So foreign, in fact, did the very concept of a constitution--in Russian konstitutsiya-- once seem that many simple Russian people, historians note, sometimes confused it with another imported word, prostitutka , or prostitute.
It was not until 1918 that Russia, then in the hands of the Bolsheviks, received a constitution, an ideological manifesto that laid down the "dictatorship of the proletariat" as the basic instrument of enforcing the revolution's rule. A constitutional convention had been elected on a democratic basis shortly after the Communist takeover in 1917, but V. I. Lenin dissolved it after it had met for one day, since his Bolsheviks had won only 24% of the seats.
Three Soviet constitutions followed, the most recent in 1977. The constitution drafted under dictator Josef Stalin in 1936, which created a healthy decentralized democracy on paper that still impresses jurists with its institutional perfection, did nothing to impede in the slightest the epoch of political terror that was then beginning.
Until the Russian Congress, which is empowered to adopt constitutional changes, decides otherwise, this country will be governed by the constitution adopted April 12, 1978, for the Russian Soviet Federated Socialist Republic.
Although it has been amended, for example, to create the Congress and the presidency to which Yeltsin was elected last June, the 1978 charter remains socialist in philosophy. It ordains a Soviet government system, not one based on the sovereignty of the people and the democracy of majority rule.
For a year and a half, a commission led by Russian lawmaker Oleg G. Rumyantsev has been drafting what ultimately has become a monster of a replacement. At last count, it covered eight tabloid-sized newspaper pages and contained 138 articles (the U.S. Constitution has seven).
Known in Kremlin shorthand as the "official variant," Rumyantsev's constitution would create what the commission secretary has called a "semi-presidential" division of power.
Its most important features include provisions that would prevent Yeltsin from dissolving Parliament and give the lawmakers the power to fire individual members of Yeltsin's Cabinet, if they could muster a two-thirds vote.
That text was laboriously making its way through Russia's smaller working legislature, the Supreme Soviet, when Yeltsin and Burbulis, chief of the presidential brain trust, took aim at it, Yeltsin reportedly damning it as too "socialist" and "Soviet."
Thickening the plot, St. Petersburg Mayor Anatoly Sobchak then surfaced with a proposal of his own--a constitution reviving institutions of czarist times (for example, the large territorial division known as the \o7 guberniya) \f7 as well as 18th-Century political doctrines such as the "inalienable rights" mentioned in the U.S. Declaration of Independence.
As the Congress meeting nears, at least three other draft constitutions are in various stages of completion. It will be up to Yeltsin to publicly throw his support to one of them, in what should be a moment of high drama at the Congress.
After meeting with Yeltsin for 90 minutes last week, Rumyantsev said the president, who officially chairs the Constitutional Commission but has kept a studied silence through most of its work, will offer his own amendments to Articles 16 and 17 of the "official variant" to greatly beef up presidential authority.
Evidently, Yeltsin wants no part of a mere "semi-presidential" system. A St. Petersburg radical who met with Yeltsin said he has rejected Sobchak's draft because it would give the president no more authority to govern than the "Queen of England."
One key decision the Congress must face is whether to revoke the right to legislate by decrees that it gave to Yeltsin in October. Yeltsin's simultaneous holding of two other important posts--those of Russia's premier and defense minister--will also probably come under attack.
Meantime, the Russian White House on the banks of the Moscow River has been abuzz for weeks with rumors that Yeltsin may have to sacrifice some of his more unpopular underlings to placate the members of Congress.
In the march to a market economy, Gaidar and his team of self-assured economic whiz kids have made numerous enemies. Academician Georgy A. Arbatov has even accused Gaidar, a 36-year-old doctor of economics, of resorting to the same tactics as the Bolsheviks--"lying, secrecy and misleading the population."
But as the United States and other major industrialized nations gear up to give Russia $24 billion in economic aid, the trust and respect that Gaidar has earned abroad is an asset Yeltsin can hardly afford to discard.
Another lightning rod for legislative criticism, Sergei M. Shakhrai, the president's adviser on legal affairs, has also resigned as deputy prime minister, pleading his desire to remain in the Congress as a deputy. He should be a leader of the floor fight at the Congress to get Yeltsin's agenda approved.