Steam bath scene suggests Russians are plenty steamed

Crises: The Balkan war and the Kremlin turmoil have left some Muscovites smoking-mad at Boris Yeltsin.

May 16, 1999|By Helen Womack

MOSCOW -- I was lounging in the corridor, waiting to go into the steam bath, when a fat lobster-colored figure in a towel lumbered past, cursing: "That ye B.N. Ye."

"Ye" are the first letters of Boris Nikolayevich Yeltsin's surname. Ye is also the "f" word in Russian.

The bather could find only expletives to express his disgust at the news that the Kremlin leader had again dismissed his government, plunging Russia into new political turmoil.

We gathered around the television set in the anteroom, where bathers of both sexes drink beer or tea between bouts of steam.

"That old man Yeltsin, he's got a brain like baby food," said a woman, as we heard how the president had thanked and dismissed Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov, the man who managed to bring stability to Russia after the acute crisis of last August.

"Well, good thing I did not get undressed," I said. "I'd better be heading back to my office."

At which point Borya, the genial bath attendant whom I have known for years, turned to me and said: "You're English, aren't you? If I could only get my hands on those (expletives) in NATO. It's only because of Yeltsin that we're not helping the Serbs. You think you can squeeze the Slavs and go on squeezing. Well, you'll see."

I packed up my things and left with a friend. This little scene at the banya spoke volumes.

It showed the strength of feeling among ordinary Russians against their president, who has only a 2 percent approval rating in the opinion polls.

If it comes to a confrontation between the Kremlin and the Communists and nationalists in the state Duma, there is no doubt that the crowds that once cheered Yeltsin will follow the red flag.

And it illustrates how seriously the West has alienated Russians by bombing Yugoslavia, a policy that possibly has contributed to destabilizing Russia as well as the Bal-kans.

"It looks bad," said my Russian friend quietly when we were outside the banya. "Politicians in both the East and West take decisions to further their ambitions, and none of them cares about the consequences for all the little people in the world."

Helen Womack is a reporter for the Independent, in London. The article was distributed by New York Times special features.

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