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Profile : Russia's Top Judge Stars in Historic Role : 'We can make our own sunrises and sunsets,' says Zorkin, who is coaxing his nation toward democracy.


MOSCOW — When Valery Dmitrievich Zorkin glances up from the desk in his spacious, wood-paneled office, he sees a bucolic Russian landscape on the opposite wall. Its only remarkable feature is a pale sun that hovers just above the horizon.

The chairman of Russia's Constitutional Court says he chose the painting for the riddle it suggests--one he often ponders himself and poses teasingly to visitors.

"Can you tell me whether what you see here is a sunset or a sunrise?" he asks them.

Then, after a puzzled silence: "The reason I ask, I compare this to Russia, where the future is entirely in our hands. There is a God. But man can go either way, to God or the devil. We are at a crossroads. We can make our own sunrises or sunsets."

Zorkin doesn't really need this prop. His charismatic manner and rhetoric, livened by steel-blue eyes, are enough to convey the drama of post-Communist Russia's pitfalls and possibilities--and of his own mission to coax this unruly nation, by judicial activism and compromise, into a stable, law-abiding democracy.

It is a mission--assumed in his late 40s after a colorless legal-academic career within the Communist system--that has propelled Zorkin to sudden prominence as chief arbiter in the Titanic struggles for supremacy between reformist President Boris N. Yeltsin and his recalcitrant foes in the Parliament.

Since its creation in October, 1991, two months before the Soviet Union collapsed, the newly independent Russian judiciary under Zorkin has achieved what no court had ever done under czarist or Communist rule. It has declared government acts illegal and managed to reverse them.

Historical parallels are inviting. American scholars like to compare Zorkin to U.S. Chief Justice John Marshall, the legal giant of post-revolutionary America who established the Supreme Court's ultimate authority on the constitutionality of laws.

Yet Zorkin has staked out a broader, more controversial role that often exceeds his mandate. He goes on television. He speaks out on matters not before his court. He berates the police for protecting organized crime. He summons politicians for round-table debates. He calls for a strong, moderate conservative party to isolate Yeltsin's fascist opponents. He complains that Yeltsin's free-market economics have "turned us into beggars." He does all this, he says, to calm national passions and save the cause of democratic reform.

In his boldest initiative yet, Zorkin stood before the Congress of People's Deputies last December and threatened Yeltsin and Parliament Speaker Ruslan I. Khasbulatov with impeachment, saying their rivalry had taken Russia to the brink of turmoil.

Those were heady days in Moscow. Frustrated by the Congress, Yeltsin called for a popular referendum aimed at cutting short its term. Khasbulatov threatened to outlaw such a vote. Amid rumors of troop movements, defense and security chiefs were called to Parliament to be grilled on their loyalties.

With the court's backing, Zorkin then brokered and announced the compromise that made him the hero of that crisis. Before cheering lawmakers, Yeltsin and Khasbulatov shook hands and agreed to an April 11 referendum on a new constitution that may move this nation beyond its obsolete Soviet-era institutions.

"I think that politics and law cannot be separated by a wall," Zorkin said in an interview, seated at the long conference table where his 13-member court deliberates. "Given a different political climate, as in Germany, for example, the court could sit quietly in some other city and wait until this or that law aroused controversy. But here . . . sometimes emergencies arise and we cannot keep silent."

Zorkin's leap from bookworm to activist came after two decades of academic obscurity. Unlike Yeltsin, who openly defied the Soviet leadership in its final years, Zorkin played by the rules, quietly honing his expertise in constitutional law through a broad reading of history that developed his liberal democratic principles.

The son of a Soviet army general and a Russian literature instructor, Zorkin was born 50 years ago next week near a military base in Russia's Far East. After youthful travel as an army brat, he studied law at Moscow State University and acquired the Communist Party membership he would later need to teach it.

But people with other convictions shaped his thinking. He acquired Orthodox Christian beliefs from his grandmother and democratic ideals from Stepan F. Kichikyan, his thesis adviser, who had been a law professor since before the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution.

"Kichikyan led me to understand the great world of culture--not only Marx, Engels and Lenin, but Aristotle, Plato and Confucius," Zorkin said. He also introduced Zorkin to the ideas of pre-revolutionary Russian philosophers who had sought a liberal constitutional monarchy under the czars. They became the subject of Zorkin's doctoral dissertation and an object of his admiration.

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