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Russia’s Political Wives Go Public _ But Cautiously

May 16, 1996

MOSCOW (AP) _ Boris Yeltsin likes to set the table and do the dishes. Alexander Lebed is a teetotaler and misses wearing his general’s uniform. Vladimir Zhirinovsky uses pet names and gives roses.

Russian voters who care can now learn such personal tidbits from those who know: the candidates’ wives, whose growing visibility is one of the newest sidelights of the presidential campaign.

But Hillary Rodham Clinton or Elizabeth Dole they’re not.

Ten years after the stylish Raisa Gorbachev stunned the world by emerging from her husband’s shadow as the first visible Soviet spouse, Russian political wives are still only slowly venturing into the limelight.

Like so many Western imports in Russia, the idea of a first lady with a public identity seems enlightened and seductive on the one hand, but frivolous and alien on the other.

``I don’t need a Raisa Maximovna (Gorbachev). I need a wife,″ Lebed growled to the newspaper Rabochaya Tribuna when asked about his wife Inna’s handful of press appearances.

Only political junkies could name the wife of Communist candidate Gennady Zyuganov _ Nadezhda _ who he says doesn’t need a public profile.

But in the weeks before the June 16 presidential vote, many candidates apparently feel a popular wife could help their campaigns _ just so long as she sticks to what are widely proclaimed as traditional wifely virtues: modesty, deference and common sense.

Naina Yeltsin has proved a master of the middle ground. Part fighter, part wallflower, she is seen as an asset to husband Boris’ re-election campaign.

``Mrs. Yeltsin is a very clever and energetic woman. She doesn’t like publicity, but she always comes out of the shade to defend her husband when he is in a difficult situation,″ says Larisa Vasilieva, author of the gossipy best-seller, ``Kremlin Wives.″

Naina’s wardrobe has become increasingly elegant, but her style remains down-to-earth. Her protestations that she is uninterested in politics and would just as soon see her Borya retire have made her popular. At the same time, she is compared favorably to Mrs. Gorbachev, whom Russians saw as strong-willed and ambitious.

Mrs. Yeltsin began assuming a public _ even political _ role when the president was hospitalized for heart trouble last fall. She gave health updates, defended his policies, and began getting more publicity on her rounds: Western-style first-lady tours of factories, hospitals and trade shows.

Now she accompanies him on campaign swings and foreign visits, and this week made a solo campaign trip. She talks to crowds and promises to take all complaints to the president.

Yeltsin apparently likes the family touch: recently, he added his daughter, Tatyana, to his campaign staff.

All of which is a far cry from Soviet days, when Kremlin wives were well-kept secrets. When Viktoria Brezhnev died in July, hardly anyone knew anything about her, although her husband, Leonid, had ruled the Soviet Union for 18 years.

By showing the public more of himself and his family, Yeltsin is arguably making Russia’s political process more open and democratic. But he has gone only so far; his wife grants interviews sparingly and is not asked tough questions.

In a recent interview on the independent NTV network, she talked about his hobbies, family, the daily life of the Yeltsin household. Questions about the president’s health or drinking, for instance, were not raised.

By contrast, the ultranationalist Zhirinovsky says if he becomes president, he’ll send his wife to a convent to keep her from meddling in politics. Nevertheless, the publicity-savvy candidate staged a ``church wedding″ in February with his wife of 25 years, Galina.

Less is heard from Raisa Gorbachev, thrown once again into the public sphere when her husband, Mikhail, announced he was running for president. She opposed the decision.

But she showed a flash of her former self on the campaign trail this month. When a heckler in Volgograd blamed the unpopular Gorbachev for the country’s collapse, Raisa shouted back, ``It wasn’t him, it was Yeltsin!″

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