Kolya is a scientist. Nadya is a doctor. They and their five daughters live on pounds 80 a month. No wonder they may vote Communist on Sunday. Phil Reeves reports

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You know from the moment you walk into the tiny living-room in Kolya and Nadya Dyupovkin's flat that something is out of place, but it takes a second or two to realise what. It's the books. There are plenty of them, as you would expect in the home of an educated Russian couple - a doctor and a research scientist who spent years working their way through the upper echelons of the Soviet education system. But the novels and volumes of poetry are tucked away high up the wall, to make more room at shoulder-level.

The couple are experts in the efficient use of space and money. They need to be. Despite their qualifications and years of hard work, they have neither.

Other oddities meet the eye. Beneath the television lies a pile of large marrows. Behind the net curtains in the four small rooms sit jars of carrots, cabbage, tomatoes, beans, cucumbers, apples - almost every variety of fruit and vegetable that can be coaxed out of the Russian soil before the landscape disappears under a shield of ice. Scores more jars have been squirrelled away under the beds.

In Moscow, a new class of wealthy entrepreneur glides each night from casino to casino wearing fox furs and Cartier jewellery. But the rewards of Russia's reforms have not trickled down to Kolya and Nadya, or to anyone they know.

"Materially speaking, our life is considerably worse," says Nadya. "My brother is a psychotherapist, his wife is an engineer, my sister is a journalist, her husband is a doctor. None of us can afford a car. It is very sad and very offensive."

The Dyupovkins and their five children - girls aged between two and 16 - live in Ivanovo, about 200 miles north-east of Moscow. Several decades ago it was one of Russia's more prosperous commercial centres, a textile and engineering city whose residents boasted of living in the "Red Manchester" and whose cotton looms used to employ so many more women than men that it became known the as "City of Brides".

The end of Soviet central planning and a flood of cheap imported fabrics brought about by Russia's uncertain progress towards the free market have thrown the place into depression. Many of its 50-odd textile companies are at a standstill for all or much of the day. Firms sometimes only operate at night, because they cannot afford to pay their power bills. The official unemployment rate is around 30 per cent. The true figure is estimated to be double that.

It is in this state that the city will enter Sunday's elections to the State Duma, or lower house of the Russian parliament. For the Yeltsin administration, and the government-backed party ("Our Home Is Russia"), the picture could hardly be worse.

Like many here, Kolya Dyupovkin has seen the value of his state salary and his status as a scientist (he is a researcher with the local Institute of Chemistry) slide steadily downwards. He has thought of going into private business, but he wants to stay on the right side of the law. "With inflation and the mafia, you cannot make any money here unless you break the rules." A cursory glance at the family accounts suggests that one day he may have to do just that.

Nadya, 42, is a doctor who specialises in lung ailments. Being unable to afford a nanny she is taking time off to look after her toddler, Anna, but when she works at the clinic she receives 200,000 roubles (about pounds 30) a month. Kolya, 40, doesn't fare much better, earning 360,000 roubles (pounds 54). He is a relatively rare example of a Russian who pays his taxes, about pounds 7 a month.

Although the family's tiny flat is cheap by Western standards - 150,000 roubles (pounds 22) a month, including heating and lighting - they are barely scraping by. Almost all their time outside work is devoted to trying to clothe the children, and amassing home-produced pickled food in order to keep shopping to a minimum.

So, while Russia's nouveau riche are sunning themselves on the French Riviera or the beaches of Cyprus, Kolya's summer is spent trying to snatch a few hours sleep in a daily regime which makes the life of the average workaholic look like a springtime stroll through Gorki Park.

Each evening after work, he cycles 20 miles across country towards the small dacha to which he has already dispatched the family. After working in the vegetable garden all evening, and several hours of bottling and pickling, he collapses into bed at around 1am. At dawn the next day he cycles back into town. So it goes on, day in and day out, summer after summer.

Like many in Russia, the Dyupovkins are middle-class by education, but not by income - although they are better-off than many. The average monthly income in Ivanovo is 258,000 roubles (pounds 39), nearly half the national average. You only have to wander around the city, through the ankle-deep mud and slush which the local authority cannot afford to sweep up, to see that the slump has touched virtually everyone and everything.

Some of its heavily columned public buildings, its stark Stalin-era factories, and rickety wooden cottages carry placards bearing the names of Ivanovo's revolutionary "heroes". A giant marble Lenin looms over a square, complete with a call to arms in the name of Communism. Like the ideology on which they were built, they are crumbling. "But what else is there?" asks Andrei Vishnyevsky. "What have we got to hang in its place?"

He is sitting in a cafe in the town centre. Next to him, a tramp was losing his battle with a bellyful of vodka, his head inches away from slumping into a steel plate of greasy goulash. Before him stood a cup of coffee, or rather sweetened dishwater, dispensed with a ladle from a iron pail by one of the Soviet-era cafeteria's grubby serving staff. The air is heavy with the smell of cooked cabbage and sweat. If life has improved here in the past few years, one recoils at the thought of what it was like before.

His mother is a Communist. His father - well, his father is difficult to categorise, Andrei explains. Best call him an anarchist. Andrei himself, a postgraduate student and a specialist in medieval English literature and phonetics - the cream, in other words, of the Russian education system - he is nothing. A non-voter. "I have no interest in this election," he says.

At 22, Andrei can rattle on about Chaucer, or Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, but the politicians who aspire to shape his future interest him about as much as a mouthful of the snow through which he waded to get to the cafe. Boris Yeltsin is "not as clever as he thinks he is"; he has never heard of Gennady Zyuganov, the popular Communist leader; he would recognise by sight the even more popular retired general Alexander Lebed, co-leader of the nationalist Congress of Russian Communities, which has been advertising heavily in the city, but he "didn't like the look of him".

There was a time, when Andrei was a child, when politics had seemed thrilling, when one Soviet institution after another tumbled, and the dreary face of Communism gave way to dynamic new leaders. "You felt things changing. Life was starting to move. It was quite different." He remembers teachers at his school, the catchily named "School 32", switching on the television to allow pupils to watch history unfold before them.

The excitement has long been engulfed by a sense of hopelessness. In the 1993 elections, fewer than one in five of Russia's young people voted; opinion polls suggest that many share Andrei's despair, and will again decide not to go to the polls. "You can't change things by voting. I can't see what good it does." He gazes at the drunk, whose head is sagging ever nearer to his plate.

Not that he is surprised. Lacking work, pride, and money, the entire city seems to have embarked on a drinking spree, aided by copious supplies of very cheap imported vodka. Several thousand people - a significant percentage in a city of 470,000 - wind up in the local detoxification tank every month. It is common to see inebriated men weaving their way through the snow, or collapsing headlong on to the pavement. Passers-by pay no attention to them.

Matters have been made worse by the government's practice of delaying salaries and benefit payments, sometimes for months. Several hundred pensioners held up traffic on Ivanovo's streets recently to protest about a long delay in their pensions. Thirty-five air traffic controllers at the local airport - once one of the largest aviation hubs in the Soviet Union, now an almost silent shell - staged an 11-day hunger strike after they went unpaid, some of them for more than four months. "This is the region that is most likely to explode," says Valentin Vakulin, a leading light in the local branch of the Communist Party, "The situation is very tense."

Mr Vakulin, a 50-year-old former textile worker, is a beneficiary of the economic gloom, although only in a political sense. He is a candidate in the elections, and these days his office, which is lined from top to bottom with volumes of Lenin and oil paintings of Bolshevik revolutionary triumphs, is full of elderly people, filling envelopes and dispensing leaflets.

In 1993's parliamentary elections, the Ivanovo district was split. Some 28 per cent chose the ultra-nationalism of Vladimir Zhirinovsky, head of the Liberal Democratic Party. The pro-reform party, Russia's Choice, took 16 per cent. The rest of the votes were scattered across the spectrum, from hard-left Agrarians to liberal democrats. The Communists managed 9 per cent. This year, the polls suggest they will do far better, fuelled by general public anger and frustration with the Yeltsin administration.

"Our city is pretty conservative," says Anatoly Evgenyev, editor of Rabochi Krai ("Workers' Region"), a state-run local daily paper, "but surveys show that more than 30 per cent of the city is pro-Communist, while the other parties don't make much impact. People are tired of promises. They have been promised so much, but they got nothing. And they want the government to take care of them again."

Exactly what a Communist success in the Duma would mean to Ivanovo is hard to gauge, as the parliament's power is limited and votes do not always translate into a proportionate number of parliamentary seats. If you believe Mr Vakulin, the public's nostalgia for a return to Soviet times is not likely to be fulfilled. Like his party's national leader, Gennady Zyuganov, he insists that the Communists of the mid-Nineties do not want to recreate the past (although they talk wistfully about the voluntary resurrection of the Soviet Union) and are a "human, loving party - not at all extreme". Others in the party are known to take a far more hardline view, prompting speculation that it will split if it gains political control of the Russian legislature.

As Vakulin and his fellow Ivanovo Communists beaver away with their vote- gathering mission, the Dyupovkin household awaits the election without enthusiasm. None of the choices excite Kolya. "These so-called Democrats only call themselves Democrats, but they have offered no protection to citizens. If unemployment grows any more and industry carries on declining, we won't have democracy, but anarchy."

Surrounded by her children, his wife sounds even more forlorn: "My patience is running out with all politics. Nothing seems to work."