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Russia's reckoning: History may still be kind to Yeltsin

SICKLY, ERRATIC and with hardly an ally in sight, the tsar is surely in the last twilight of his rule, no matter what he told the Russian people last night. But Boris Yeltsin may take heart at least that the ways of Russia with its former rulers are far gentler than before.

In no other country perhaps, is the temptation so great to try to predict the future by studying the past. Russia is mysterious. But it also tended to be a place where history moved in cycles, where out of periods of weakness and confusion mighty, usually brutal, autocrats would emerge to rebuild the state.

Now the latest "time of troubles" has descended upon the land. From the economic, social and political rubble perhaps another great leader and saviour will appear. But in today's more open and partially democratic Russia, who knows? Only one thing is sure. Mr Yeltsin need not worry for his skin.

Indeed, the crucial negotiations in Moscow to resolve the present crisis largely revolve around the terms of his political demise. A transfer of some of his quasi-dictatorial powers to the Duma, or parliament, is one ingredient in the bargain. He is also being offered a decent pension and immunity from prosecution once he does step down.

How different from Russia's old days, when those who failed in a challenge for power or were toppled from power could expect the worst. In the 16th century, Ivan the Terrible savagely crushed the boyar landed aristocracy and even killed his own son. In 1698, Peter the Great exterminated a threat to his authority with equal ruthlessness. And so it continued. In 1801, Paul I was assassinated by a group of officers, and his son Alexander I would die in mysterious circumstances. Under the Communists, ideology changed - but not the modus operandi of purge and killing.

In July 1918, Nicholas II and his family were gunned down on Lenin's orders. To Lenin's successor Stalin, murder was second nature. Of his most dangerous rivals, he had both Kirov, the charismatic Leningrad party leader, and Trotsky, killed.

Just as Rasputin, the sinister priest and counsellor of the imperial family, was killed by courtiers in 1916, so did the Communist court dispose of Stalin's police chief Lavrenty Beria, who was executed a few months after Stalin died in 1953.

Thereafter, however, things began to change. The turning point was perhaps the failed "anti-party" plot that tried to oust Nikita Khrushchev in 1957. Its prime mover, Georgy Malenkov, was sacked from the Politburo and dispatched to run a hydroelectric plant in eastern Khazakhstan.

Not an appetising fate - but better than imprisonment or execution. Seven years later, Khrushchev would become the first Soviet leader to be ousted yet permitted to live out his days as a state pensioner.

And so more recently with Mikhail Gorbachev. Reviled in his own land, the last president of the Soviet Union has, despite periodic harassment by his successor, been none the less able to lead the life of a Thatcher or a Reagan, touring the world, running his own think tank, and picking up handsome lecture fees. Tired and ill, Mr Yeltsin is unlikely to take that route. Power for him has been the only thing that counts. But at least he is safe. In some ways at least, Russia has become normal.