The First Lady meets the President's wife

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The Independent Online
The world's cameras will be out in force today when Hillary Clinton and Naina Yeltsin meet in the Russian President's home town of Yekaterinburg. For the former, who is touring former Soviet countries, the limelight is as familiar as the air she breathes; the same cannot be said for her counterpart, who even balks at the term "First Lady".

While an invigorated Boris Yeltsin has taken to the political stage with new relish, his wife has remained in the wings. Russia still resents her predecessor, Raisa Gorbachev, whose high profile and taste for designer clothes and credit cards won her a reputation for extravagance. In conservative Russia, she was seen as bossy and assertive; the Yeltsins have been careful to avoid the same fate.

They know they operate in a society where the perception of the female sex is frequently limited to two stereotypes. The first is that of a beautiful, young, and essentially compliant woman who struts around in a mini-skirt, ornamenting the world for the ruling males. The second is that of homely, elderly, and essentially compliant mother, who mops the sweat from her husband's brow, looks after his children, and ensures his plate is always piled high.

The fact that under the Soviet system, Russian women occupied a wide variety of professional jobs - Mrs Yeltsin herself trained as a construction engineer - has done little to change this. The idea of an independent professional woman (a Hillary Clinton when she still insisted on the Rodham) continues to be viewed with suspicion.

At 65, exploiting the first stereotype is not open to her, so Naina Yeltsin has opted for the second. She styles herself as housewife, mother and granny, a fiercely loyal woman who occasionally breaks cover with interviews about home life with "Borya".

Although she has lashed out at her husband's foes, her public comments are usually bland. Before last year's election, she sought to woo voters with a television appearance. As the world's press waited with baited breath for a new detail that would open a door to her husband's complex character, she revealed a secret: her recipe for chocolate cake.

Publicity photos showed her peering maternally into a pram, tasting a pot of soup, and resting her head lovingly on her husband's chest. Her boldest move to date was to agree to co-chair Russia's newly launched Culture TV channel. Cloying though it may be, this image works. Criticism of Naina Yeltsin is rare. She has said she does not want to be the "first lady" . She would rather "simply be the President's wife".

Such remarks are, of course, a matter of politics. But they also have the ring of truth. For the same reasons, they are, happily, words that we are unlikely to hear on the lips of Mrs Clinton. - Phil Reeves, Moscow