Andrei simply did not believe that Boris Yeltsin had resigned as Russia's president when I rang him on Friday after the surprise announcement. "No Russian with his snout in the trough ever took it out of his own accord," he grunted.
Andrei, a sunflower-oil and chewing-gum salesman, had not heard a word. He and his family were spending the New Year in Marx, a small country town on the Volga. He had been playing with his children, and none of them had thought to put the radio or television on. It has been a long time since the family listened to the news for fun, Andrei pointed out. During the extraordinary revelations of glasnost in the 1980s, they were all glued to their TV sets. These days the news is all bad, and still only some of it is true.
This is a country whose leaders fall hard, or die first. Ordinary Russians, so used to mysterious exits and disgraced leaders, don't quite know what to make of a man who voluntarily says his day is done. Many have greeted Yeltsin's decision with empathy; even people who had been talking with murderous hatred about Yeltsin during most of the 1990s were caught up in an emotional wave not unlike that which swept England upon the news of Princess Diana's death--as absurd as that may seem to Westerners.
It is a triumph, of sorts: Remember, this is the same politician whose popularity sank so low a year ago that to say his ratings had reached "single digits" was to exaggerate his support.
Twelve years ago, I went to the Soviet Union to begin research on a book about how ordinary people were reacting to the already failing Soviet dream--a dream of justice and equality in what many ordinary Russians thought of as the finest country in the world. The shift away from that continues to fascinate me, for no people has been more duped and abused by its leaders in the 20th century.
My travels in the provinces over the years have left me with friends that reflect the variety of Russian life--from members of religious sects in the depths of the Siberian forests to a businessman who lives most of the time in his white Mercedes, having made and lost his fortune three times in the last decade.
Like Andrei, none of the Russians I spoke with in the hours after Yeltsin, 68, resigned could think of another Russian leader who had stepped down voluntarily from power, unless you believe the popular myth that Czar Alexander III faked his death in 1894 in order to retire to a monastery.
Since Yeltsin's abdication, I have heard endearments that I can imagine no Westerner lavishing on any politician: "Poor darling, they've always had it in for him," as one woman I know put it, feeling it unnecessary to explain who "they" are.
Her sister agreed: "You're right. It's clear they're squeezing him out. It's too bad. He's a man with a great soul."
Men, too, were touched by Yeltsin's move. Instantly, their virulent hatred of him has been forgotten: "He's always been one of us--a muzhik, a real Russian," as Vasily, the caretaker in my friends' apartment building in the Siberian city of Tomsk, put it. Yeltsin's emotional farewell speech, broadcast on Russian TV, touched them.
Some said they loved the part in which he apologized to them for not having achieved as much as he had hoped to. "When did any leader ever apologize to us before?" asked Vasily, bemused.
Others were impressed with Yeltsin's astonishing political flair. Natasha, a librarian in the Siberian city of Novosibirsk, reacted to Yeltsin's act with admiration and affection: "You have to take off your hat to him--he's like a great Russian bear. He sits in his den and does nothing, and more nothing and you think he's past it. Then this. It's a masterstroke--he comes in with one great gesture, and he goes out with another!"
By the first gesture, she was referring to the day in August 1991 when Yeltsin made history by climbing onto a tank and resisting the Communist Party's coup attempt.
Natasha is right. Yeltsin's populist flair will ensure his greatness in the history books. Yet ordinary people have no reason to love him. He has presided over a most cataclysmic period for Russians. In the years since 1991, they have lost not just their empire and world status, but also their sense of a special messianic identity. The inflation that accompanied the transition from the old Soviet economy turned all but a corrupt elite into paupers and destroyed the peace of their cloistered lives.
My sophisticated Moscow friends talk in an altogether cooler way about the significance of Yeltsin's resignation. Mikhail, a talented doctor, has clients who allow themselves to be indiscreet in his offices. They point to pressure from Yeltsin's daughter and from the financier Boris Berezovsky, who has been guiding the Yeltsin family fortunes, to explain the former president's decision, Mikhail said. They say that Yeltsin stepped down simply to ensure the succession of his latest prime minister, Vladimir Putin, in the presidential election which is now scheduled for March. The recent halo effect from Putin's bloody and decisive leadership against the Chechens may well have faded by election time. But Putin, 47, will have spent three months as Russia's acting president. The Berezovsky clique must be reckoning that after such a boost Putin can hardly fail.
The Yeltsin clan's support for Putin is rooted in self-preservation, or so the gossips in Mikhail's offices say. In the post-Soviet kleptocracy over whose formation Yeltsin presided, he himself has emerged as one of the biggest thieves. Yeltsin is reputed to be one of the greatest aluminum magnates in Russia, and his personal fortune is rumored to amount to several billion dollars.
As an observer of Russia, I am encouraged by the sentimentality of ordinary people about Yeltsin. It may seem irrational to Westerners, but it is not dangerous. In the course of the last decade of the 20th century, Russians learned a painful and important lesson: They no longer love their leaders as they used to in the bad old Soviet days. In the new Russia, even emotions have been privatized. Now, the people give their hearts to politicians only when they are on their way out.
Susan Richards, a London-based writer and filmmaker, is the author of "Epics of Everyday Life: Encounters in a Changing Russia." (Viking/Penguin).