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Russians Wonder Who’s Spinning Whom in Film

Times Staff Writer

Alexander Oslon remembers the day the Americans came to save Boris Yeltsin’s presidential campaign in 1996.

Funny, they didn’t look like soldiers of democracy.

“I looked out this very window,” Oslon, one of Russia’s premier political pollsters, recalled recently. “I saw a white car parked outside. Two men emerged. One guy was so big he had trouble squeezing through the gate. They introduced themselves as the Americans working for the Yeltsin election headquarters.”

Oslon perhaps should have known that the architects of U.S. political campaigns almost never come on white horses. They come in mid-size sedans, hang out in back rooms, order pizza, talk on lots of cell phones. They come locked and loaded with mailers to pry money out of supporters, focus groups to select an attractive message, ads that suggest the opponent would be more appropriately ensconced in jail than in public office.

That spring, three former staffers for then-California Gov. Pete Wilson slipped into a hotel room near the Kremlin and got to work teaching Russia -- a nation with an 800-year history of coups, poisonings-disguised-as-heart-attacks and exile to Siberia, but almost no experience in free elections -- how to run a modern campaign.

Enter George Gorton, Joe Shumate and Dick Dresner. You may have heard of them, not because they helped keep Yeltsin in office and preserve democracy in Russia, which they quite possibly did, but because in recent months all three have been working overtime to put Arnold Schwarzenegger in the California governor’s office.

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Hollywood’s retelling of how the California spinmeisters fended off the communists and bailed out Yeltsin debuted on video in Russia this summer. “Spinning Boris,” which is to air in the U.S. on Showtime later this year, quickly became a much-talked-about movie in Russia last month.

In political circles here, the only thing more talked about is the comparison that inevitably follows as to when you switched it off in irritation. American political hacks show Russians how to make political enemies look bad? Pozhaluista! (Please!) Mysterious Russian operatives shadow American visitors through Moscow’s back streets? How ‘60s! The Kremlin’s most devious masterminds need focus groups to tell them that Yeltsin -- ailing and depressed -- needs an image make-over?

“What I can say is we didn’t derive any pleasure from watching this movie,” Sergei Filatov, Yeltin’s chief of staff and an architect of the ’96 campaign, said of the film, known in Russia as “Proyekt Yeltsin” (Project Yeltsin). “We just kept looking at everything these American guys supposedly did, and asking ourselves the question: Didn’t we do anything at all? What was our role?”

Andrei Piontkovsky, director of Moscow’s Center for Strategic Studies and also a campaign insider, added, “This movie about three American political technicians coming to Russia and getting Yeltsin reelected is sheer delirium.

“Is there still somebody in the U.S. who sincerely believes that it couldn’t have occurred to political analysts working for Yeltsin in ’96 that they needed to go negative on the communists?”

It probably didn’t escape Hollywood’s notice that such an uproar would do nothing to diminish sales, particularly in the middle of another Russian campaign season. Yeltsin’s successor, Vladimir V. Putin, is preparing to seek a second term as 44 Russian political parties duke it out for 450 seats in the State Duma, the lower house of parliament.

These days, most Russians don’t give a second thought to the colorful campaign billboards towering over Leningradsky Prospekt and almost weekly polls showing which party has an edge. In 1996, when Yeltsin was fighting for the survival of Russia’s experiment with democracy -- polling barely 6% against his Communist Party rival, Gennady Zyuganov -- the fine points of electioneering were relatively untested.

“It was a difficult situation. They had gone through five years of starting up a new government, in a huge, populous country, and they had to deal with their first election,” said Shumate (played by Liev Schreiber in the film), a GOP expert in political data analysis who served as Wilson’s deputy chief of staff before the Russian venture.

“It was really the first time American political strategies were implemented in Russia,” said John Morris, co-executive producer of the Licht/Mueller Film Corp. production. “And there was a real question in early ’96 as to whether this election was even going to take place.”

In his first term, Yeltsin had slipped a long way from his heroic image as a freedom fighter challenging Russian tanks during an attempted coup in 1991. The rich oligarchs who were Yeltsin’s backers had grabbed much of the nation’s wealth, war was raging in the separatist republic of Chechnya, and Yeltsin, in poor health, often looked distant and dour on TV.

“There were two problems when we got there that immediately needed to be cured,” Gorton said recently. “One of them was the Russian people longed for a czar-like figure who would take care of the country.

“They [the Russian advisors] thought he should be pictured as strong and forbidding and stern. We did some focus groups and found that when he smiled, he did a lot better than when he frowned.”

The Americans also wanted to get Yeltsin out mixing with voters, not just making long speeches on TV. But they had to find a way to explain that to the woman who had hired them: Tatyana Dyachenko, Yeltsin’s powerful daughter.

“Tatyana told us right upfront ... he was afraid he was going to be booed,” said Gorton, who is played by Jeff Goldblum. “We told them, ‘Send out advance men who will make sure the crowds respond positively.’ ”

In the central drama of the film, the Americans turn the tide by convincing a reluctant Dyachenko to air negative campaign ads against the Communist Party, pointing up its repressive and often bloody history during more than 70 years in power.

“She was very idealistic at the beginning,” Gorton recalled. “She didn’t want to do anything that was a dirty American trick, as she said to me one time. I said, ‘Tatyana, it’s better to use TV advertising and things like that than to use guns and bullets, the way this country’s been running.’ ”

Filatov said the Russians hardly needed foreign consultants to tell them that their man required a new image.

“He would also very often use some sort of czar-like, patronizing tone of voice, and this was most unsuitable. We told him he needed to use a voice more befitting the father of the nation, so to speak,” Filatov said. “What [the Americans] brought us was something we had known way before. It was nothing extraordinary.”

Oslon, the pollster, said he stopped watching the movie when it portrayed the American consultants twisting Dyachenko’s arm to unload negative ads on the communists.

“This is just so ludicrous, it’s not even worth mentioning,” Oslon said. “You must understand: Yeltsin was an orthodox communist who broke up with his sect. Neophytes are always the most rabid defenders of any new belief, and Yeltsin’s anti-communism was so rabid it ran in his veins.”

Gorton and the producers say they have an exhaustive file of memos, reports and photographs to back up their version of the story. And some Russians are ready to give the Americans credit.

“It is unjust that today some people in Russia tend to condescendingly laugh at the role of the Americans and their level of knowledge,” said Gleb Pavlovsky, president of the Effective Policy Fund, who had an active role in the 1996 elections. “They may not have had the full command of local politics, but they clearly knew what was to be done about dismal popularity ratings.”

Oslon, meanwhile, speaks of the film with bemusement more than anything. “Imagine that after the blackout on the East Coast of the U.S., [a Russian] jumps on a plane, flies to the U.S., waits till the lights come back on, flies back and announces, ‘It was my handiwork,’ ” he said.

“The only difference is that in Russia, nobody would believe it, whereas in America, the entire nation is ready to believe this story.”

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Alexei V. Kuznetsov of The Times’ Moscow Bureau contributed to this report.


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