"Hello, is this Yeltsin?"
"Yes, this is Yeltsin."
"When will you drop dead?"
"Oh, I've still got things to do in this world."
--An exchange between Boris N. Yeltsin and a caller during a phone-in session held by the Komsomolskaya Pravda newspaper.
Anyone who thinks President Mikhail S. Gorbachev won decisive support for his policies in that Soviet referendum nine days ago should have been at Leningrad's huge and grimy S.M. Kirov Tractor Plant when Boris N. Yeltsin, Russia's baritone-voiced prophet of change, swept in for a visit last week.
Workers stood up and applauded enthusiastically when Yeltsin, in a stem-winding speech, demanded that Gorbachev leave office. "Resign! Resign!" Yeltsin led them in chanting.
"The Communist Party has left the trenches and is on the offensive, pursuing its aim to take over power in Russia, to stage a constitutional coup," the silver-maned populist charged. "Today we need to save the country, not from the enemy without, but from the enemy within."
Yeltsin, who is both head of the Soviet Union's largest constituent republic and Gorbachev's personal nemesis, has gone on the attack before an emergency session of the Russian Federation's Congress of People's Deputies--a session at which his conservative opponents originally hoped to censure him before a national television audience or even unseat him. Reformers, according to ex-Communist Yeltsin, are at "a critical juncture in the struggle against the system."
Having gained some political momentum of his own thanks to a strong endorsement from Russian voters as part of that same referendum earlier this month, Yeltsin now hopes to turn the Congress, which opens Thursday in the Kremlin, into a crowning victory for the reformers. The radical from the Urals and his brain trust have drawn up a series of economic and political proposals so breathtaking in their historical context that adoption of a single one would make the sitting of the 1,060-member federation's Parliament a seminal event.
Yeltsin, chosen the Russian Federation's president by the Congress last year, wants to liberate Russia--a land almost twice as large as the United States, with 148 million people--from the tutelage of the central Soviet bureaucracy that Gorbachev heads. "Russia is tired of feeding the state and the other republics," he told the Leningraders.
If Yeltsin is successful, then Gorbachev's blueprint for a new Soviet "federation," where Russia and the 14 other constituent republics would be granted a much more limited autonomy, would be stillborn. Yeltsin and the Russian Federation would wind up setting the pace rather than Gorbachev and the Kremlin, because a Soviet Union without Russia--the union's heart, nerve center and mother lode of natural and human riches--is inconceivable.
Yeltsin's address promises to be the centerpiece of the Congress agenda. He has pledged "a constructive program of actions and, if the situation becomes really difficult, a direct appeal to the nation." Exact details of the Russian leader's plan have not yet been revealed, but among proposals being discussed as Thursday's session draws closer were these:
* To give 10% or more of the land on collective farms to individual farmers, allowing the first landholding class in Russia since the time of the czars.
* To allow privately owned factories employing up to 5,000 people in hopes of reversing the federation's economic nose dive. Drafted by a Yeltsin confederate, the approach would mean the first such large-scale private enterprise here since the Bolshevik Revolution pulverized "exploiters of the proletariat."
* To amend Russia's constitution to include a popularly elected president. Nearly 70% of voters in the federation approved Yeltsin's proposal for such a step in the March 17 referendum, and he has said he wants the job.
If that constitutional change is made, it would be a historic moment. In its often tragic 1,000-year existence, marred by the brutality and blood-drenched terror of rulers like Ivan the Terrible, the feeble-minded Czar Paul and Josef Stalin, the Russians have not once been able to freely choose the man or woman who led them.
Yeltsin, 60, wants to be the first.
But the dropout from Communist Party ranks is far from having a free hand. Once monolithic, politics here is now many layered, and Yeltsin is beset with various oppositions. At moments, perhaps, Gorbachev may be comforted by the thought that, on a smaller scale, obstreperous local leaders plague Yeltsin the same way Yeltsin plagues him.
The political entity that Yeltsin heads is not just "Russia" but the Russian Federation, or Russia proper plus 16 "autonomous republics"--homelands to the Volga Tatars, Kalmyks and other minority peoples. To build his "renewed (national Soviet) federation," Gorbachev has offered the lands that fit into Yeltsin's smaller federation rights and privileges on a par with those of Russia itself--clearly striking a responsive note with some of those minority groups.
Of Russia's autonomous republics, four--Tuva, Tatarstan, North Ossetia and Chechen-Ingushetia--refused to allow their citizens to even vote on the question of the Russian presidency in the March 17 referendum. Of the 12 where the question was put on the ballot, Yeltsin lost in at least four.
The problem for Yeltsin and his lieutenants is to come up with enough economic and cultural concessions to keep the autonomous areas a part of the Russian Federation--officially the Russian Soviet Federated Socialist Republic--so Russia can present a united front in negotiations on Gorbachev's proposed union treaty.
Then there are the Communists. The 250-plus members of the Communists of Russia faction in the Parliament clamor loudly for Russian "sovereignty" but want Russia firmly subordinated to the union that is, allowed a sovereignty that would be virtually devoid of substance.
It is due to the Communists that the Congress is being held in the first place. On Feb. 21, two days after Yeltsin made an unprecedented televised call for Gorbachev's resignation, half a dozen leaders of the Russian Congress (now known simply as "The Six") demanded an extraordinary session to call Yeltsin to account for his actions and to hold a vote of no confidence.
"Toppling Yeltsin will be the No. 1 agenda item" at the Congress, the Russian president predicted earlier this month. But then came the referendum and conclusive proof that voters support him.
While "The Six" and their allies in the federation's Communist Party headquarters appear less intent now on a frontal assault, it is too early to be certain that they are willing to accept a modus vivendi with a man many of them loathe as an apostate.
Despite groundbreaking Russian legislation in spheres like the economy and freedom of conscience, Yeltsin charges that "all power throughout the country and in the constituent republics has remained in the hands of those who, for more than seven decades, have been successfully squandering and looting the country. . . I'm referring to the central authorities--to party bureaucrats."
To give his grass-roots support more institutional clout, Yeltsin for the first time called this month for all reformist forces to combine in a single powerful party. To show their support for the Russian leader, the Democratic Russia political bloc plans a rally on the opening day of the Congress that the official Soviet news agency Tass--no sympathizer of Yeltsin's--predicts could attract up to 500,000 people.
Yeltsin's critics accuse him of wrecking both Russia's economy and a political union it has taken seven decades to build. "Economy-wise, we have already tried living outside the union," said Boris M. Isayev, deputy chairman of the Russian Congress and one of "The Six." "The result? A recession in production, the worsening of practically all indices of the republic's economic health."
Whatever the cause--Yeltsin and his allies blame the bureaucrats--Russia's economy did sustain a body blow last year, as did that of the country as a whole. Russia's "produced national income," a traditional Soviet measure of annual macroeconomic performance, dipped 5.5%. It was the worst year in Russian Federation history, one official said.
Consequently, what Yeltsin needs most urgently is a program to move the economy off dead center, providing a positive contrast to Gorbachev's inability to better people's lives. A "program of economic stabilization and transition to a market," Yeltsin says, is now ready.
Some of the nitty-gritty of Yeltsin's designs has become public knowledge. This month the Russian Federation's government and the Presidium, the collective executive that Yeltsin heads, adopted a joint resolution that could mean the loss by each collective farm of up to 10% of its arable land, and perhaps more, by the end of the year.
"If a collective farm controls, say, 10,000 hectares (about 24,700 acres) but uses only 8,000, the local soviets (councils) will take 2,000 hectares away from it and distribute this land among the farmers," Yeltsin said.
Mikhail A. Bocharov, a dapper Moscow entrepreneur who chairs Yeltsin's economic brain trust, the Russian Supreme Economic Council, says a proposed three-year food program he has helped draft would allow people willing to go into the food business to buy land at cut-rate prices, even if bureaucrats at state or collective farms object.
Such plots, however, could not exceed 50 hectares (123.5 acres) or be resold for 10 years.
Bocharov's "economic stabilization program," which is one of at least three drawn up for Yeltsin's perusal, includes privatization of enterprises employing up to 5,000 people--a clear repudiation of Marxist-Leninist doctrine. Labor collectives, however, would be given first crack at buying up the premises where they work.
The Romanovs, Russia's czars for three centuries, saw themselves as accountable only to history and God. Yeltsin, who was elected to Russia's presidency by the Congress, and not by the people, wants his legitimacy reconfirmed at the ballot box. It would be an invaluable trump for Yeltsin in his dealings with Gorbachev, who was made Soviet president by virtue of a decision in the national Parliament, rather than by popular vote.
Yeltsin envisions a new republican executive presidency endowed with far greater powers, approximating those of Gorbachev himself. According to the draft constitution prepared under Yeltsin's aegis, the president would represent Russia at home and abroad, head the executive branch, nominate members to the Russian Supreme Court, serve as commander in chief of whatever armed forces Russia had, and could even, in the event of an attack, declare war.
For Communists, as well as non-Communists who question his ultimate devotion to the ideals of the marketplace and democracy, the thought of vesting so much authority in Yeltsin--who has no serious rival for the Russian presidency at the moment--is at the very least nerve-rattling.
"Having climbed out of the claws of one party dictatorship, we are now rapidly approaching another party dictatorship that has changed color, rather than democracy," warned another member of "The Six," Vladimir B. Isakov.
But in the recesses of Russia--the backward villages now bogged down in the mud generated by the spring thaw, and the monotonous factory towns of Russia's Rust Belt--Yeltsin remains the great hope for millions. There, eyes will be fixed on faraway Moscow on Thursday, on the Russian Congress and the man who leads it.
"Who else is there?" Galina Rebrova, 30, an economist in Vladimir, asked as she cast her ballot in this month's referendum. "I am putting my trust in Yeltsin, in the hope that he, somehow, some way, can change things."
The Soviet Union's Powerhouse
When Russian Republic President Boris Yeltsin uses his position to attack Kremlin chief Mikhail Gorbachev, he is using a potent weapon, indeed. In some ways, the vast republic--one of 15 which together constitute the USSR--really is the Soviet Union. Here's a sample of the way that Russia dominates the economic life of the country.
PULLING ITS WEIGHT --- AND MORE
The Russian Republic also accounts for 61% of the USSR's total manufacturing output and 47% of its agricultural output. It is estimated to earn 80% of the Soviet Union's foreign exchange, mostly through the sale of oil, natural gas, gold, and diamonds.
Russian Federation: 51.3% Total Land Area
8.64 million square miles
Russian Federation: 76.2% Total Electricity
1,728 billion kilowatt-hours
Russian Federation: 61.2% Total Oil
570 million of tons
Russian Federation: 88.8% Total Natural gas
28.8 trillion cubic feet
Russian Federation: 78.7% Total Coal
703 million tons
Russian Federation: 56.2% Total Paper
6.2 million tons
Russian Federation: 90.3% Total Cement
137 millions of tons)
Russian Federation: 60.6% Total 1990 GNP
1,300 billion rubles
Russian Federation: 57.8% Sources: The Soviet State Committee on Statistics, Interfax (Russian) news service, the Brookings Institution