Back in Moscow again, surprised at how happy I am to be so, I sit in my old office and read myself into the ‘story’. For five years I followed its twists and turns, its lumpy, incomprehensible lurches to and fro, its characters creating and re-creating themselves in the space which the great collapse of 1991 had cleared for them. Now, to try to locate myself, I read the press clippings of events I could barely follow from a distance, and catch at what seem to be the signs of the pre-election times.
Since Gennady Zyuganov, the Communist Party leader, is riding high, I read his file first. Pravda, full of bile and vitality once more, reports on Zyuganov’s speech at the CP Congress on 15 February, accepting the nomination as presidential candidate. He begins: ‘Comrades! It’s not necessary to explain that the post of head of such a huge country as this is not a prize taken by the victor after the election, but a heavy burden of responsibility. Whoever is elected, then, as president of the Russian people, must expect thorns rather than laurels.’ An uncertain, sombre tone for a candidate to strike in his moment of nomination. Going back a little in the file, I read Pavel Voshchanov – once Yeltsin’s press secretary, now Komsomolskaya Pravda’s star commentator – in his column of 31 January: ‘the Communists do not really want to be in power because they would have to take responsibility for all that happens – and if they fail, it would be their second exit from power, this time for a long time, perhaps for ever.’
Not long afterwards, I go to see Alexander Batanov, a smart, self-confident man in his thirties who has turned himself from an academic researcher into a political consultant. He has worked with Yuri Luzhkov, the mayor of Moscow, and helped engineer a public reconciliation between this wily former bureaucrat turned Mayor Daley, and Boris Yeltsin. The image is all over Moscow: a photograph of the two grasping each other’s hands and smiling into the camera, with the slogan ‘Muscovites have made their choice’ – an arrogant conflation of the mayor’s political calculations with his citizens’ votes, still to be cast. When the question of Zyuganov’s uncertainty is put to him, Batanov eagerly confirms it. ‘Zyuganov does not really want the job. He is of the generation of the Party who did not put themselves forward: they waited to be asked, and then humbly accepted. He has no psychological readiness for it. He was in the second or third echelon of the Party, far from any prospect of power.’ Batanov, who was called in by the Communists to give advice (which he says got nowhere), was recruited to Yeltsin’s campaign team, and worked the press who travelled with the President. Zyuganov is famously shifty, promising American capitalists to be tough on law and order so that their businesses will be safer than in Yeltsin’s Russia, thundering against the West for plotting to destroy Russia’s greatness in meetings on the stump. In an interview last year, I asked him if he were a Marxist: ‘You know, they say Jesus Christ was the first Marxist.’ Asked if he were a Christian, he replied: ‘You know, they often say that Christianity was the forerunner of socialism.’