THE RUSSIAN capital has been wrapped up for days in a storm over anti-Semitic remarks made at a rally by General Albert Makashov, an extremist on the far left of the Communist Party. The failure of the party to condemn him with sufficient vigour prompted Boris Berezovsky, an influential politician and tycoon of Jewish origin, to demand that the Communists be outlawed.
The Siberian governor Alexander Lebed has now entered the fray - but in the guise of a senior statesman, rebuking Moscow politicians for making mountains out of molehills and urging them to concentrate on heating homes and feeding the population.
General Lebed, governor of the vast Krasnoyarsk region and a man with ambitions to occupy the Kremlin, said he took a negative view of General Makashov's outburst. However, the Communists, the largest party in the State Duma, should hardly be banned for the behaviour of a single one of their number, he argued. And given the crisis in the country, politicians should get down to the practical business of preparing for the long, hard, winter ahead.
What Mr Lebed did not take account of, however, was the signal failure of Gennadi Zyuganov, the Communist leader, to repudiate the remarks of General Makashov. Possibly attempting to keep the lid on potential splits in his party, Mr Zyuganov responded instead by attacking the news media and Russia's wealthy tycoons.
On Tuesday, various public figures tried to play down the hardships facing Russia after Western intelligence sources said the country lacked grain and potatoes and could go hungry this winter.
However, General Lebed said the outcry over General Makashov was a "storm in a teacup". Only 50 million tonnes of grain had been harvested. There were heating problems in the Far East. Breath was also being wasted on the question of whether the body of Lenin should be reburied. "He's been lying there [in the mausoleum] for years. He can lie there a bit longer," said General Lebed. "I repeat, there are very hard times ahead." As it to confirm his words, the temperature plunged in Moscow yesterday to minus 16C, a record degree of frost for November.
For intellectuals, for whom moral values are as important as bread, the Makashov affair has been disturbing. Leading artists, including Vladimir Vasiliev, the artistic director of the Bolshoi Theatre, were quick to speak out against anti-Semitism.
However, it took a while for the government and the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Alexei II, to make clear that they too regarded his racist diatribe as unacceptable.
As for Vladimir Zhirinovsky, the nationalist bad boy of Russian politics, he seemed not to care. His reaction was to appeared on television wearing a powdered wig, playing the role of Mozart in a production by MPs on the composer.
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