With his low opinion of all politicians, Alexei K was going to miss Russia's presidential election, but at the last minute yesterday he went and voted for the liberal candidate, Grigory Yavlinsky. "Something inside me snapped," he said. "After I saw ORT [the pro-Kremlin channel] saying that Yavlinsky was for Jews, foreigners and homosexuals, I thought 'this is just not fair'. I don't like Yavlinsky any better than the others, but I did not want Putin to have it all his own way."
If, in Russia's seemingly predictable election, Vladimir Putin, the acting president, is forced into a second round, it will be because his backers have promoted him too heavily, forgetting the soft spot that Russians have been known to show for the underdog.
For every Putin voter who came out of one Moscow polling station yesterday, there was someone who had preferred Mr Yavlinsky or the Communist candidate, Gennady Zyuganov, the other outsider in the race.
Election day in Russia has something of the atmosphere of Christmas morning in Britain. Enthusiastic voters, mostly of the older generation, are out early in their best clothes, as if on their way to church. The younger generation gets out of bed and joins in later. Swirling snow added to the Christmas effect yesterday.
Larissa Velchanskaya, resplendent in a white anorak, said: "I have a son growing up and I do not want him to die in Chechnya. Yavlinsky is a democrat. He is the only one who has criticised the war."
Raisa Ivanovna, a cold-store manager, on the other hand, had voted for Mr Putin. "He is young and active, which makes a welcome change after Yeltsin," she said. "With all the problems he has inherited, it won't be easy for him and perhaps we won't feel an immediate improvement, but I am pinning my hopes on Putin."
But Nikolai Petrovich, a former builder, disagreed. "Putin is just a continuation of [Boris] Yeltsin," he said. "I was never a Communist before, but I have voted for Zyuganov because as a pensioner I was hit hard by Yeltsin's so-called 'reforms'."
More Zyuganov voters came out of the polling station in a festive mood. "We've voted for Zyuganov," said Nadezhda Valentinova, "simply because we think there should be some alternative, a bit of healthy competition."
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