Natasha Ignatova, a 51-year-old widow, heard about the latest shock from the Kremlin when she flipped on the television in her St. Petersburg apartment at noon today.
Finally, she thought to herself, Yeltsin has fired himself. "He should have done it a long time ago," she said, celebrating the holiday--and the resignation--in a friend's living room. "He is old and senile, he speaks only with papers, and [even] that with difficulty. We need someone smart in power. It was just laughable that he was still there."
But Ignatova's relief was tempered with concern. She thinks Yeltsin only resigned now to ensure the election of his hand-picked successor, Vladimir Putin, and she doesn't like the idea that he is altering the normal political process. "We don't know anything about Putin," she said. "And that is a little bit frightening."
Such a mix of emotions was common in Moscow and St. Petersburg as Russians grappled with the astonishing news that after 8 1/2 years, Yeltsin is no longer their president. It was, some said, the kind of sudden, grand gesture so typical of Yeltsin, grabbing global attention with a last burst of fireworks as the world celebrated the advent of a new millennium.
Few were in tears about it. Not Ignatova, who lives on her meager savings and what she can grow in the garden of her country house since the computer company where she worked collapsed and closed--her third layoff. Not Olga Vedeneyeva, who has been reduced to selling cheese in her village at the Konkova food market in southwestern Moscow. "What I am doing here?" she asked plaintively, looking out at the tables strewn with fish and mandarins. "I have two diplomas. . . ."
Not Luda Yefimova, 37, who is on her feet 12 hours a day, seven days a week, selling fruit at the same market, because the $4 a day she brings home is four times what she earned as a medical worker. Not Andrei Razumkov, a Moscow security worker shopping for kitchen utensils who described himself as so disgusted with Yeltsin that "I have simply no words, really."
But if many Russians were just as glad to get rid of an unpopular, sedentary president, they were not so unanimous about accepting Putin as more than a temporary replacement. Russians are used to pre-ordained leaders, and some are quite happy that Yeltsin picked a young, energetic, seemingly decisive successor. But others said the fact that Yeltsin made Putin acting president now would have no effect on whom they voted for in the election expected to take place in late March.
Ludimila Artemyeva, who sold out of grilled chicken at the busy Konkova market, said since Yeltsin had chosen his successor, he might as well speed up the elections. "This just guarantees that Putin will be president," she said. Asked about other possible contenders, like Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov, she responded: "What does he have to do with this? I also want to be president, but this doesn't depend on us."
But Sergei Kovalov, 45, a financial analyst who forecasts currency rates, said he doesn't approve of Putin, nor of Yeltsin trying to ordain Putin by resigning six months before the end of his term.
He was working on his computer at home when he heard the news on the radio. "It is a frightening situation," he said. "It is frightening when a totally obscure person emerges, a gray person, who is suddenly projected as a presidential candidate. Maybe Yeltsin has decided not to lose Putin's high rating and to reinforce this with a quick election. But Putin has yet to demonstrate himself as a politician. He hasn't dealt with the economy. He has only been occupied by war" in the breakaway region of Chechnya.
Alexander Klimentenko, a security worker waiting for his wife at the Konkova market, said Putin has been the de facto president, and might as well have the title now. But he still plans to vote for former prime minister Yevgeny Primakov. "This will make it simpler for Putin, and harder for Primakov," he conceded. "But I think Primakov is more honest, and I will vote for him."
Then there are those who are almost too worn out to care--like Uta Marek, a mother of two living in northern Moscow. "Basically no one is surprised by this," she said when she heard what Yeltsin had done, "because everyone is tired of being surprised by everything."
Or Larisa Aliabyeva, a French teacher in southern Moscow. "I believed in Yeltsin, and he failed to justify my faith, and all our hopes and expectations," she said as she set out plates in her apartment. "After that, I no longer want to let these things get to me anymore."