MOSCOW — BORIS YELTSIN left hospital as secretly as he had gone there nearly two weeks earlier. The journalists and camera teams waiting at the gate saw nothing of him as he left: The windows of his limousine were dark, and Yeltsin did not wave to them. That isn't the way Russia does things, even now. If his press office had not carelessly handed out an old photograph of Yeltsin, pretending it had been taken in the hospital, he would not have been forced to give an interview to Russian television to prove he was still alive. He looked pretty rough during it; but that's nothing new.
Nor is pretending to the Russian people that their leaders are slightly indisposed when they are on their way out: Chernenko was said to be suffering from a cold and Andropov from a slight internal disorder, right up to the moment when Moscow Radio began playing solemn music. The Russian system has always been ponderous and secretive, and never more so than at such times. Once, in 1978, I arrived at the Moscow airport to be told by my driver that the death of a senior member of the Politburo had just been announced. I anticipated a good television news story: a solemn funeral at the Kremlin Wall, half a dozen bulky Politburo wives showing themselves in public for the first time, a rare appearance by President Brezhnev, and a new political pecking order to be worked out from the way people behaved and where they stood. I rang the government office that policed foreign TV journalists. ''But,'' said the voice at the other end patiently, ''you did not request to film this ceremony when you sent us your proposals.'' ''That was five weeks ago,'' I answered. ''Five weeks ago Mr. Grishin was still frisking around with the rest of the Politburo.'' ''You should have made your request then, even so.''
This was the Russia in which Boris Yeltsin was brought up and prospered. That year, 1978, he was the Communist Party secretary in Sverdlovsk, the town where (under its old name Ekaterinburg) the Russian imperial family had been executed, 60 years before. Yeltsin ordered the house in whose cellars the murders had occurred to be bulldozed to the ground, to prevent its becoming a place of secret pilgrimage for the anniversary. For Yeltsin, and for Russia as a whole, the four years since the collapse of Communism have been an extraordinarily short period in which to unlearn their entire past. Nothing had prepared them for the sudden switch to capitalism and consumerism. In 1978 the official rate for the US dollar was 1.5 to the ruble. Today there are 4,929 rubles to the dollar. Russians have been through a savage collapse in living standards; their system of governing themselves, their habits of mind, their self-image have all collapsed with it.
And yet you only have to walk through the center of Moscow to realize how things have changed for the better during Yeltsin's brief time as president. Public buildings have been cleaned up and repainted. Advertisements add life and color to a city that has always looked half-dressed by comparison with the West. There are new foreign cars everywhere, and not all of them are driven by members of the proliferating mafias. Food queues have disappeared; in Moscow at least the distribution system seems to have caught up with demand, though we shall have to see what happens next winter. At the very top end of the scale, which is inhabited only by the very corrupt and the very newly rich, dinner for two at the grandly refurbished National Hotel now costs $800. They have wisely removed the plaque recording Lenin's stay there in 1918.
In post-1918 Germany, upheavals like these led to the rise of Hitler. In a spirit of inquiry I went to the headquarters of the extreme nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky. He was out canvassing support in the provinces; disturbingly, with the presidential elections still nine months away, he is campaigning assiduously. His rivals stay in Moscow, directing all their attention to the often irrelevant politics of the Duma, or parliament. His colorless deputy invited me into the president's private office for a briefing. Ten minutes into it Mr. Zhirinovsky arrived back unexpectedly, accompanied by some nasty-looking bodyguards. He acknowledged me briefly, then started shouting at his deputy for presuming to take over his office. It seemed tactful to leave; but it was like hearing Adolf Hitler bawling out Ernst Rohm.
Maybe Zhirinovsky won't do well in December's parliamentary elections, or the presidential ones next summer. Maybe Yeltsin, who is now deeply unpopular, can be persuaded not to split the moderate, democratic vote by standing again. If this were the old days, we'd wonder if Yeltsin's hospital trip might play a part in all this. Now of course everything has changed. Or has it?