As Boris Yeltsin awaits his heart operation, due this week, power has flowed from his enfeebled grasp into the youthful hands of his younger daughter, Tatyana Dyachenko, working with his chief of staff, Anatoly Chubais, and a powerful coterie of businessmen. Less than four months after an election that many in the West hoped would prove that democracy had finally taken root in Russia, unelected members of Moscow's social elite have taken command.
The reaction has been negative. "They [the press] used to attack the president," grumbled Yeltsin's wife, Naina, in a weekend television interview. "Now it is Tatyana who is under fire." The family had stopped showing her husband the more distressing newspaper articles, she said, for fear they would upset him.
But this does not appear to have daunted the Kremlin's new political double act. In the past four months, Chubais and his camp have secured the dismissal of their most formidable Kremlin opponents. They have appointed two leading business supporters to senior government jobs, consolidated control over two national television channels, and dictated access to the ailing president. Their enemies call them a regency; even their friends admit they rule the roost.
Even before Chubais and Dyachenko emerged on the scene, backed by a small group of influential pro-reform Moscow bankers and media tycoons, there was a strong sense of public betrayal surrounding Yeltsin's second term. Dozens of election promises have been shelved in the months since the president bamboozled and - in some cases - flagrantly bought his way back into the Kremlin.
Ageing and out of touch but for a handful of radio addresses and fleeting glimpses on television, he has become a remote shell of a president, closeted in a sanatorium after a recurrence of heart trouble in June that his aides initially hushed up, for fear it would wreck his chances in the election's final round. Meanwhile, millions face the onset of winter without pay, benefits, meaningful jobs or even enough food.
But the discovery that the country is under the sway of a highly unpopular Kremlin courtier, the president's daughter, and a clutch of heavyweights from big business has further deepened the public's cynicism. Russia is a male-orientated society, where the age of female liberation has yet to dawn. "No one would ever elect Tatyana," said one leading analyst, "it is just not in the nature of the country. And can you name any woman in high office?" (There is, in fact, one: an obscure health minister.)
At present, Tatyana's role appears principally to be that of a link - a conduit of information and views between the president, his chief of staff Chubais, and the businessmen behind him. But her larger ambitions are the source of considerable speculation. Does she aspire for power, high elected office, perhaps even eventually the presidency itself? Or is she simply helping to secure her father's position at a time when he is highly vulnerable to the scheming and plotting of those around him?
Some commentators have begun to hint that she is playing a longer game, and offer tentative comparisons with Pakistan's Benazir Bhutto, or even Indira Gandhi. According to Moskovskaya Pravda, one of Moscow's top political consultancies has been working on her profile, purely experimentally, to see how palatable she would be as a candidate. "Who would have thought half a year ago that this lady now marching through the Kremlin corridors with a radio telephone in her hand would become a real political figure?" remarked the paper.
Most Russians know remarkably little about 36-year-old Tatyana Dyachenko. Details of her personal life, which include a broken marriage to a Soviet- era engineer turned businessman, are scattered and incomplete. She has a 15-year-old son, also called Boris, whom Yeltsin dotes on.
This year Boris junior was enrolled in the pounds 15,000-a-year English public school Millfield, in Somerset, where - intriguingly - Chubais at the same time decided to send his son, Alexei. Tatyana has a second boy, a baby.
For years, she remained behind the scenes, a reserved, stylish-looking woman who was better educated, and better spoken, than her father. She trained as a mathematician and once held a job calculating rocket trajectories. The fullest picture of her came from Yeltsin's autobiographical writings, including a bizarre account of how Yeltsin let her suckle his nipple when she was a baby, to stop her howling on a train. The president makes clear that the women in his family - his wife, Naina, and daughters, Yelena and Tatyana - play a key role in his life. In his book, The View from the Kremlin, he called them "the women's council".
In February, Tatyana graduated to the perilous arena of Kremlin politics. The polls suggested that her father was heading for defeat at the hands of the Communist leader, Gennady Zyuganov. Desperate to keep a supporter of market reforms in the Kremlin (not least because of their own vast commercial interests), a group of millionaire bankers and media powerbrokers, including Boris Berezovsky, who runs a trading and media empire, and Vladimir Gusinsky, head of the Most-Group, coalesced around Chubais. Together, they took control of the task of selling Yeltsin to a sceptical nation. To run the show, they needed a direct line to the president. They got it, by recruiting his family favourite, Tatyana.
As a member of the campaign's 10-strong analytical team, she acquired a reputation as a quietly efficient operator, with a shrewd sense of politics and presentation. She was acutely conscience of her father's image, rushing in to groom his sweep of silver hair before television appearances, and banning his guards from wearing sunglasses because it made them even more thuggish than usual. When there was bad news for the president, she was the only one considered capable of conveying it. And there were occasional flashes of an iron will. "When she said no to something, because the president didn't want it, that was it. It meant no. She had a very powerful veto," said Vyacheslav Nikonov, who worked on the campaign.
"The only person whom he [Yeltsin] listened to was his younger daughter, Tatyana," complained Nikolai Yegorov, the president's then chief of staff, in a recent interview. "Perhaps she has brains, but she is only a daughter and not an experienced politician. She has absolutely no experience in this area and for this reason can be easily manipulated."
Yegorov is one of a clutch of ousted Kremlin insiders who have publicly condemned the growing influence of the Tatyana-Chubais axis. He is also one of a group of political bruisers whom Chubais (helped by Tatyana) have winkled out of the Kremlin in the past four months, most of whom level the same allegation; General Alexander Lebed, the sacked security chief, has talked of their desire to "rule as a duet", and has alleged that Chubais used Tatyana Dyachenko to persuade Yeltsin to fire him.
General Alexander Korzhakov, former head of the presidential guard, has accused Chubais of running an "unconstitutional regency", drafting presidential decrees in his own office. Tatyana brings Yeltsin the paperwork. Documents are "all prepared in Chubais's headquarters". The dismissal and alienation of the ex-KGB officer - for years Yeltsin's inseparable friend, trusted adviser, and drinking companion - is one of the most dramatic examples of Dyachenko's influence over her father. It is doubtful that Chubais could have persuaded Yeltsin to sever such a deep bond on his own.
Behind the cut and thrust of politics lies another, more delicate question. Is it true, as wagging tongues in Moscow claim, that the relationship between Chubais, 41, and Tatyana Dyachenko is more than merely professional? Reports of a liaison have been circulating for weeks in Moscow, a city which relishes scandal almost as much as Washington DC. Evidence, however, is in short supply.
In fact, sources say that the president's daughter's closest political associate is Igor Malashenko, president of Russia's commercially run NTV, another member of the campaign team. After the election, Malashenko was offered Chubais's job by Yeltsin, but turned it down. His company has been well rewarded for supporting the Kremlin during and after the elections; it has been allowed more space on the airwaves, is launching a new satellite service, and may even be allowed to buy up the ORT television channel.
But her future political plans overshadow lesser issues. At the moment, she and the Chubais camp hold the cards. They control a huge slice of the national television market - ORT and NTV - and a stack of newspapers. Attention has fixed on them, and not Russia's prime minister, Viktor Chernomyrdin, the man to whom power passes, according to the constitution, if Yeltsin is incapacitated. But he has presidential ambitions and plenty of allies in the oil and gas lobby. A rivalry is in the making.
Tatyana Dyachenko must know that the odds in this macho-minded country of a woman - not to mention another Yeltsin - being elected are about as long as they are for a snow-free winter. But she will also remember how Yeltsin has fought back from exile from the Politburo, the scandalous bombardment of the White House, the ludicrous Chechen war, and deep overall unpopularity. Crazy though it seems, she may yet be interested in something more than her father's place in history.
No one in Russian politics produces such extreme reactions as Anatoly Chubais, the gatekeeper and right-hand man to Boris Yeltsin. The circle of millionaire bankers and businessmen that support him see him as a brilliant economic and political talent, whose presence in the Kremlin will ensure the future of Russia's free-market reforms and the safety of their fortunes. But for many millions of other Russians, he is a charmless lackey of the West who devised a privatisation process in which Russia sold off some of its most treasured assets. Both sides would, however, agree on one front: the 41-year-old presidential chief of staff has the essential quality to survive in the Kremlin shark pool: ruthlessness. In the past four months, he has routed his most important rivals for power. Even before his appointment in July, he secured the dismissal of his main rival for the ear of the president, Yeltsin's former bodyguard, General Alexander Korzhakov. He was also behind the sacking of General Alexander Lebed.
Ten months ago, Chubais's career seemed to be in sharp decline after Yeltsin sacked him as his privatisation minister as a sop to an anti-reform, anti-Western mood in the country. He has worked his way back to the top with astonishing speed, masterminding Yeltsin's slick election campaign, and winning the post of chief of staff. Since then he has carefully shored up his own power base, sidelining the prime minister, Viktor Chernomyrdin. Through his association with Tatyana Dyachenko, Yeltsin's daughter, Chubais is now the only official with daily access to the president. He controls the Kremlin media operation, decides who sees the president, drafts laws and wields strong influence over at least two national TV channels.