He has been a communist, a reformed communist and a democrat. He has flirted with the nationalists, spoken in favour of reviving the Soviet Union, was linked at one time to a hardline KGB clique, and lurched violently from supporting Boris Yeltsin to opposing him at every turn. Nowadays he is to be found in the so-called 'centre' of Russian politics, which is located somewhere in the middle of the turf marked out at one extreme by Mr Yeltsin and by his sworn enemies at the other.
But that definition, suggesting that Mr Rutskoi may play the role of honest broker, is misleading. Last weekend, when Mr Yeltsin announced plans for direct rule, the Vice-President, warning of bloodshed, crossed the Rubicon and defected to the enemy camp. 'This order will lead to a split in state and society,' he wrote in a letter to Mr Yeltsin. 'Major disputes will start in society, which would be followed by use of force and blood.'
Mr Rutskoi's prediction may turn out to be accurate, but he is aware that any calamity befalling Russia as a result of the current power struggle is likely to do his own career no harm. Should Mr Yeltsin be forced to step down, the Vice-President would take over. And should Mr Yeltsin survive the crisis by conceding early presidential elections, Mr Rutskoi would be hot favourite to win. In politics, the rewards for disloyalty can be high.
But before he clears that final hurdle, Mr Rutskoi must lay his cards on the table and sell his policies to the electorate. Polling evidence suggests that he is at the zenith of popularity when criticising Mr Yeltsin's programme, but fares badly when taking the initiative. Last weekend's attack on the President's decree slashed his rating from 32 per cent to 12 per cent, according to a poll in the pro-government Izvestia newspaper. On Friday he was described by the first deputy prime minister, Vladimir Shumeiko, as 'reeking of a flea-market haggler'.
Mr Rutskoi cannot afford to seem to be lashing out at random. Playing to the audience and spotting anxieties that lurk deep in the Russian soul is what he does best. He was the first mainstream politician to seize on the plight of Russian minorities in the former Soviet republics and the far-flung regions of Russia, and promise to come to their aid. He has campaigned vigorously against the economic shock therapy practised by Mr Yeltsin's successive governments, and described Western-style capitalism as the 'worst kind of Utopia'. He also correctly identified the moment when the Russians' alarm about soaring crime and lawlessness replaced even poverty as the nation's gravest concern.
As a military man - he rose to the rank of general in the Soviet air force and was twice shot down over Afghanistan - he offers no-nonsense recipes for tackling the crime wave, such as a concerted attack on the mafias, by the army if necessary, to make the streets safe again. The polls show that the top priority for most Russians is 'social stability' - meaning no crime, no strife and bread in the shops at affordable prices. Mr Rutskoi's prescription for the last item in the equation has not, however, persuaded economists that he would be able to end poverty.
Last year Mr Rutskoi, accusing the government of pursuing a 'policy of economic genocide', called for an 'economic state of emergency' in Russia. Though he did not elaborate, it is clear that his solution to the economic crisis would involve massive government intervention, and privatisation would grind to a halt. 'Crooks and shady dealers' should be prevented from 'grabbing everything', he said.
Such statements are just what Russians want to hear. And Mr Rutskoi delivers them with panache. An affable 45-year-old whose snappy suits mark him out of the grey crowd of former communist apparatchiks in parliament, Mr Rutskoi is the first leading politician to emerge with an untainted past. Unlike others in government, including former reformist prime minister Yegor Gaidar, he was never part of the old party nomenklatura. He has his own power base, the People's Party of Free Russia, which is one of the key players in parliament. The armed forces, of course, treat him as one of their own - which may become important if less orthodox avenues for resolving the crisis are sought.
For his bravery in Afghanistan, Mr Rutskoi was accorded the highest military honour: Hero of the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union is long gone, but heroes are still needed in today's Russia, perhaps more than ever. Many people feel that Mr Rutskoi, inspired by the Tsarist prime minister, Pyotr Stolypin, who preached 'liberal reform and strong rule', fits the bill. Others compare Mr Rutskoi to a Wagnerian hero, Siegfried, who naively wandered from one battle to the next, fighting the wars of others.
Mr Rutskoi needs to show that his wanderings have a sense of direction and that, unlike Siegfried, he can win the final battle.
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