The act of resigning from supreme office was a novelty introduced to Russian politics, under some duress, by Mikhail Gorbachev. His example having been followed nine years later by Boris Yeltsin, Russia has been able to contain for the past fifteen months the presence of two past leaders of the nation, and one incumbent, alive at the same time. The overlap may be without precedent in all Russian history.
Admittedly, it has been touch and go how long that coexistence might last. Until mid-March Boris Yeltsin was lying in the suburban Moscow hospital where he retreated before his seventieth birthday in February. Newspapers were holding ready their obituaries. Yeltsin was said to have a “slight temperature”—though one less serious, apparently, than his “sore throat” of July 1996, which was finally treated only with quintuple heart bypass surgery a few months later.
Yeltsin’s successor, Vladimir Putin, by contrast, has the rather terrifying air of a man who could well be around forever. A year into his presidency, he remains very popular and very powerful. The Russian constitution should limit him to eight years in office—but then he could rewrite the constitution, as other Russian leaders have done before him. A mere forty-eight now, it is hard to imagine him, at the age of fifty-six, exchanging the Kremlin voluntarily for twenty years on the international conference circuit.
Still, Putin doubtless looks sideways now and again at Mikhail Gorbachev for hints of how a reasonably fit retired Russian leader might hope to survive. And here the news is improving. After a decade of being reviled and ridiculed the length of Russia, Gorbachev is regaining respect, even affection. The tide of public sympathy began to turn in 1999 when he lost his wife, Raisa, to leukemia. His seventieth birthday on March 2 this year provoked flattering comparisons with the bedridden Yeltsin, sympathetic profiles in the main Russian newspapers, and a week of parties and press conferences.
It is clear, too, that the retirement of Yeltsin from public life has been satisfying for Gorbachev. Yeltsin’s stab at reforming Russia along Western lines is deemed now to have failed. Yeltsin himself is in no physical state to mount a rear-guard defense of it. So there is an excellent chance that the verdict of history will finally go Gorbachev’s way. He, not Yeltsin, will be seen as the founding figure of post-Communist Russia, whatever that Russia might turn out to be.
Comforted by that expectation, Gorbachev has learned at last to stop behaving like a bad-tempered member of the political opposition, as he did under Yeltsin, and to start enjoying the same status of dignified elder statesman at home that he has long accepted in the West. He runs an insignificant political party of his own, the Social Democratic Party, but his more important contribution to political life these days is his support for Putin. He was asked recently if he agreed with the many Russian liberals who claim Putin is turning …