Between the devil and the deep red sea

Helen Womack finds Russians desperate to do the right thing in an election with no clear leading candidates
A BEAR-LIKE man sat on the Moscow metro last week, squashing the thinner passengers seated beside him. He was reading the Communist election manifesto which eager party workers had thrust into his hand at Akademicheskaya station: "The party promises to restore citizens' rights to labour, free health care, leisure ... " The bear's eyes glazed over and he fell asleep. He began to snore. He snored so loudly he woke himself up and, spluttering, returned to the text: "... rights to labour, free health care, leisure and education."

It is rude to stare in Russia, but this man was fascinating. He seemed to me to represent the nation's voters, reluctantly turning to the outpourings of 43 parties after weeks of pushing next Sunday's parliamentary elections to the backs of their minds as if they were school exams.

Back in the era of perestroika, when Mikhail Gorbachev allowed free expression after decades of dictatorship, Russians were passionate about politics. When the first Soviet parliament to include independent MPs as well as Communists gathered, citizens walked the streets with portable radios glued to their ears, anxious not to miss a word of the debates. But since those heady days, deep disenchantment has set in. Politicians are viewed as corrupt; many ordinary Russians are cynical about the whole democratic process.

"It may seem we have a staggering choice compared with the time when we could vote however we liked as long as it was for the Communist Party," said a woman ploughing through a newspaper in a seat opposite the bear's. "But really what we are doing is trying to work out who represents the least of the evils." The headline on the article she was reading in Moskovsky Komsomolets said: "Choose, choose, whatever you choose you will get heaven."

Some people have already made up their minds. "Boris Fyodorov gets my vote," said Nina Veniaminova, a pensioner who was shopping in the Novoslobodskaya wholesale market, a magnet for the poor because of the discounts it offers on bulk purchases. "He says straight out that the government are all mafia." Boris Fyodorov is a Western-trained free marketeer who has lately adopted some of the nationalist rhetoric of Vladimir Zhironovsky.

Anton Vinogradov, a van driver, was also wandering through the bazaar, a colourful place full of cheap imports brought in by chelnoki (shuttle traders) who would have been jailed for black marketeering in Soviet times. "I shall vote for [Yegor] Gaidar," he said, choosing the young economist who launched reforms for President Boris Yeltsin in 1992 but was dropped in a concession to conservative deputies. "He's clever. It's either him or General [Alexander] Lebed [nationalist]. No, I'm only joking about Lebed. We have to have intelligent people in power now. We've suffered enough from fools."

The latest opinion poll, published in Sevodnya newspaper last week, showed the Communists, revamped under their new leader, Gennady Zyuganov, out in front with a predicted 12 per cent of the vote. Then came the government party, Our Home is Russia, and the reformist grouping, Yabloko, with 6 per cent each. They were followed by Women of Russia (5 per cent), Vladimir Zhirinovsky's Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (4), General Lebed and Svyatoslav Fyodorov (3 per cent each), Mr Gaidar (2), the Agrarians (1 per cent), the rest nowhere.

The poll was interesting not so much for the voting intentions it indicated as the mass of still-undecided voters it suggested. If the front-running Communists could boast only 12 per cent, that showed how open the race remained. Election officials predict a turnout of 55 to 60 per cent. The Duma (parliament) has limited powers and the confusion of voting patterns means that Mr Yeltsin, whatever the result, is likely to hold on to the apparent reins of political control. But this election is widely seen as a primary for the presidential election due next year - an election which will decide the country's future (or seal its fate).

Those voters who still strive to take politics seriously are agonising over their choice. "Who shall I vote for? You're a correspondent. You should know," said my friend Pyotr, a teacher. Working in the bankrupt state sector, he has seen his living standards plunge as a result of the transition to capitalism. Yet he has no desire to go back to communism; still less to see the rise of a nationalist dictator.

Strategic voting is a skill that he and many others are still trying to comprehend. Grigory Yavlinsky, leader of Yabloko, often seems to be favoured by voters, especially the young, who are unsure what they want but know very definitely what they do not want. Analysts say many votes, cast in protest or despair, could be wasted on tiny parties with no hope of crossing the 5 per cent threshold to enter the Duma.

"It is difficult, indeed, but vote you must," says a kindly uncle figure who appears on television after the news. Then comes the nightly barrage of party political broadcasts, annoyingly replacing the Latin American soap operas to which Russians are addicted. They provide bewildering food for thought for the many floating voters.

The Prime Minister, Viktor Chernomyrdin, who has the tacit support of Mr Yeltsin, is reported to have spent most on adverts for Our Home is Russia. But his chosen symbol of a roof and the slogan "If your house is dear to you" are unfortunate, since most Russians immediately think of the slang use of the word krysha (roof) to mean mafia protection.

Mr Zhirinovsky has the most startling approach, crooning folk songs on one ad and presenting himself as a one-man aphrodisiac on the other. A couple is shown in bed and the woman becomes especially excited when Mr Zhirinovsky's smirking face appears on television.

General Lebed, popular with army officers because of his attacks on corruption in the military, sends shivers down the spines of many civilian viewers with his ad showing a bribe-taking bureaucrat being thrown into jail. "It's a choice between the mafia and a return to labour camps," commented Pyotr as we watched the TV broadcasts the other evening.

The Communists appear less often on television, perhaps because they think that with their long history in Russia they are well enough known. But if you were a fly on the wall in a Russian home last week, you would mostly have heard a buzz of talk about the resurgent former rulers.

The core political conversation goes like this: can the Communists be trusted? Are they the same old bunch, with brighter packaging? Or have they learned their lesson? Mostly, it is the older people - hope triumphing over experience, or perhaps years of indoctrination proving its worth - who are willing to give the new "democratic" Communists another chance. The young mostly dread a return to the safe, barren, colourless years before the Soviet Union collapsed.

"I'm going to vote Communist," said Pyotr's mother, Valentina, one day last week. "We need social welfare. I'm sure they have become more democratic." "Don't trust them," said her son. "You know the saying: 'You cannot wash a black dog white.' "