For Yeltsin Foes, It Was Truly a Forgettable Day


This is where the road to nowhere ended Tuesday, an industrial pothole of a town that hosted one of the strangest wild-goose chases that Russian politics has ever seen.

Looking like trainee Keystone Kops or Los Angeles teen-agers in search of an underground warehouse party, scores of Russian and foreign reporters and official guests raced after each other's cars for more than two hours in the snowy countryside around Podolsk, pulling U-turns and tailgating, each hoping that the others knew where they were going.

They did not.

The frustrated travelers were searching for the floating Congress of People's Deputies, the gathering of the defunct Soviet Union's highest governmental body; former deputies had announced it would meet in Podolsk--even though the country it represented no longer exists.

Followers of Russian politics are used to chaos and conspiracy, but the disappearance of the Congress marked new heights. One Russian reporter compared the Congress session to the elusive Flying Dutchman. Russian Radio commented: "The (meeting of the defunct) Congress is getting ever more ghostly. Maybe it's taking place in an open field. . . ."

In fact, it was conducted at a farm in Voronovo, a town more than 10 miles from Podolsk. But many never found it; those who got there said they were initially barred from the proceedings. Even Vladimir V. Zhirinovsky, the outrageous populist politician who has drawn a loyal following with his ultra-hard line and promises of cheap vodka, could be seen struggling, helplessly, at a rural crossroads with traffic police proclaiming their total ignorance about any Congress.

"The City Council doesn't know anything either," he fumed, before clambering into his minivan and heading back toward town.

He immediately drew a cavalcade of followers, cursing as they turned their cars around yet again but shouting reassurances to each other that "Zhirinovsky always knows."

He didn't know.

The cars raced down dead-ends, bottoming out at closed military bases and sleepy side roads leading to factory complexes. They even went up one winding route to a sports camp, where, organizers said, they were sure the meeting was supposed to be held.

They were wrong.

Conspiracy theories abounded as to what had happened. Some speculated that the meeting's organizers themselves had led the motorcade astray to prevent the public from finding out how few deputies had registered. Others offered the more sinister view that dirty tricks specialists in the Russian government's intelligence services had slipped in phony drivers who absconded with the deputies.

But the truth was more prosaic. Viktor Alksnis, one of the Soviet deputies who organized the Congress, said that Podolsk authorities had reneged at the last minute on their promise of a hall for the session; the buses were forced to travel onward to another site.

He did not explain why the deputies had not left word at the Podolsk meeting place about their new destination.

But they had apparently feared exactly the kind of mischief they encountered anyway: Within minutes of the Congress' opening session, all the electricity in the district went out.

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