Russian pols offer drama, conjure glory

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Last weekend the presidential campaigns of two undeclared Russian candidates appeared to be off and running, with a heady whiff of cologne, an Oscars-like ceremony, and wrestling matches in the snow by pancake-eating men.

No matter that the two men in question - Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov and filmmaker Nikita Mikhalkov - haven't actually confirmed plans to vie for the top spot in 2000. Most people in Russia believe they are running and, in a country where belief can run deep, that's what counts.

While their styles are different, the two men's messages are strikingly similar. Both seek to tap into a widespread nostalgia for a Russia that was once glorious, before the Soviets came along.

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At a time when the country's 147 million people are feeling as dragged down as the economy, both men are calling out: "Russia is good, and we are proud of our heritage."

In contrast to America, where likely top-tier contenders thinking about running in the 2000 elections hesitate to show too much interest too soon, Russian would-be candidates have been readying themselves for months.

These two men's styles of wooing the public could not be more different. Mr. Mikhalkov chose a black-tie premire of his new film, "The Barber of Siberia," at the Kremlin theater, attended by 5,000 including the nation's political and business elite. The evening ended with fireworks glittering over the heart of Moscow.

Mr. Luzhkov, who presents himself as a modest man, invited a small circle of journalists and bodyguards to a folkloric lunch in a wooden house. The occasion was to celebrate Maslenitsa, an intrinsically Russian holiday that involves bingeing on blini before the austerity of Lent.

The perceived lineup also includes Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov, who also has not declared his intentions. Those who have made their plans clear are Grigory Yavlinsky, the closest Russia has to a Western-style liberal democrat, Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov, and Alexander Lebed, a former paratrooper who is now the governor of Siberia's powerful Krasnoyarsk region.

Speculation that Luzhkov would be a contender soared last December when he formed his own party, Fatherland.

Mikhalkov has only hinted that he would run, but said cryptically at Saturday's premire that he would do so if "God decides." He then lectured the crowd that it was immoral to talk about succeeding the current president, Boris Yeltsin, while he still had 18 months to serve.

However, the premire had the air of a campaign event, with the director paying homage to powerful oligarchs and politicians present. The cult of personality was underlined not only with Mikhalkov playing a czar in the film but also with the launch in the theater lobby of his new cologne, Yunkersky (Cadet).

The moviemaker owes his popularity in part to his smooth silver-haired charm, his lineage (he was born into one of Russia's leading intelligentsia families), and his nationalist films, which have struck a chord. Although many in the audience may not have agreed with this movie's glorification of monarchy and military, they gasped at sumptuous scenes of ballrooms and forests depicting an idealized Russia before the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution.

The film stressed the corrupting influence of Americans, including the female lead, who depicts a lying seductress.

But for all its quest for a national vision, the film had the ingredients of a Hollywood drama, including a $40 million budget and English dialogue. The event had an Oscars feel about it, with everyone scanning the crowd for celebrities.

One notable absentee was Luzhkov.

"He was working," explained one of the mayor's aides, shepherding bleary-eyed journalists into a bus early Sunday morning for their Luzhkov outing.

The man with the can-do reputation set off precisely at 9:20 a.m., according to plan, and stuck strictly to the two-hour schedule.

The destination was a simple wooden house in a park, where a cluster of maidens in traditional costume welcomed the crowd.

Dressed in his trademark workman's cap and sheepskin jacket, Luzhkov discoursed on the custom of Maslenitsa. He moved on to his great passion of beekeeping, as aides laughed politely at his jokes.

Playing the stereotypical Russian host, he urged vodka upon his guests, ostentatiously drinking cranberry juice himself to stress his teetotaling ways.

Like Mikhalkov, who made a sprightly impression the previous night by taking stairs two at a time, Luzhkov was keen to prove his fitness. When the activities turned to line dancing, tug of war, and wrestling, the mayor impressed the crowd by devouring a blini without using his hands - no mean feat.

He then mounted a handsome gray steed, bouncing uncomfortably for a few paces. The controlled showmanship was classic Luzhkov, except for one factor that was beyond his control.

A distinct aroma wafted over the entire event. It was not Luzhkov's own cologne, Mer (Mayor). It was Mikhalkov's Yunkersky, which had clung to the clothes and skin of those who had attended the previous night's premire.

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