Russian documentary examines the condition of Yeltsin's heart Program suggests he was near death before surgery, holds reins at cost of health

November 06, 1998|By Will Englund | Will Englund,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

MOSCOW -- Two years after his heart bypass surgery, a documentary shown on television here last night suggested that President Boris N. Yeltsin knew he would never fully regain his strength and that he has been holding on to power ever since at the price of his health.

The program, called "Yeltsin's Heart," quoted several physicians attesting to the president's recovery from the operation, but the overall impression it made was precisely the opposite. It began, for instance, with a lingering view of the wheelchair that Vladimir I. Lenin used after his debilitating stroke in 1923.

And, toward the end, Yeltsin is seen on tape joking about coming out of anesthesia and trying to say something but being unable to form any words. What he was trying to say was that he wanted someone to give him back the so-called nuclear suitcase holding the missile launch codes. He chortles at the memory but the unsettling implication of the hourlong show is clear.

Yeltsin is now at a Black Sea resort, trying to overcome what his aides call a case of exhaustion.

As Yeltsin's health has declined, more and more Russian politicians have been calling on him to resign for the sake of the country, which would set new elections in motion. Last night's film, ostensibly about the 1996 bypass surgery, was sure to give them further ammunition.

The program aired on NTV, a network controlled by Vladimir Gusinsky, a banker and press tycoon who is unhappy with the prime minister, Yevgeny M. Primakov, and who dispatched one of his associates to the United States yesterday to rustle up support for the potential presidential candidate Grigory A. Yavlinsky.

It said that the Kremlin lied about Yeltsin's condition before the surgery and has reverted to its old secretive ways in the two years since.

Yeltsin almost toppled over on a recent trip to Uzbekistan. He canceled a visit to Austria, and, on Oct. 28, he left Moscow for a rest cure. Parliament considered yesterday a largely symbolic bill that would have required him to pass a medical exam, but it fell a few votes short of passage.

The Constitutional Court ruled yesterday that Yeltsin cannot run for a third term in 2000 -- but Yeltsin has already said that he won't, and no one expects that he could.

The president's former personal physician, Dr. Vladlen Vtorushin, was seen on the program saying that Yeltsin had had five episodes of heart trouble before the operation, three of them during the presidential campaign of 1996.

Vtorushin used the word "infarct," which in Russian usage can mean anything from a bout of angina to a full-scale heart attack.

The episodes were described at the time as nothing more serious than diminished blood flow, but that report was false, Vtorushin said.

Other doctors who examined him said on the program that Yeltsin could not have lived more than six months without the operation. The program raised the question of how well anyone could be expected to recover from the attacks he suffered and the subsequent bypass surgery.

But Dr. Renat Akchurin, who performed the bypass, said he considered the operation a success as soon as he saw the president's heart and realized it wasn't as bad as he had expected. Akchurin, who studied in the United States, said he was concerned about too many "back-seat drivers," using the English phrase.

The documentary also featured an interview with Viktor S. Chernomyrdin, the prime minister at the time, who had had a similar operation a decade ago. Chernomyrdin, perhaps aware of the program's implications, was unusually jolly and full of jokes, and even played the accordion at one point -- as if to show that he, at any rate, is still in full command of his faculties.

Svetlana Sorokina, the reporter for the documentary, did make HTC the point that Yeltsin showed tremendous willpower and strength to get through the presidential campaign while his heart was failing.

Yeltsin's wife, Naina, said he didn't know how serious his condition was, and kept saying, "It will pass, it will pass."

It didn't, of course. After defeating Gennady A. Zyuganov, the Communist candidate, Yeltsin began to diet and went into surgery eight weeks later. Dr. Yuri Belenkov, a cardiologist, said Yeltsin understood that there would be no full recovery.

The program ends with a view of a heavy door being locked shut, but the scriptwriter, Natalya Pyaterikova, told the newspaper Obshaya Gazeta that she wouldn't count Yeltsin out.

"Yeltsin is still able to fight," she said. "Be ready, he will show himself."

Pub Date: 11/06/98

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