Candidates symbolize basic schism in Russia Yeltsin embodies new, Zyuganov the old

June 30, 1996|By Clara Germani | Clara Germani,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

MOSCOW — 'TC MOSCOW -- They come from the same Soviet mold, but the two men who will face each other in Russia's presidential runoff election Wednesday have very different destinies in mind for their nation.

Both roundish, baritone bureaucrats given to the drone of formal speechifying, President Boris N. Yeltsin and his Communist rival, Gennady Zyuganov, were children of Russia's beautiful but always hungry and backward countryside.

Yeltsin, the rough and tumble kid who lost two fingers playing with a grenade, and Zyuganov, the "A" student who always played by the rules, both rose from dusty obscurity to Moscow power through the Communist Party.

They arrived at the top of party politics just when communism was falling apart.

And that's when the two took fateful philosophical turns -- Yeltsin toward the risky promise of democratic capitalism, and Zyuganov toward a pragmatic, batten-the-hatches communism.

But as they face each other in just the second democratic presidential election in Russian history, they are symbols of more than just capitalism vs. communism.

The two represent a schism in Russia's self-image that started as far back as the 17th century, when Peter the Great forcibly hacked off men's beards in his efforts to modernize and open Russian thinking.

They represent the new vs. old, liberalism vs. conservatism, outward vs. inward thinking, and the boisterous vs. brooding Russian persona.

"Today the Zyuganov-Yeltsin division reflects the same old dilemma of Russia in search of its self-identity," says Andrei Piotkowsky, a political analyst at the Center for Strategic Studies.

A split in the heart

Even last week's Kremlin struggle in which Yeltsin purged hard-liners from his administration, Piotkowsky says, is an example of what he calls a "Western vs. Slavophile" struggle that "is not a bad guys and good guys split" but a contradiction that exists in "the heart of every Russian."

Basically, this nation that spans half the Northern Hemisphere wants to be and considers itself a world leader -- strategically, economically and intellectually.

But, sandwiched between Europe and Asia, it has historically wavered between self-absorbed ignorance of the rest of the world and confrontation with it.

Since the breakup of the Soviet Union, there is a palpable sense from the Baltic to the Pacific of Russian delight at what has crept in: Western soap operas, Snickers candy bars and even a sense of Western informality and freedom.

At the same time, though, Russians are defensive about this because implicit in their love of the new is a comparison of their homeland with the West that is not always favorable.

Stance on NATO and G7

This division is most often cited in the way Yeltsin and Zyuganov approach NATO, the former Soviet Union's Western military nemesis.

Both candidates criticize NATO expansion to former Warsaw Pact nations -- Yeltsin because he wants Russia to be included in that Western club, Zyuganov because he doesn't want that club anywhere near Russian borders.

Similarly, Yeltsin wants the G7 club of industrialized nations to accept Russia and become the G8.

He has made enormous efforts to comply with International Monetary Fund guidelines for loans to shore up the economy.

He lobbied hard to win the West's approval of Russia's membership in the Council of Europe, which brought it under the jurisdiction of the European Court of Human Rights.

Zyuganov rails against the control and influence these Western organizations are bringing to bear on Russia's internal affairs.

He suggests that Russia gather together what former Soviet republics are willing to economically bind together and turn inward, away from foreign economic influence for at least 10 years before trying to emerge onto the world markets on their own terms.

Zyuganov's platform stresses the difference between the Russian "collectivist" tradition and the "rationalist-individualist"

Western worldview of Yeltsin's administration.

Everything based on money

One of Zyuganov's chief political strategists, nationalist Alexei Podberioshkin, says that Yeltsin has "accepted 100 percent a liberal Western democratic model. Everything is based on money."

In explaining the difference between Russian collectivism and the Western democratic model, he offers this example:

"It is typical for Russian peasants to live in a community where everyone helps each other.

"If one loses a house in a fire, everyone gets together -- whether it was 10th-century Russia, 15th-century or on the kolkhoz [Soviet state farm] -- and helps rebuild the house," he says.

"But this is unacceptable for Americans to understand your neighbors to have social justice.

"Russia always treated the poor with respect. In Western society the poor are, from a moral point of view, outside the community."

Tradition of suppression

Yeltsin supporters suggest that the "collectivist" tradition the Communists talk about implies Russia's long history of suppression of individual freedom to the autocratic state.

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