Russia's uneventful eventful night

Moscow celebrates without Y2K problems

Yeltsin upstages festivities

January 01, 2000|By Will Englund and Kathy Lally | Will Englund and Kathy Lally,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

MOSCOW -- All across Russia last night, lights stayed on, radiators stayed warm, telephones kept ringing. The Y2K bug that never arrived had already been upstaged in a big way -- by Boris N. Yeltsin, and his decision to resign.

Still, New Year's was New Year's. Undeterred by computer problems or political earthquakes, thousands of Muscovites flocked to the precincts adjoining Red Square and rang in year 2000 with a do-it-yourself cacophony of bottle rockets, firecrackers and cherry bombs.

Here was one of Yeltsin's legacies in the flesh -- no more regimented displays by the ruling party, just a free-for-all of a celebration. Maybe it was dangerous, but it was a lot more fun.

Revelers chilled bottles of Russian champagne in banks of snow. There were more fur hats than party hats. A guy dressed like Grandfather Frost -- Russia's blue-suited equivalent of Santa Claus -- weaved through the slush on a bicycle.

For three Baltimoreans who found themselves celebrating together in Red Square, it was "almost as good as Harborplace," said Brian O'Day, a political consultant now working in Moscow.

"It was an ATF nightmare," said Janelle Cousino, who for the past three years has run the National Democratic Institute here. "St. Basil's was hidden by smoke from all the fireworks."

And while other cities spent millions of dollars on fireworks, Moscow had gotten almost the same bang for free -- thanks to the free-lancers who were everywhere taking care of the job themselves.

"I was completely struck by the lack of extravaganza," said Sue Ringler, a former assistant U.S. attorney in Baltimore. "I thought of all the things that had happened on that square, and I wondered what Russia would achieve in the new century. It was beautiful."

Overlooking adjacent Manezh Square was a giant television screen on which the crowds, starting at about 11: 30, could watch a replay of Yeltsin's resignation speech. If they could have heard what he said amid the chaos -- which they couldn't -- they would have heard him musing about the "magic date."

"We have all," Yeltsin said, "been contemplating this date with regard to ourselves, figuring out, first in childhood, and then when we were grown up, how old we would be in the year 2000, and how old our others would be, and how old our children would be. And it once seemed to be so remote, that unusual New Year. And now this day has come."

Yeltsin was followed on the screen by Vladimir V. Putin, sitting eerily in the same chair, giving the president's New Year's message to the nation. Unheard by the crowd below, he said, "Dreams come true on New Year's Eve, particularly such a special New Year's Eve as this. Everything kind and everything good you dream of will certainly come true."

"It's too bad about Yeltsin," said Nikolai Korskov, who was sipping champagne from a fluted glass along with his wife, Sveta. "It's too bad that what he hoped to build didn't turn out."

Korskov, who is 34, said that when he is young he couldn't even imagine how old he'd be in 2000. Now he has a 7-year-old son, Dima, who is studying English, and he is making plans to immigrate so that Dima can live a "normal life."

"It seems like nobody needs us here, everything going on without us," he said.

Valentina Berezentseva, 57, was strolling with her husband, Vladimir, who is 70. "You know, I cried when Yeltsin resigned," she said. "He's our generation. I wonder if somebody didn't push him. Well, there's no point in talking to people like us -- talk to the young."

But the year 2000, after all, belongs to everybody. She allowed that on a normal New Year's they sit at home, and eat and watch television until their eyes glaze over. "But of course this is a special year," she said.

Rockets whizzed all around. The smell of gunpowder filled the air. People hooted and screamed. Valentina and Vladimir -- Valya and Volodya -- formed a sort of calm center, holding hands, beaming through their tears.

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