Is Boris Yeltsin dead?

And if he were, would we know it? Peter Popham looks at rumours - exaggerated and otherwise - of the demise of great figures
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The Independent Online
Stop all the clocks, cut off the


Prevent the dog from barking with a

juicy bone,

Silence the pianos and with muffled


Bring out the coffin, let the mourners


Or not as the case may be. Boris Yeltsin, who has been on and off the media's critical list since at least April 1993, is now dead, according to rumours emanating from Moscow's financial markets. Yesterday he was "seen" on TV , but what does that prove? Perhaps he is comatose, and his sinister circle of drinking buddies, his so-called "sauna cabinet", is trying to keep it quiet. Or perhaps he is merely biding his time, waiting for his enemies to disappear into the Chechen quagmire. How can we tell? Who are we to believe?

With Yeltsin, even those in the front line have often found it difficult to know. When President Clinton tried to reach him by the presidential hot line in 1994, his call went unanswered for three days. "Technical reasons" were cited. For those three days, Clinton had no way of knowing whether the technical reasons in question might not be the terminal failure of the presidential ticker.

In July 1995, anxious to assure the world's press that their leader was fighting fit, the Kremlin issued a photograph of Yeltsin - but NBC, the American television network, insisted it was a still from a video shot three months peviously. The Kremlin issued furious denials, but until the following week, when Yeltsin gave a television interview admitting that he had just had another heart attack, nobody outside his immediate circle could say with confidence that he was not already under the hand of the embalmer.

Yeltsin is only the latest Soviet leader to have his true state of health shrouded in clouds of obfuscation. Brezhnev, Andropov and Cherneko were similarly treated. Where succession is uncertain, and its consequences likely to be terrifying, too much depends on keeping the old boys going for anybody to be interested in telling the truth.

In China, where Deng Xiaoping turned 92 yesterday (Happy Birthday, Mr Deng), periodic bulletins declare him to be active, in good spirits, keenly interested in national affairs, and in "excellent health"; but he has not been seen in public for three years, and a Hong Kong tabloid reports that pounds 800 a day is being spent in the effort to keep him alive. Because once he is gone, no matter how feeble his condition in his last years, it's like the roof beam falling in: everything changes, in the most alarming and unpredictable fashion.

When life finally ebbs away, even the most byzantine regime must eventually concede the fact. El Cid, dead but strapped upright in his saddle to appear alive, served his Spanish forces well, but was eventually accorded a decent burial. But where leadership is in the spiritual sphere, things can get much more complicated. When Menachem Mendel Schneerson,the leader of the Lubavitch sect of Hassidic jews, lost the power of speech after a stroke in 1994, some of his followers interpreted his hand gestures to mean that he was declaring himself the Messiah.

News of the death of the fifth Dalai Lama reached his followers only 10 years after the event, while the Shingon sect of esoteric Buddhism in Japan maintains that its founder, Kobo Daishi, transcended death altogether: his mummified body, legs crossed in the lotus posture, still occupies his old meditation hut, and his disciples bring him meals every day.

Power and the living image of the powerful are so closely intertwined that you disentangle them at your peril. In Stalinist societies, the leader's life and the regime's survival became inextricably linked, and nothing any insider said on the subject was believed. Hence the army of Kremlinologists and Peking watchers and Pyongyang specialists of old, examining satellite photographs to see who's in, who's out, who's dead. Rumours of death surrounded North Korea's dictator, Kim Il Sung, from at least 1986, when he was rumoured to have been assassinated. When he finally died in July 1994, it took the authorities the best part of another year to embalm him, by which time observers were beginning to speculate about the health of his son and heir.

At long range, it is easy to get lines crossed. Ten years ago the dollar took a battering when the Japanese thought President Ronnie Reagan was dead. A Tokyo banker had misunderstood a chance remark about the state of health of Lonnie Donegan.

Back home, of course, it all appears far more cosy: everyone knows that John Major is on his hols, the Queen Mother is at Balmoral (although not long ago the Australian's woke up one morning to false reports of her demise), and at least where matters of life and death are concerned, our machinery of government is impressively transparent. Yet looked at from afar, would such complacency appear be justified? A Pyongyang-based London watcher might point out that it's only 40 years since Sir Winston Churchill's massive stroke and subsequent incapacity, totally hushed up by a servile press. How much has changed, they might ask. Like Yeltsin, Major seems to take remarkably long holidays. In the latest scrap over putting the Union Flag on the new driving licence, Major's input has been conspicuous only by its absence. And what about his fabled greyness, a sure sign of moribundity? Perhaps the bizarre truth is that he died long ago. As Dorothy Parker remarked when told of the death of Calvin Coolidge, "How can they tell?"