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`Cardiovascular Tolstoy' who is Boris's best hope

The life of Boris Yeltsin, and the political fate of his troubled country, will soon rest in the nimble hands of a top Kremlin doctor and his 88- year-old mentor, an American super-star cardiologist. Less than a decade after the end of the Cold War, East and West will together fight to mend the heart of a Russian leader.

Dr Renat Akchurin once studied under Dr Michael DeBakey, and is still convinced that his teacher was the "Leo Tolstoy of cardiovascular surgery".

Dr DeBakey flew into Moscow yesterday for a meeting with Mr Yeltsin's surgeons to decide exactly when they will operate on the president's heart, which has four partially or totally blocked coronary arteries. Kremlin officials, who whisked the doctor away before he could talk to journalists, have not named a date, and may even keep it under wraps until the operation is complete.

Mr Yeltsin's heart illness has brought together two unusual medical men. Dr Akchurin, who will lead the operation, is one of a small team of surgeons that have cared for the Russian political elite since before the end of the Cold War.

As chance would have it, the president's powers, including control of the nuclear button, will be transferred to one of Dr Akchurin's former bypass patients, Russia's prime minister, Viktor Chernomyrdin, for the duration of the operation. Last week a hale and hearty-looking Mr Chernomyrdin made a special appearance on television, first windsurfing and then playing an accordion.

Dr Akchurin's mentor, Dr DeBakey, is not expected to wield a scalpel. Apart from his unacknowledged role as an international monitor, whose presence should stifle any wild allegations of a plot if Mr Yeltsin dies, his main job is that of consultant.

No other cardiologist on the planet has more experience than Dr DeBakey. A workaholic who until recently thought nothing of an 18-hour day, he has operated on some 60,000 hearts, including those of European royals, Arab leaders and Hollywood stars.

As the Kremlin gears up for what may be one of the most nerve-wracking weeks in its history, its officials have been doing their best to appear unflurried.

But the most consistent source of reassurance has come from Dr DeBakey himself. He estimates at least a 96 per cent chance of success. No matter how good the odds, Russia and the world will wait with bated breath.