October 18, 1993 12:00 PM

AS A FORMER TOP GUN IN THE SOVIET Air Force, Alexander Rutskoi has done his share of seat-of-the-pants flying. During the Afghan war in the ’80s, he was shot down twice—and in one instance captured by rebels. After he’d been sent home as part of a prisoner exchange, he was proclaimed a Hero of the Soviet Union, the nation’s highest military honor. Yet ever since he became Russia’s Vice President under Boris Yeltsin, Rutskoi, 46, has played down that gungho image, insisting that he is really a very cautious fellow. “I believe there is a need to think first and then act,” he has said. When a pilot acts impulsively, he added, “he will simply crash.”

After his attempted putsch against Yeltsin ended in bloodshed last week, Rutskoi was probably wishing he had taken his own advice. On Oct. 4 government troops stormed the While House—the country’s Parliament building—where Rutskoi and rebellious legislators had holed up after Yeltsin dissolved Parliament two weeks earlier in a move to consolidate his power. Yeltsin acted one day after Rutskoi exhorted his followers to attack Moscow’s television center, provoking a clash that left 62 dead. Rutskoi was evidently hoping that the Russian people—battered by hyperinflation and burgeoning crime brought on by Yeltsin’s headlong rush toward a market economy—would rise up in support. Instead the military and the citizenry in Moscow overwhelmingly backed the President, and Rutskoi, who was taken into custody unharmed, found himself bundled off to Lefortovo Prison.

Rutskoi had been bridling almost from the moment Yeltsin plucked him from political obscurity in 1991 to be his running male. At the time, it seemed like an inspired choice. The son of a Soviet tank commander who was highly decorated during World War II, Rutskoi had established an equally impressive military record of his own, rising to the rank of general. After entering politics, he broke away from the mainstream Communists, and Yeltsin plainly hoped that Rutskoi’s background, plus his dashing, charismatic style, would help provide credibility with both reformers and the military, two key constituencies.

The strategy paid off when Yeltsin and Rutskoi handily won election in June 1991 to the top posts in the fledgling Russian Federation, which was then still part of the Soviet Union. Rutskoi proclaimed that he would follow Yeltsin and his reformist policies “until the end.” And during the coup attempt by hard-liners in August 1991, Rutskoi proved his loyally. Under orders from Yeltsin, Rutskoi gathered a unit of elite troops and rescued Mikhail Gorbachev, who was still the nominal head of the Soviet Union and was being held by insurgents at his Black Sea dacha.

Afterward, though, Yeltsin sought to prevent the emergence of a rival by shunting Rutskoi to the sidelines. More and more, the Vice President began to openly question Yeltsin’s policy of economic shock therapy. Rutskoi believed that reform was moving too fast and visiting terrible economic hardships on the average Russian. He also seemed receptive to the idea of reestablishing the Soviet empire. Indeed, a giant oil portrait of Peter the Great dominated his Moscow office, which was filled with models of airplanes from the Afghan war.

That sort of nationalism, which made Rutskoi a hero to right-wing Russians, did not sit well with Yeltsin. Earlier this year, the President humiliated Rutskoi by stripping him of such perks as his Mercedes-Benz limousine and most of his bodyguards. Lately Rutskoi had taken to calling Yeltsin a liar, while a Yeltsin spokesman had branded the Vice President a cockroach. The differences between the two even extended to their personal styles. The more dapper Rutskoi favors sleekly tailored European suits—a taste cultivated by his second wife, Ludmila, a former model and an executive at a fashion house in Moscow.

Brash and impulsive, Rutskoi startled many Western observers with his clumsy grab for power. “It’s a mystery why he wasn’t more patient,” says Prof. Jerry Hough, a Russia expert at Duke University. “He could have sat back and let Yeltsin hang himself.” Now it is Rutskoi whose neck is on the line. Putting him on trial could be a gamble for Yeltsin, since it risks turning his nemesis into a martyr. But Yeltsin is known as a vindictive man and may not be able to resist the temptation. As the crisis ground to its conclusion last week, Zina Rutskoi, the Vice President’s mother, fretted that her daring boy’s luck might finally have run out. “Of course I’m worried,” she said. “Mothers worry-about their sons.”



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