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What leads fine performers of Bach cello sonatas, Rachmaninov piano concertos, and Chekhov plays and stories to imagine they can enter Russian politics as nimbly as they move their fingers over their instruments and scores?

One answer Rostropovich the cellist, Petrov the pianist, and Mikhalkov the film-maker have given is that they have the right, and also the duty, to their country and to their countrymen, to speak the truth to power. In the revolutionary times we’ve been living through, and in a democracy, it’s not just artists who have this right. Everyone does, there are fewer Who feel and implement this duty, but artists are hardly exceptional.

Just so, when Russian artists speak to power as they do, using their reputation as their platform, they are not necessarily better equipped than anyone else to know the truth of which they speak. Rostropovich probably didn’t mean to demonstrate how little equipped he was, when, not long ago, he pronounced President Yeltsin to be in vigorous good-health.

Of course, if in order to talk politics to his countrymen, an artist climbs on the platform of a reputation made on the stage, he’s not exactly following a democratic impulse. He could be doing no more than populists and demagogues always do, pursuing the sound of applause for its own sake.

Russian voters have been proving for years now how quick they are at detecting this, and how reluctant they are to put their hands together.

They don’t know, and maybe they don’t care, that the Russian performing arts have remained one of the least reformed, least democratic areas of Russian life, since the collapse of Communism in 1991. What Russians expect from the artists they love most is a line to laugh at, a song to sing, and a story in which they can recognise themselves. If the artists can deliver those, they can do no harm, audiences think if they are despots offstage.

The greatest of those artists understand this. An actor like Yury Nikulin, the most loved of Russian comics, thought it a joke, and not a friendly one either, if anyone ever suggested he should take his popularity, and run with it for election. Nikulin knew everyone who counted in Russian politics. He enjoyed the respect they showed him. He liked making them laugh. But he never wanted to be one of them. That was one reason that at his death he was mourned by so many people.

As other talented performers and directors have grown older, it can happen that their .craving for applause remains undiminished, while their capacity to deserve it shrinks. That’s when some of them think the applause they have commanded from their stages can be turned into votes.

About this Mikhalkov the film-maker hasn’t minced words. He doesn’t claim, he’s been saying in many interviews, to be a democrat, or a socialist, or a capitalist, or a reformer. Without spelling out what those words and ideas mean, he’s added what he thinks is a fresh one — “We are without a national idea,” Mikhalkov said recently he’s discovered.

Since he’s not really wanting to go into politics, Mikhalkov has so far not bothered to fill in that gap, or explain why President Yeltsin’s lengthy commission to do the same thing doesn’t suit him. “I am not seeking power over people,” Mikhalkov has claimed. And in response to an endorsement for his presidential candidacy from Boris Berezovsky, Mikhalkov has said: “If I feel people really want me as president, then I would have to think seriously about it.”

That’s clever script-writing for a political film, but it’s missing something for the real race. Mikhalkov hasn’t said which people he feels most inclined to take seriously, when he makes up his mind about running for president. Does he mean Berezovsky? Or does he mean the audiences of potential voters he’s trying so hard to draV into viewing his latest film, “The Barber of Siberia”?

And that leaves every filmgoer in Russia with a predicament. If every pair of hands that applauds The Barber of Siberia could cast a vote for Mikhalkov, but the only pair of hands Mikhalkov takes seriously belong to Berezovsky, what should Russians do with their hands when the film is over, and the credits start to roll?

Is it possible for people Mikhalkov doesn’t seriously to put two hands together for the artist, and at the same time turn thumbs down for the presidential candidate?

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