Russian Elections: Polling at Lenin's last stand: Russians try to fathom the dialectics of contradictory voting rules in election of new parliaments and constitution referendum

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The Independent Online
GORKY-LENINSKY - The choice of venue suggested as much an exorcism as an election: two chipped Formica ballot boxes illuminated by spot-lights and placed near the spot where, on a similarly snowy day 70 winters ago, Vladimir Ilyich Lenin took a sleigh ride, patted a dog and died. But if Polling Station 1036 - along with 95,000 others across the Russian Federation - was meant to put a final stake through the heart of Communism, it also raised new demons possibly still more difficult to tame.

By yesterday afternoon, about half the 1,340 voters in Gorky- Leninsky, a village south of Moscow, had trudged through a driving wind and marched past the iron gates into the grounds of the Tsarist estate where Lenin spent his final days, consoled by readings from Jack London and tours in a Rolls Royce fitted with rubber tracks in the back, skis in the front.

It was still dark when polling started at 8am and six hours before it ended at 10pm it was dark again - a far cry from the glorious spring day that greeted the referendum on 25 April. Cars skidded on the roads, half-slush, half-ice. It was not a good day for a fresh start.

Lenin died in a colonnaded 19th- century villa down a path lined with birch and pine. It proved too small for his memory. For this, two years into Mikhail Gorbachev's perestroika, they built the Lenin Museum, a gargantuan and nearly windowless bloc faced with grey marble. It still serves the cult, its staff of administrators and researchers quietly praying they can hang on to the only solid, well-heated building for miles.

The place is usually empty. Yesterday, though, it came back to life, decked in Russian flags, ordered to waive a 25-rouble entrance fee (just over 1p) and converted into a polling station. A snack bar in the lobby sold subsidised salami sandwiches, dry biscuits and bottles of Chinese vermouth. Another stall offered a Russian translation of Emmanuelle, a novel by Jackie Collins and a picture book for dog-owners. Unable to offer candidates, the Communists offered other inducements. The tradition lingers.

The main event, though, was voting, watched over by a pensive - and no doubt disgusted - marble Lenin peering down from the top of a grand staircase. In a ground-floor room usually used as an art gallery, voters collected five ballots, tried to fathom the dialectics of contradictory voting rules and dropped them into sealed urns.

A volunteer from the local Communist Party sat on a bench to make sure the sacrilege was not carried too far: 'They would still all believe in Lenin if turncoats like Gorbachev had not blow the party apart,' muttered Avenir Stenyagin, a 67-year-old true believer and teacher at the Cartography Institute. 'Lenin lives and will live. He was the last true humanist. We were hungry during the war but understood why. Now we are hungry but don't know what for.' Almost as confusing, though, was who to vote for. In addition to party lists, he had to choose a local candidate for parliament. The best bet, he thought, was Pyotr Ryabtsev of the Agrarian Party, but he had doubts: 'I'm not sure he is with us really.' His wife stood at his side, smiling and clutching a bag with a loaf of bread.

A group of local big-wigs, one with a broken nose and all former servants of the party, waddled by to inspect the polling station. They all ignored Mr Stenyagin and his wife: their noisy faith was embarrassing. Vasily Golobin, chief of the district administration, declared himself a supporter of Civic Union and muttered about the need to combine the free-market with support for industry and pensioners. He also compared Lenin to Napoleon.

Many voters seem to prefer other refuges from the stain of Communism and the pain of the free market. Now Lenin really is dead, it is not only Mr Yeltsin who offers an alternative. There are new rebels, like Vladimir Zhirinovsky, the eccentric ultra-nationalist who promised to let voters 'dip their toes in the Indian Ocean' and boasts that he, unlike nearly everyone else, never joined the party. Across Moscow yesterday, his was the name on people's lips - either to curse or praise. The vast majority denied voting for him. But he is a force. Mr Yeltsin called the elections to get a new constitution, a new parliament and to make a clean break with the past. 'They are afraid of Lenin. He is their black cross. They want to destroy all memory of him,' said Mrs Stenyagin. 'So long is he surives they are frightened. But he will win in the end. We will not see it. In 100 years, two, maybe, three generations. He will return. Christ lives 2,000 years after he died, why not Lenin?' And how long will Mr Yeltsin last?

(Photograph omitted)