The Breakfast Table

Yeltsin, the Undead

Dear Neal,

Greetings from the Garden State! (By the way, I’m just back from a delightful weekend in Boston.) Kremlinology 101 is, I’m starting to think, a lifelong continuing-education course. In the Times, Celestine Bohlen suggests that we’re back to the old days when Russian politics were shaped by backroom intrigues rather than open democratic and parliamentary processes. Of course, it’s not exactly as though behind-the-scenes dealings has no part in the political life of Western democracies (just ask Dick Morris!). And in today’s Russia, there’s at least one crucial difference from the Communist era: Back then, Western observers had to conjecture about the goings-on in the Kremlin from such obscure signs as who was standing where on the Lenin Mausoleum during an official ceremony. Today, the players talk openly to the Western media, and the Russian press is avidly following news and rumors about the maneuvering at the top.

That aside, there is no question that the state of Russian politics today is pretty appalling. For all the talk of reformers vs. Communists, I don’t think anyone is championing real economic reform anymore; I suspect that, as you fear, it’s just different factions seeking power for power’s sake. (Did you know that both Yevgeny Primakov and his successor, Sergei Stepashin, started out as career KGB men?) Even if Yeltsin did once sincerely embrace the principles of liberal democracy, it looks as if the only part of his brain still functioning is the part determined not to leave office except in a pine box. I think his biggest mistake was to run for a second term. For the past year the man has looked like an extra from Night of the Living Dead, minus the rotting flesh–or like Brezhnev in his final years, when all of Russia was telling forbidden jokes about his senility.

I’ve had a tough time making up my mind about Kosovo/Serbia, so I’ll just lob your question back at you: Where do you stand on the conflict? Are we bungling a just and noble war effort, or was the intervention misguided in the first place?

The news about women in the workforce, I think, is generally good. The dual-earner family has its tensions and problems, but I think both conservatives and liberals tend to exaggerate them–the former to advocate sending women back home, the latter to advocate more government programs. (There’s a big difference, it seems to me, between a working woman raising five kids on her own–I certainly sympathize!--and two working parents raising two or three kids together.) Using unemployment insurance funds to help parents spend time at home is an interesting idea, though. I have been thinking for a while that we should have (voluntary) insurance policies enabling workers to take time off for family needs.

Speaking of male-female issues, have you seen the fascinating exchange between Lionel Tiger (a former professor of mine at Rutgers) and Barbara Ehrenreich in the June issue of Harper’s about the decline of males? Do you feel in decline?