Russia: Still Seeking The Good Life -- Yeltsin: Window-Shopping For Airplanes And Software

FIVE years ago this month, Boris Yeltsin visited America for the first time. Despite his crazy schedule, he managed to sneak out to a grocery store in Houston.

The visit, according to Yeltsin's aide, made the former Politburo member dizzy, pensive, mad and humiliated. Oranges, cheese, small showers for radishes, red light beams scanning black-and-white stripes on bright-colored packages at the checkout counter all were too much to handle even for such a tough guy as Yeltsin.

His cherished motherland, having withstood hordes of invaders and the nation that sent the first man into space, failed to provide those simple conveniences to its long-suffering people.

The mindset of a whole life crumbled. The shock was probably even mightier than the one from the wretched hand grenade which a teenage Boris stole from an army depot and whacked with an axe to impress his buddies, leaving his left hand without two fingers.

Back in the old USSR, I loved Yeltsin for revealing his culture shocks to the public, which was unlike Mikhail Gorbachev, who kept extolling socialism while quietly enjoying capitalist decadence on frequent trips to the West.

Life in Russia is no longer measured in five-year plans, thanks to Yeltsin and, to some extent, his trip to America back in 1989. But Russia's woes today are as immeasurable as when Yeltsin assumed power after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

The image of a pineapple towering from a golden sea of bananas is no longer a symbol of Western superiority and communist failure. Most Russians can now go to vegetable stores and ogle bananas, kiwis, coconuts or avocados. A few might even be able to afford them once in a while. By any yardstick, this is a far cry from the past when champagne corks popped and banners were raised to mark the annual delivery of green bananas to a neighborhood store.

But the presence of seductive tokens of capitalism in Russian stores does not put bread on the table. The former Soviet middle class is crumbling, as millions of employees are owed several months' wages and the Russian equivalents of GM, GE and Boeing are grinding to a halt. Bread and milk, not pineapples, are still the backbone of the Russian diet. The struggle for bread and milk is still as tough as before.

This month, for the first time since Yeltsin assumed power, the number of Russians who want Yeltsin to resign exceeded the number of those who would want him to stay as president. The opinion poll was conducted by a research team friendly to Yeltsin. The gloss is off the once impeccable "Bob Nikolaevich," as his Kremlin pals used to call him when democracy was hip.

This Thursday, Seattle hosts the Russian president. Yeltsin will be taking a northwestern route home following his U.N. speech in New York and a summit with President Clinton. For the first time, a Russian leader will be welcomed to Blair House across from the White House - lodgings of important, preferred visitors - rather than staying at his embassy.

Seattle is an important stop for Yeltsin. The site of the 1990 Goodwill Games and the first Russian consulate in the U.S. after the Cold War, Seattle is an ideal place for Yeltsin to take credit for the collapse of communism and the beginning of Western-style reforms in Russia. Seattle is also attractive as home of two industries in which Russia wants to participate on a global scale: aviation and computer software.

For Yeltsin, Seattle is a good place to show the Russians that Bob Nikolaevich can deliver on job security and greater access to world markets. Yeltsin's abysmal ratings, however, mean that Russians may not trust him. In any event, he has to work against stiff odds.

Making a big deal out of the newly available Western goods has earned Yeltsin a new nickname in Russia: "The Banana." Its origin can be traced to Yeltsin's nationwide TV appearance several months ago, when a number of Russia's nouveau poor complained to their president about high bread prices, long lines for subsidized milk, and long-unpaid wages. Yeltsin's response struck many viewers as dumb and arrogant: "So what? After all, our stores carry bananas!"

Thus, no need to be surprised if you go to Moscow and hear people talk in riddles, like: "The Banana is off to the Black Sea" or "The Puffed-up Banana's taking his wife to Seattle." They refer to Yeltsin. While seemingly innocent, the banana image can be deadly in Russia, feeding on the teeming anger with the eternal screwed-upedness of Russian life and pent-up racist machismo unchallenged by civil-rights movements.

Too many bad symbols are easily evoked by this tropical fruit in the minds of many Russians: Russia sold into slavery to the rich nations; Russia raped by Western entrepreneurs; exotic and unaffordable promises of prosperity after the Soviet collapse; impotent government; a wimpy vegetarian diet.

"Banana Boris" is exactly the kind of popular nickname that heralded the undoing of Russian leaders who tinkered with populism in the past: Nikita Khrushchev became "The Bald Corn Jerk" after ordering farmers to plant corn everywhere, even north of the Arctic Circle. Despite his liberalism, he was little missed by the middle class when ousted by Leonid Brezhnev.

Gorbachev's career took an early nose-dive when his anti-alcohol campaign spawned long vodka lines, labeled "Gorbachev nooses." The diminutive "Spotted Mishka" only added insult to injury. When tanks rolled in the streets of Moscow in August 1991, people came to fight for Yeltsin, a tough guy friendly to vodka and against the coup plotters associated with the "Gorbachev nooses."

In fact, Yeltsin has inherited not only Gorbachev's office in the Kremlin and Gorbachev's American mantle of Our Dearest Russian, but also the fatal Gorbachev paradox: popular abroad, ridiculed and abandoned at home.

Yeltsin is still justly respected for bringing down the party stranglehold on Russia in 1991, as Gorbachev was respected for launching glasnost in 1985. Both Yeltsin and Gorbachev, however, unleashed forces more powerful than they could control.

Yeltsin's failure to deliver on the promise of better life - first in 500 days, then in three years - gave rise to political forces allergic to democracy and free markets. Monthly speeches by Vladimir Zhirinovsky in Moscow's Sokolniki Park are among the hottest shows in town. He wins a lot of listeners by claiming that the United States is winning the "bloodless Third World War" and Russia needs to expand its territory and markets by flexing its still-formidable nuclear muscle.

More recently, Zhirinovsky challenged the Yeltsin Cabinet to a 12-hour sex marathon and made a pledge to conceive a child in every province of Russia to reverse the declining birth rate. A puffed-up banana he is not, was the subtle message.

Tapping the widespread anger at the loss of the Cold War is Gen. Alexander Lebed, commander of the 14th Army stationed in Moldova, a former Soviet republic bordering Romania. Judging from the Radio Free Europe reports, he is probably the most popular figure among the Russian military. A veteran of Afghanistan in charismatic fatigues, he dons the rough-and-tough look of someone impervious to water, fire and land mines. He is easily seen leading the way to warm-water ports on the Mediterranean or restoring Eastern Europe as the Red Army's playground. Attempts to oust him by downgrading the 14th Army to a division last month misfired after Lebed went to Moscow and had a one-on-one chat with Yeltsin behind closed doors.

Another Afghan hero looking for opportunities is Alexander Rutskoi, who was elected on the same ticket with Yeltsin as Russia's vice president, then thrown into a KGB prison. Tank salvos, smoke and fire, and Russians killing Russians in the heart of Russia were the price paid by Yeltsin to put his former running mate behind bars. Reflecting the mood of many Russians, Alexei Kazannik, who gave up his seat on the Supreme Soviet in favor of Yeltsin in 1989, thought that Yeltsin overstepped the mark by attacking the parliament last October. Kazannik issued an amnesty to Rutskoi and then resigned as Russia's chief prosecutor.

But the hottest of them all, a force larger than Yeltsin, Rutskoi or a dozen Zhirinovskys, is Lyonia Golubkov, a hero in a series of popular Russian TV commercials.

Lyonia operates an excavator and one day decides to risk investing his wages into the MMM mutual fund. It's a tough decision: Like most of his compatriots, Lyonia has something of a savvy, suspicious peasant, the one who plowed the Russian plains for centuries and looked askance at Western ideas.

After about a month, suspicion overwhelms Lyonia and he goes to MMM to get his money back. To his amazement, jumbo dividends have accrued. He can now afford to buy winter boots for his wife, Rita. They rejoice and immediately go back to invest more. Soon, this typical Russian family is planning to buy a house. "In Paris, perhaps?" Rita asks Lyonia. "And why not!" he replies. After more than 10 million Russians overcame their ancestral suspicions and entrusted their salaries, student grants and pensions to MMM, the pyramid scheme went bust in late July.

Yeltsin refused to underwrite MMM and its chairman was put in custody. The dream of a pair of winter boots and a house in Paris popped like a soap bubble, like Khrushchev's promise of a consumer paradise where everything is cost-free by 1980 or Gorbachev's promise of an apartment to each Soviet family by 2000. The middle class quickly figured it out; communism or capitalism, Khrushchev or Yeltsin, the good life is pie in the sky.

If elections were held today, Yeltsin would be unlikely to win more than 20 percent of the vote. One in three of his former supporters would probably abstain, according to Yeltsin's Center for the Study of Public Opinion.

In his first autobiography, Yeltsin said he had lived three lives: one of an ordinary Soviet citizen who made it to the Politburo; one of a political outcast; and one of a popular leader of the Russian people. Those lives earned him a place in the history books.

After his lunch presentation in Seattle this week, he deserves a solid round of applause. But while we applaud and respect Yeltsin the Man, the decline of Yeltsin the President will continue. The Russia of today is slipping away from "Banana Boris" and craves a different leader. Someone, perhaps, who would fulfill the promise of a better life for most ordinary Russians.

Mikhail Alexseev, former Kremlin correspondent, is a doctoral candidate in political science at the University of Washington.