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By John Helmer

In 1833, four years before his wife’s flirtation caused the death, in a duel, of Alexander Pushkin, Russia’s greatest poet, he wrote her a warning letter.

“You like it when the dogs trail after you like a bitch in heat,” Pushkin said bluntly. “All you have to do is make sure everyone knows, ‘I love it’. That’s the whole secret of flirting. As long as there’s a trough, the swine will find it.”

When President Boris Yeltsin, his daughter Tatiana Dyachenko, his chief of staff Alexander Voloshin, and his successor-to-be, Vladimir Putin, were discussing recently what to do to assure their futures, they thought they could play the part of the alluring wife, Natalia Goncharova — at least to the financial oligarchs of Russia, to the proprietors of the media, and also to Russia’s voters. All they had to do, they decided, was to fill the trough. The pigs were certain to follow, they thought.

But what if they were mistaken, and it turns out they have chosen the ill-fated part of Pushkin?

The reaction of some of Russia’s most ambitious politicians, men like Samara Governor Konstantin Titov, Saratov Governor Dmitri Ayatskov, and Sverdlovsk Governor Eduard Rossel, demonstrates their readiness to challenge newly appointed Prime Minister Putin the minute he shows vulnerability, or fails to attract the money and votes required to become president.

The same can be said of the reaction to his appointment this week of those unelectable ex-ministers, the reformers who once counted on Yeltsin’s affection — flirts like Boris Nemtsov, Yegor Gaidar, Sergei Kirienko, Boris Fyodorov, and Anatoly Chubais.

Chubais, it is now known, tried, but failed to talk Yeltsin out of promoting Putin. The others have condemned the move almost as bluntly as once Pushkin did Goncharova. This is not faithlessness toward Yeltsin. It is jealousy of Putin. They want nothing more than to return to Yeltsin’s bosom, and be loved again — as his prime minister, his presidential groom.

But what trough have they to offer the swine that compares with Putin now? That was the question which the Kremlin circle thought long and hard over.

For the young reformers, as for the likes of Titov, the trough of public funds — on-budget, off-budget, and in reserve — with which to fatten their supporters is too poor nowadays. They whisper to their friends that Putin, with his fluency in German, the language of central bankers; with his experience of fattening the electors of St. Petersburg, and the clients of the presidential business administration — Putin the prime minister must be overthrown, before the trough can be theirs again.

We are speaking, mind you, of the most ardent hearts in the government’s court, now gossiping maliciously, now plotting against the favourite.

How can Yeltsin’s flirtation for his fresh young prime minister be consummated, when so many of Yeltsin’s loves are so hostile? When those who love his favourite as he does himself are so few?

The answer to these vexing questions can be found in the plot that killed Pushkin. Was there ever a love so tender it could not be maddened beyond control by slander and compromising scandals? Was there ever a man of quality so cool as not to be trapped by his own vainglory?

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