr. Yeltsin and other politicians haven't quite got the hang of make-up and lighting. Mr. Yeltsin often appears on television reading from note cards under lights that make his face even more puffy than it is in person. Television turns his eyes balefully beady; Mr. Clinton's turn blue and wide as the summer sky.

This made Zhenya Sidorina, 60, a retiree watching at home, somewhat suspicious.

"He's very impressive," she said, "but I'm sure American politicians are like actors and are taught in specialized courses or schools so they learn how to behave in public."

Mr. Clinton, she said, had learned well.

"He's perfect," she said.

All over Moscow and the nation, Russians were marveling at the performance. He wowed them with the easy confidence of his answers. One minute he was speaking authoritatively, in smooth-flowing paragraphs, on the delicate political situation in Georgia. Then he was quoting from Abraham Lincoln's diary.

Here was one of the world's most powerful politicians, roaming among the audience, microphone in hand, smiling, laughing, frowning, quizzical and alive. He could have been relaxing in his living room, except he would look up from time to time in congenial talk-host mode to say, "Let's go to Nizhny Novgorod now," where another outdoor audience was falling under his spell.

In Russia, politicians are descended from grim-faced Stalins and Brezhnevs who glared voters into submission; they were weaned on an Official Speak that rewarded the ability to talk in sentences that never ended and preferably made no sense.

Russians are a warm-hearted lot, but for them it is the sort of attribute that emerges slowly and strongly in the protective embrace of their own four walls. Mr. Clinton's warmth spilled over all of them yesterday with the effervescence of the champagne they love so dearly.

"I see him not only positively," sighed Lena Simonova, 40, "but with love."

She said the largely youthful audience in the television studio came from a generation deeply attracted to America because it represents freedom to them.

"If I were young, I would go to live there, and I'm sure I would be very happy there," she said.

If Mr. Clinton made one mistake, it was telling his first questioner to go ahead and speak to him in English. Others followed suit, and it seemed a little highfalutin to some viewers. And others thought he was too personable for a president.

Others took right away to the idea -- largely untested here -- of a smiling politician.

"I like him because he's always smiling and open," said Alexei Ilingin, 17. "He looks very democratic."

Mr. Clinton very adroitly managed to offer advice without being pushy. In Red Square, Mr. Sivolapov said he took issue with only one of the president's assertions -- that Russia must now choose between hope and fear.

"For me, personally, the time has come to choose responsibility," said the businessman, 33. "I myself, for instance, need to be responsible for my child. We've lived on hope for too long now."

Alla Romanova, 45, a teacher of construction engineering, had watched the program in her apartment across the Moscow River from the Kremlin.

"As a woman," she said, "I liked his style of speaking, and his

manners."

He did, she said seem to be offering quite a lot of advice.

"Well, it's the usual way of you Americans. You're more sure of yourself. Now, you wouldn't like it if strangers came to the U.S. and gave too much advice," she said.

Had Mr. Clinton given too much?

She laughed. "Russians generally love to listen to advice. They just don't follow it."

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