Q: Which 39-year-old female mathematician was rumored in 1999 to be secretly in charge of one of the world's largest countries?
A: Tatyana Dyachenko. She is Boris Yeltsin's younger daughter, and acted as his deputy. Since Yeltsin was ailing at the time, this prompted suspicions that she was secretly running Russia.
Note that I'm not claiming this rumor is true, just that the rumor existed. A Russian correspondent of mine claims the rumor is false and that it's even an exaggeration to call Dyachenko a "mathematician".
SHE is young, tough and fiercely intelligent. But Tatyana Dyachenko's greatest asset is that she is Boris Yeltsin's daughter. As such, she has a privilege denied to his closest advisers - the ability to confront the Russian president with unpalatable truths without provoking his wrath. The official appointment of Dyachenko as Yeltsin's image-maker told Russians more about Yeltsin's patriarchal rule than about Dyachenko's talent as a spin doctor. The message was clear and most Russians did not like it.
The appointment provoked fierce criticism. The opposition accused her father of blatant nepotism. It was not the first time. Yeltsin came under fire in March after the appointment of Valery Okulov as head of Aeroflot, the Russian airline. The former flight navigator is married to Lena, Yeltsin's elder daughter. "That really was outrageous, a shameless case of nepotism," said Andrei Piontkovsky, a leading Russian political commentator.
"The president has set a bad example with Dyachenko," said Gennady Seleznyov, the speaker of the Duma, or parliament, who accused Yeltsin of violating the constitution by appointing her. "He has opened a floodgate and will hardly be in a position to reproach anyone now, whenever he hears that nepotism flourishes in some ministry."
Dyachenko modestly accepted that she might not be the most qualified person for the job. But she has other advantages. "There are probably smarter and more professional people around than me," she admitted. "But there are some unpleasant things which are only easy for me to tell him."
Insiders say that Dyachenko models herself on Claude Chirac, the daughter of the French president and his official image-maker. The two have met on several occasions. The French president's daughter is said to have advised Dyachenko to formalise her role in the Kremlin during a tête-à-tête at the Elysée Palace.
Dyachenko's husband, Alexei, is said to have disapproved of his wife's appointment, concerned at the attention it might attract; the couple have already been criticised over their decision to send their son Boris to school at Millfield in Somerset at the cost of £15,000 a year.
Dyachenko, 37, shot to fame during Yeltsin's long absence from his office as he underwent heart surgery. A former mathematician and computer programmer at a space research centre in Moscow, the mother of two became the sole channel to her father, bringing him important documents, combing his hair before interviews and telling bodyguards not to wear dark glasses that made them look menacing.
Previously, the role of Yeltsin gatekeeper had been performed by Alexander Korzhakov, his chief bodyguard and former tennis partner. He was sacked last year under mysterious circumstances. According to one version of events, Dyachenko had stopped trusting him, even though the former KGB general is a godfather to her younger son.
She is also suspected of a role in the elevation of Anatoli Chubais to first deputy prime minister. The two have repeatedly denied rumours that they are romantically involved.
The timing of Dyachenko's appointment is not coincidental. With three years left before the end of his second and last term, Yeltsin is said to be worried about what historians might say about him. He is desperate to be remembered as the father of Russian democracy.
Dyachenko has recently encouraged her father to make regular addresses to the nation in an attempt to alter the popular perception of him as a distant leader who has forgotten his humble peasant roots. He has been encouraged to express sympathy for his countrymen over the enormous changes he has inflicted on them with his democratic reforms. "Much of what surrounded old people 10 years ago has totally changed," he said in one recent address. "The names of the streets and towns have changed, as well as the brands of detergents and household appliances... it is not easy for an old person to absorb all this." He hopes his daughter will help him win forgiveness.
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