'From time immemorial," said Russian President Boris Yeltsin a few months ago, "Russia has been used to having one man at the top." And that has been generally true, under the czars and under the Communists. Collective leadership was tried after Stalin's death in 1953, but it did not last. After four years of in-fighting, Khrushchev ousted his opponents - Vyacheslav Molotov, Georgy Malenkov, and Lazar Kaganovich - and reigned supreme until he himself was ousted in 1964 in favor of Leonid Brezhnev.
But, to be effectively at the top, one has to enjoy good health, and Boris Yeltsin does not appear to. Whatever Vice President Al Gore may say about Yeltsin looking great, no one who checks into a sanitarium, then appears on television propped up and looking ill, can be considered to be in great physical shape.
And so the question is not - or not only - whether Yeltsin will finish out his four-year second term, but whether he will be in full command. Democracy in Russia, with few stable institutions, is still feeling its way on power delegation and succession.
What Yeltsin has assembled under him is a troika - three ambitious men whose rivalry for power is only manageable as long as Yeltsin manages it. There is solid and methodical Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin, who came from Russia' s great natural-gas monopoly. There is chief of staff Anatoly Chubais, the only card-carrying liberal of the three. And there is former Gen. Alexander Lebed, the charismatic law-and-order man, a greater vote-getter, but without experience in government.
Lebed scored an early point by getting his candidate, Col. Gen. Igor Rodionov, named defense minister by Yeltsin. Chubais scored a point by getting Yeltsin to fire Nikolai Yegorov, his predecessor as chief of staff and Yeltsin's last hawkish adviser. Chenormyrdin scored a point when he announced that he, and not Lebed, who is officially in charge of national security, would preside over the investigation of two trolley-car bombings in Moscow.
But these are only troika tryouts - maneuverings for position with Yeltsin. Should Yeltsin be incapacitated, one can expect some fierce Kremlin in-fighting of the kind that Russia is famous for. It tends to be like watching a wrestling match under a blanket - a lot of heaving and tugging until somebody emerges as the victor.
A Yeltsin intimate, Gennady Burbulis, says that creating dynamic tension among subordinates is part of Yeltsin's style and part of Russia's history. But it only works as long as Yeltsin makes it work.
*Daniel Schorr is senior news analyst for National Public Radio.