As the chardonnay flowed, the debate swung back and forth. One camp insisted he was at death's door, crippled by heart attacks and possibly a series of minor strokes. After all, during a trip to Sweden a few months earlier, was he not said to be so drained and confused that he could only work for one hour at a time before retiring to an armchair to stare vacantly into space? Was he not continuing to fall sick at regular intervals, despite a quintuple coronary bypass that was supposed to make him fit enough to play tennis? The other, minority, contingent believed he could see in the next century. Had he not, they reasoned, appeared almost daily on television, albeit in edited extracts, in which he was mobile, fairly articulate and sometimes even vociferous?
The issue unresolved, an impromptu opinion poll was taken around the table: estimates of his survival chances ranged from a couple of months to a decade. Such arguments abound when it comes to the volatile 67-year- old Siberian who runs the world's largest country, a former super-power with a vast arsenal of nuclear weapons.
Boris Yeltsin evokes these utterly opposing responses. At times he seems more dead than alive, a living corpse no more capable of governing than the petrified body of Lenin entombed in Red Square. And at times he appears to be a viable leader who may yet seek a third term as president. For some, he remains the destroyer of Communism who, albeit cack-handedly, is trying to build democracy and a market economy in a difficult, criminalised country. For others, he is an autocrat, who has done more to establish his place in the list of pre-Revolutionary tsars than cure the ills of a nation disorientated by the loss of an empire. He has, jokingly, called himself "Tsar Boris" and, like royalty, he is surrounded by courtiers prepared to go to Byzantine lengths to pamper him: when he went fishing last summer, his chosen lake was stocked with an extra 10,000 trout and perch. God forbid that Tsar Boris should not catch a fish.
But in one area there is agreement, the Boris Yeltsin of 1998 is not the leader we once thought he was. He is not the extrovert populist, the snowy-haired standard-bearer of freedom and democracy who, during the failed old Soviet hard-liners' coup of 1991, was ready to risk his neck by making a defiant speech from the turret of a tank. The Boris Yeltsin of 1998 is a changed man, an isolated figure who is brooding over a career full of contradictions, of genuine triumphs juxtaposed with horrible mistakes. A career which has been determined more by pragmatism, guesswork and a remarkable survival instinct than by any ideology. Bound up within his hefty, 6ft 4in frame are the instincts of a bullying tsar - willing to shed blood to get his way - a genuinely inspired rebel, and a rough-hewn democrat. Short-term expediency and his own erratic moods dictate which streak prevails.
Advisers have come and gone with the cycle of the political seasons. The Kremlin's hawkish "party of war" - the unsavoury generals and boozing chums widely blamed for embroiling Russia in the war in Chechnya - was dumped before his re-election in 1996. The high-priest of the so-called "young reformers", Anatoly Chubais, has been fired, and so have a clutch of his disciples, their names tarnished by a corruption scandal. Even Viktor Chernomyrdin, the seasoned and pragmatic prime minister who spent five years at Yeltsin's side, is now out of office. The changes reflect his governing style: no one in his circle is allowed to grow too strong; each lives with the risk of falling victim to a perpetual juggling game in which Yeltsin plays one rival off against another.
What remains, as he enters the twilight of his time in the Kremlin, is "The Family", a core of relatives and advisers including the younger of his two daughters, the tough-nut Tatyana Dyach-enko. Working with her is his chief of staff, Valentin Yumashev, a journalist friend of Yeltsin's who ghost-wrote his two autobiographies, and Sergei Yastrzhembsky, his super-smooth chief spokesman, spin doctor and damage controller. They have no formal political allegiances of their own, so Yeltsin - who has an almost paranoiac need to centre power on himself - is unlikely to see them as potential challengers. "Yeltsin remembers the senile Brezhnev, who was surrounded by people of his own age," wrote Elena Dikun, a commentator in the Obshchaya Gazeta newspaper. "He wants to create the image of the patriarch, surrounded by loving and talented youth."
After this triad comes a second tranche: Yuri Yarov and Mikhail Komissar, Yumashev's dep-uties, and the secretary of the Security Council, Andrei Kokoshin. But Tatyana, 37, is the one who packs the punch. Although a scientist by training, with a soft-spoken voice and methodical manner, she has mastered the art of court politics. The Kremlin staff is said to be scared of her; some call her "the tsarevna" - the princess. She was officially named as a presidential adviser last summer, but she had been playing a leading role behind the scenes as the main conduit to "Papa" for at least a year beforehand - particularly during the election campaign in 1996 in which Yeltsin's team turned his rock-bottom ratings into a decisive victory against the Communist challenger, Gennady Zyuganov. Tatyana's was not the first Yeltsin appointment that smacked of nepotism: Valery Okulov, husband of his elder daughter Yelena, is general director of the Russian airline Aeroflot.
Constantly pressuring Yeltsin's inner circle are the handful of moguls and bankers whose dollars helped secure his re-election, led by the billionaire car, oil and media magnate Boris Bere-zovsky, a friend of Tatyana's. Chief among their aims is to maintain a political environment in which they can increase their fortunes and acquire stakes in the prize government property soon to be sold off - notably the state-owned oil-company Rosneft. But even they, the booyars (nobles) of the court, have discovered their limits; when Berezovsky tried to dictate Yeltsin's choice of prime minister, his wishes were ignored.
These days "The Family" is responsible for crafting the President's image, carefully orchestrating a sequence of performances that are meant to convey strength and decisiveness. Their principle tools are his choreographed TV appearances in the Kremlin, his weekly address on national radio and his occasional, usually colourful, visits abroad. And Yeltsin has not entirely lost his golden touch: when he arrived in Japan on 18 April for a weekend summit with Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto, he was photographed grinning broadly and energetically ripping off his silk tie. The press had been told repeatedly that the talks would be conducted in a relaxed atmosphere, "byez galstukov" - without ties. The president, who was looking forward to some fishing, a favourite hobby, made the point in consummate style. Rarely is he so inspired these days. More often, he seems unpredictable and temperamental.
Diplomats and financial institutions were still trying to fathom the logic of his sudden firing of the entire government on 23 March, a decision which prompted a month-long confrontation with the State Duma (the lower house of parliament) over his inexperienced new prime minister, Sergei Kiriyenko. The decision looked impulsive and ill-thought-out, although some of those who know the President deny this. "That was a long-planned decision," said his former aide, Georgy Satarov.
But there is another factor here, a streak of perversity that suggests that this is a politician who may have been better suited to a life in maverick opposition than wielding power. While much of his behaviour reflects nothing more than a populist's appetite for headlines, some of it belongs to a more mysterious category. Some of it is the conduct of a man whose political need for the limelight has long been entwined with a personal desire for attention which goes well beyond the requirements of high office. Evidence of this - and hints, too, of a growing tendency towards mental confusion - is plentiful. His extravagant warnings of a "world war" during the crisis over UN chemical-weapons inspectors in Iraq caused embarrassment among some Moscow commentators. So did his performance in Stockholm in December, where he suddenly offered to cut Russia's nuclear weapons by a third, a declaration that sent his aides scurrying to correct it. This tendency, partly born of a showman's addiction to the grand gesture is not new.
ALTHOUGH WRITTEN with self-promotion in mind, Yeltsin's autobiography Against The Grain has such a Walter Mitty flavour that it is hard not to burst out laughing. He casts himself in the role of the Russian folk hero, a strapping Siberian peasant lad who revels in his own maverick nature. Born in 1931 in Butka, a village in the eastern Urals, he traces his evolution from civil engineer, to apparatchik, to leader. It began in earnest at the late age of 30, when he joined the Communist Party, embarking on a journey in which he became the boss of the Sverdlovsk region under Brezhnev and then, at the suggestion of Gorbachev in 1985, the party's first secretary in Moscow.
The narrative is studded with self-serving accounts of derring-do: he faces down his violent father, who would take the strap to him for other children's crimes; he is expelled from school after publicly denouncing an oppressive teacher; he solves a physics problem, to the delight of his professor, that no other student in a decade had managed to crack. Modest, he is not. This, for example, is Yeltsin describing how he developed a love for volleyball: "I liked the way the ball obeyed me, that I could catch even the most impossible ball with an unbelievable leap."
Lurking within this self-infatuation is a destructive force, one touched upon in an intriguing incident related by Mikhail Gorbachev in his Memoirs (1995). It happened, says the former Soviet President, in 1987 when Yeltsin was the party boss in Moscow. He was a national figure by now, although his career was teetering after he had delivered a speech to the Communist Party's Central Committee in which he laid into Gorbachev for encouraging a culture of self-glorification, demanding to be allowed to resign from his Moscow job and the Politburo, and announcing that perestroika was going nowhere. The punishment for this tirade was exile to a pen-pushing job in the construction ministry. Gorbachev alleges that several weeks after his performance, Yeltsin faked an attempt at suicide by scoring his ribs with a pair of office scissors, causing a superficial injury but one that covered him in spectacular quantities of blood. Gorbachev says that several years later Yeltsin claimed he had been attacked with a knife by two hooligans whom (ever the mythic hero) he "tossed about like kittens", but who managed to injure him all the same. This explanation cut no ice with his old adversary. "By then," Gorbachev remarks sourly, "I had already discovered Yeltsin's talent for fiction."
Of course, Gorbachev has plenty of reasons to plaster mud over the man who helped end his job and the Soviet Union. Other references to suicidal tendencies are also made by Alexander Korz-hakov, a former KGB general who was Yelt-sin's bodyguard, drinking companion, tennis partner and confidant for more than a decade. In June 1996, during the presidential election campaign, however, Korzhakov was fired by Yeltsin after the latter's henchmen arrested two top election aides who were mysteriously carrying US$500,000 in cash out of the White House (the government's headquarters) - an incident which brought Korz-hakov into open conflict with Anatoly Chubais, then one of Yeltsin's closest aides. Spurned by both a President and a friend to whom he had been doggedly loyal, Korzhakov went public. He alleged that Yeltsin had twice tried to commit suicide - by locking himself in a baking hot bath house, and by jumping from a bridge into the Moscow River in 1989. Can both men be wrong?
Certainly, they both have hefty axes to grind. They belong to the lengthy list of people who have become enemies of Boris Yeltsin and ended up developing an urge to inform the outside world about his wrong-doings. Other big names on this roster include Alexander Lebed, the former paratrooper general, and presidential candidate whom Yeltsin swept into the Kremlin as head of the security council before the last round of the 1996 election, and then booted out four months later. A vengeful Lebed has been on the election trail ever since.
The events Gorbachev and Korzhakov relate have never been entirely cleared up by the Pres-ident, who has admitted to suffering from "dark thoughts". There is little doubt that he ended up, somehow or other, with cut ribs on one occasion, and in the river on another. He has hinted that his ducking was the work of the KGB, acting on his rival Gorbachev's instructions, but the muddled circumstances surrounding the incident remain one of the least satisfactory parts of his biography. Taken together, these events go well beyond the behaviour of a publicity seeker and an extrovert political stuntman. Indeed, they also go beyond the likely exploits of the swashbuckling boozer that Yeltsin certainly once was. Not that there has been any shortage of the latter.
Seething with resentment, Korzhakov has made sure that the world does not forget what he calls his former boss's "weakness". Out of the Kremlin, he wrote a best-selling book which - among many other allegations - gave a detailed account of the embarrassing fracas in Berlin when Yeltsin ended up drunkenly conducting a police orchestra.
These days, Korzhakov, is continuing cheerfully to rubbish his former friend and boss. The portly former KGB man can now be found in a small office in the Duma cut off from any access to the Kremlin's inner circle. Boris Yeltsin is, he explains with apparent relish, "a Soviet-style leader" who is operating in a climate which is "without a sniff of democracy". He complains that "Yeltsin has completed his historical role. He should go peacefully, without waving his paper fists in the air."
THESE ARE, of course, the words of an embittered man. History will almost certainly be kinder. For all his shortcomings, Boris Yeltsin will be credited with some significant achievements. Russians can speak, publish and travel freely. True, much of the mass media has fallen into the hands of a small coterie of moguls and banks whose financial interests are indistinguishable from their political aims, who are greedily carving up the nation's assets and resources, and who now seek to determine the Kremlin's next occupant. But a manipulated, mogul-run media is scarcely unique to Russia.
Although, by bombarding the parliament in 1993, Yeltsin himself established the disgraceful precedent of using military force to enforce a political goal, the country has not slumped into prolonged violence and nor is there any likelihood that it will. Under his wily foreign minister Yevgeny Primakov, Russian diplomacy has recovered a little of its lost muscle, albeit it at the price of annoying the West (especially the US) by renewing ties with Iran, Iraq and China. Yeltsin may have taken a hit with the plans to expand Nato to include former Warsaw Pact members, but he can at least claim to have secured Russia's much-coveted place in the G7 group of industrialised nations which - renamed G8 - is due to meet in Britain in mid-May. No country the size of Russia could fail to throw its weight around in its backyard but, for the most part, the former Soviet republics are now gradually accruing de facto independence. The rouble is stable, and inflation is under control; a presidential election came and went; these are no mean achievements. That, then, is the mitigating argument; the rap sheet is also long.
Top of the list is by far the biggest blemish on his presidency the war in Chechnya in which tens of thousands of civilians needlessly died, not least because Yeltsin - mindful of the success of the stuntman nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky in the parliamentary elections of 1993 - wanted to prove his own hardman, right-wing credentials.
Far from being eradicated, crime and corruption infect every level of society. The military is in chaos as the third Defence Minister in as many years struggles to implement reforms. The constitution which Yeltsin created is blatantly violated by no lesser figure than the Mayor of Moscow, Yuri Luzhkov, who still insists, illegally, that his citizens have residence permits before allowing them to live in the capital. The country's legal framework, seven years after the collapse of the USSR, is still riddled with loopholes and contradictions. As worrying, from the viewpoint of democracy, is the fact that a representative variety of meaningful political parties, answerable to an informed electorate, has yet to evolve. Boris Yeltsin, meanwhile, has steadfastly refused to have a party of his own. As Russian commentator John Lloyd observed in his recent study of Russia, Rebirth of a Nation, a party would require a policy. Yeltsin would hate to be so restricted.
There will, of course, be a discrepancy between history's verdict of this contradictory man, and that of his own people. These days he is, at best, tolerated by a electorate which has miserably low expectations of its political system - a system in which the concept that leaders are answerable to the electorate has yet to be properly established.
Once again Yeltsin's popularity rating has slumped into single figures, where it seems destined to remain until the bulk of Russia's 147 million people begin to share in some of the economic gains that are currently enjoyed only by a small, rich, cosmopolitan elite. His enemies - Alexander Lebed, Mikhail Gorbachev, the hapless Communist leader Gennady Zyuganov and others - are circling, hoping to see him ousted from the Kremlin in the 2000 elections.
In the meantime, the dinner-party speculation will go on. The odds are that there will be more surprises. It is, after all, part of his nature. "He likes the struggle," said his former aide, Georgy Satarov. As the debate continues about his survival chances, one small detail should not be overlooked: all his grandfathers and great grandfathers lived to be over 90. Boris Yeltsin is not dead yet. !