Kiss and tell comes to the Kremlin: Andrew Higgins in Moscow reports on how Russia's first tabloid sex scandal is gripping the nation

THE saleswoman at the newspaper stand in the basement canteen of the Great Kremlin Palace had never seen anything like it. She opened for business at 8am on Thursday and half and hour later every copy - 300 in all - had gone: 'Normally nothing ever sells so fast.'

What was it that the august members of Russia's Congress of People's Deputies were so keen to read about? It certainly was not politics; at least not the endless, angry debate going on since Tuesday in the austere assembly hall upstairs. They had sat through all that themselves. No, what the people's deputies really wanted to read about was 'Notes of a Naughty Girl', the revelations of Daria Aslamova, a 23-year-old journalist at the centre of Russia's first kiss-and-tell tabloid drama.

The article - with a photograph of Ms Aslamova in a skimpy dress - is spread across two pages in the most recent issue of a Moscow colour weekly called Sobesednik, or 'Companion'.

Sobesednik is usually aimed at a youth readership, but what makes this edition so compelling to the middle-aged politicians in the Great Kremlin Palace is the men Ms Aslamova claims to have kissed. They are two of the Congress's best-known heavyweights: its wily, 50-year-old speaker, Ruslan Khasbulatov, and a 45- year-old leader of the most powerful opposition coalition, Nikolai Travkin.

Ms Aslamova has a taste for politicians. 'I love energetic men who dream of reshaping the world according to their own plans,' she explains. 'I like people with grandiose ambitions: one is never bored in their company.'

In all of Russia, there can be few men with more grandiose ambitions than Ruslan Imranovich Khasbulatov. A few years ago he was an obscure professor from Chechen-Ingush, a southern region best known for gangsters and blood feuds. Today he is one of Russia's power-brokers, a man who turned the parliamentary guard into his private militia and has repeatedly tried to seize control of Russia's best newspaper, the new-look Izvestia.

'Ruslan Imranovich seemed to me a man of action with a bulldog grip,' writes Ms Aslamova. How did they meet? A friend, lying, introduced her as Miss Moscow State University; he invited her to look at his pipe collection and plied her with Polish vodka. 'He knew women and how to speak to them. He clearly wanted me. And there is hardly a woman in the world that doesn't love the fire in a man's eyes, even if he is a Quasimodo.'

As for Mr Travkin, his appearance in Sobesednik earned the magazine an entry in the official record of the Congress. He ended a blistering attack on the government from the floor with criticism of its 'intrigues and divide-and- rule antics'. Not only was the opposition accused of preparing a coup, he said, but also of sharing the same lover. 'According to the press,' he added to general giggling, 'Khasbulatov could seduce her but I lacked his southern temperament.'

Mr Khasbulatov and Mr Travkin are not the only ones. As Ms Aslamova explained in Sobesednik, 'what mattered was quantity not quality . . . The most important thing was to commit as many sins as possible'. The full list, however, will have to wait for the 'erotic autobiography' she claims to be writing for an unidentified European publisher.

Ms Aslamova has already added a significant milestone to Russia's political history: she has shown that, for all the ominous warnings of creeping dictatorship and economic collapse, Russia has already met one of the key requirements of a mature democracy: a sex scandal.

In reality, though, it is less a scandal than an entertainment. Only Anglo-Saxons have sex scandals. The two politicians mentioned by Ms Aslamova, Mr Khasbulatov and Mr Travkin, both count themselves among President Yeltsin's most dangerous adversaries. The timing of publication suggests dirty tricks by Mr Yeltsin's allies. But if there is indeed a smear campaign, it has backfired.

Asked how 'Notes from a Naughty Girl' might influence the reputation of the Congress speaker, MrTravkin replied: 'It will certaintly have an effect on his standing - in a positive way.' Women, he said, like strong men.

French was not the language of the Russian imperial court for nothing: Russian politicians are expected to have mistresses, just as they are expected to drink. (Nothing aroused doubts about Mikhail Gorbachev's trustworthiness quite so much as his not drinking.) Infidelity rarely shocks in a city where 60 per cent of marriages end in divorce and the word for marriage - brak - also means shoddy merchandise. Nevertheless, there is still a big difference between what Russians expect to happen and what they expect to read about.

Aleksander Solzhenitsyn may be old hat, girlie magazines about as novel as snow in a Moscow winter, and public abuse of politicians as robust a national sport as ice hockey, but one final frontier of glasnost had survived: the intimacies of leaders' private lives.

At least one newspaper, Moskovski Komsomolets, was offered Ms Aslamova's story but declined it, and the deputy editor of Sobesednik, Sergei Vetrov, admits that it caused 'quite a shock' in his own newsroom. Serious dailies, often as verbose and drearily obsessed with politics as their communist era equivalents, have ignored the affair almost entirely. Only a hugely popular weekly scandal sheet, the Evening Club, followed up Sobesednik's scoop. Its headline: 'The Chairman's Sex Bomb'.

(Photograph omitted)

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