Gorbachev revels as a crowd-puller

THERE was a jam of Mercedes in the hotel parking lot, a row of 13 television cameras in the banquet hall and a round of applause when the speaker, flanked by bodyguards, strode through the door in a dark blue business suit and a red silk tie.

All this for a man who has not held a job for over a year, is reviled as a traitor or dismissed as irrelevant by former colleagues and who, by his own account, has no interest of returning to politics.

But no one can pull a crowd, at least a crowd of foreigners, quite like Mikhail Gorbachev. His presence yesterday in the Composers' Hall of Moscow's Slavianskaya Hotel convinced 420 diplomats, reporters and foreign businessmen to part with dollars 20 ( pounds 14) each, more than a month's salary in Russia, for a glass of water and a plate of cold, soggy roast beef.

Compare this with the turnout a few weeks ago in the same room for Vladimir Shumeiko, first deputy Prime Minister in Boris Yeltsin's embattled government: fewer than 50 people and only two television crews showed up.

Mr Gorbachev is so unpopular at home that, according to the Moskovsky Komsomolets newspaper, one unfortunate man with an uncanny resemblance to the former general secretary gets beaten up when he goes out on the street.

For foreigners, though, Mr Gorbachev is different. Or rather, what makes him so appealing is that he is not different: he comforts a nostalgia for the days when Moscow politics seemed easier to comprehend, when the struggle waged by Mr Gorbachev, for all its messiness, seemed a titanic battle between good and evil.

And yesterday, six months after being hounded from the headquarters of the Gorbachev Foundation and barred from travelling abroad for refusing to testify in the trial of the Communist Party, Mr Gorbachev was back on top form to offer an hour of rambling advice. It was his first opportunity to hold centre stage in Moscow before so many people since 22 August 1991, when, just back from four days of capitivity in his Crimean dacha, he held a press conference to deny any role in the fizzled hardline putsch.

His views have changed little. He still does not like Mr Yeltsin and called for early elections to end the country's political crisis: 'We have found ourselves on the brink of an abyss.' But a coup, he said, is unlikely. 'As I see it, the present situation is caused by the fact that the political course pursued since January 1992 has failed to solve the main problems . . . We have not received what we were promised with regard to economic reform.'

For all his distaste for the market, though, he got in a plug for a book he is writing. It is 5,000 pages long but will be be cut to 1,000 before it goes on sale 'to tell the readers something about myself'.

His speech yesterday was barely more concise. But Mr Gorbachev still has flair. He joked about the rumours, widely believed in Russia, that he is rich: 'They say I have dachas in the Baltics, in Finland, in Switzerland, in Florida, in Tibet, with an underground tunnel so I could go straight to the Dalai Lama for talks. I am amazed by the brazenness of the press.' More amazing to Russians, though, is not the media's inventions but its interest.

(Photograph omitted)

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