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Out of Russia: Bionic Boris follows in the wake of Mao

MOSCOW - What do a Russian psychic, a deer hunter, the Prime Minister, the President's wife, the head of a new-look KGB and the US Commerce Secretary have in common? All played bit parts in one of the oddest sagas of Kremlin intrigue since the days when French spies, desperate for a clue about the general secretary's health, commandeered the plumbing of a hotel in Copenhagen to collect sewage from Leonid Brezhnev's suite.

'There isn't a single country in the world where they speculate about the president's health as they do here,' complained Boris Yeltsin's wife, Naina, to Komsomolskaya Pravda this week. 'He's healthy, he's healthy]' The First Lady is wondering which bit of her husband's body (after his back, liver and brain) will be next: 'There is no defence against gossip. Sometimes I want to go out in the street and say 'People, stop and think - why do you say such hurtful things?' What illnesses won't they invent?'

The fuss began with a Black Sea holiday. When Mr Yeltsin retired three weeks ago for an unscheduled break in Sochi, the Moscow rumour mill began churning. Might his holiday prove as cursed as that of Nikita Khrushchev in 1964 or Mikhail Gorbachev in 1991?

What is it about Communists, or in Mr Yeltsin's case, former believers, and the beach? I used to work in Peking, where the highlight of every journalist's calendar was Deng Xiaoping's annual trip to the seaside. Each dip at Beidaihe meant far more than any Party Congress. The fate of a billion people depended on the breast stroke of an octogenarian holidaymaker. If Deng sank, it seemed, so would the nation. Perhaps Mao Tse-tung is to blame. He turned geriatric watersports into the most scrutinised of political barometers. He kicked off the Cultural Revolution by splashing across the Yangtse.

Perhaps it is time to batten down the hatches in Russia. Mr Yeltsin - 63 against Mr Deng's 89 years - is developing a Mao-like water fetish. He boasts of a swim at Sochi: 'Can a sick man swim in the sea when it's eight degrees?' It would be easier, though, if Mr Yeltsin never went on holiday. When he left last summer for a pine forest near Novgorod, parliament savaged his policies and gossip ravaged his liver. He returned to Moscow.

This year, the rumour machine went into overdrive. A small newspaper, Obshchaya Gazeta, published what it said was the outline of a planned coup, an unsigned document entitled 'Version Number One'. The Prime Minister, Viktor Chernomyrdin, added grist by calling off a crucial meeting with the International Monetary Fund boss and rushing instead to Sochi to see Mr Yeltsin. An American television network returned to the medical history of Mr Yeltsin's liver, reporting that cirrhosis could kill him any day.

The counter-attack began clumsily but picked up momentum. State-controlled bits of the media churned out reports of rugged good health. Mr Yeltsin was said to have gone hiking near Mount Elbrus, hunted deer (he fired a shot but missed), feasted on venison (bagged by a guide) for supper, visited a ski station, played tennis (or not played tennis because of bad weather, depending on which version you believe) and got a racket for his birthday. None of this perpetual motion, however, was ever shown on television.

Tass news agency consulted a psychic, Vladimir Trufanov, from Tula, who, after checking the President's body 'by remote', 'found there are no grounds for concern.' But he did urge Mr Yeltsin and other leaders to hire full-time cosmic consultants.

'Anyone who wants to test Yeltsin's health should play tennis with him,' said Mr Chernomyrdin, who as Prime Minister would take over in the event of disaster and who, as designated understudy, also falls under suspicion the moment there is any whiff of a palace plot. He has to declare his loyalty with particular zeal: 'Yeltsin is in charge of the situation. He will serve out his period of office until 1996.'

With Mr Yeltsin now back in Moscow, the main source of the mischief, Obshchaya Gazeta, has backed off. It calls 'Version Number One' a sham. Gleb Pavlovsky, a member of the editorial board, admits writing the document but says it was meant as a work of fiction. Why it got into print is under investigation by the Federal Counter-Intelligence Service. Mr Yeltsin summoned the agency's new chief, Sergei Stepashin, and told him to get to the bottom of the affair.

No sooner had this fever subsided than another began. Anatoly Chubais, privatisation chief and Yeltsin loyalist, told the BBC of a different plot afoot. The ultra-nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky said he was sure this was the case. Neither gave a shred of evidence.

Who cares? The death watch - physical and political - resumed. Television crews turned out in force to see if Mr Yeltsin met the US Commerce Secretary, Ron Brown, and record how he looked. He did. He looked fine. And he could die or disappear any day.