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Russians Wonder Who's Spinning Whom in Film

Hollywood's account of U.S. strategists revamping Yeltsin's campaign in 1996 rubs many Moscow insiders the wrong way.

October 04, 2003|Kim Murphy | Times Staff Writer

MOSCOW — 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.

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.

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