Russia's old Communists refuse to die: The struggle against Boris Yeltsin's reforms is most bitter at the level of the state factory. In Voronezh Andrew Higgins met a 'red director' determined to combat all the President stands for

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THE FIRST sign of trouble was the bomb blast outside the factory gate: it was not much of an explosion but it did castrate Lenin, now discreetly covered up to the waist by wooden boards but still standing stolid, if increasingly lonely, atop a plinth before the Voronezh Mechanical Plant.

Who could do such a thing is still not known. Police are looking for the culprit. Georgy Kostin, truculent Leninist, winner of the Order of Lenin and director of the Mechanical Plant, suspects sabotage by local demokrati. He spits out the word as if it were the foulest of insults. 'Go ahead, call me a red director,' says Mr Kostin. 'I'm not ashamed. It shows my workers trust me to stand up for them.'

The next attack hit him harder still. And unlike the dynamiting of Lenin, it was signed. It was delivered by fax on headed stationery from the State Committee of Defence Industries in Moscow, responsible for overseeing the Voronezh Mechanical Plant, even though it now makes far more dough mixers, meat grinders and oil pumps than rocket engines.

The plant's fax machine spat out a curt command telling Mr Kostin to cut short his holiday and get back to work. Seconds later arrived another message from Moscow, 500km away to the north, telling him what to do when he got into the office: clear his desk. Mr Kostin had just been fired.

He is now at home plotting his revenge. His first tactic is pedantry. 'They can't fire me, I'm still on holiday,' he splutters, sitting in his study, photographs of the rockets he helped to build across one wall, the skin of a black bear he shot dead in Siberia on the other. 'They want to create a mood of fear. It is the same everywhere. If you don't support the President, get out.'

The Mechanical Plant might not seem much of a prize. It has 16,000 workers clamouring for higher wages, mountains of debt - 1bn roubles ( pounds 660,000) if you believe Mr Kostin, 7bn roubles if you believe his foes - and is cursed with perpetually shrinking horizons. Orders from Russia's space agency and military shrank from 80 to less than 10 per cent of business. Credit is tight and lay-offs loom.

Such traumas, though, make it a typical state enterprise. And as such it has become an important test of how far Russia's so-called 'democratic' revolution can go. Parliament in Moscow is boarded up for repairs and local councils dominated by Communists are closing down. But can President Boris Yeltsin's purge move beyond politicians to tackle perhaps the most entrenched, tenacious elite: Russia's 'red directors'?

Along with state-farm directors, they formed the backbone of the abolished Congress and still have tremendous influence over millions of workers. Privatisation has changed the status of their factories, but because workers and managers keep a controlling stake it often changes little else.

One person who wants old directors swept aside is Viktor Davydkin, Mr Yeltsin's representative for Voronezh Province. 'Politics is like chess. You have to keep the initiative. If you lose time, you lose initiative. We are not talking about executing people, just about removing incompetent directors.' He has been trying to get Mr Kostin out since soon after the 1991 coup attempt. Recent convulsions in Moscow gave him an excuse. He compiled a dossier and sent it to Moscow. The evidence was mostly circumstantial.

The real issue, though, is politics. For both the 'democrats' and 'Communists', control over factories means control over levers of power. And the battle in Voronezh over a single plant shows how hard they fight to get or keep hold of this power. 'Kostin may not be a bad director but politically he is completely off the rails,' says Nikholai Morozov, a democratic activist.

On the other side stand the region's Communist old-guard, enfeebled but still feisty. 'Kostin has been turned into an idiot with a red flag. He is an excellent scientist, a good professional,' said Ivan Shabanov, former party secretary and, as of last week, chairman of the now disbanded regional Soviet. 'But he was frank in expressing his views. Not everyone likes that.'

Mr Kostin is frank in the extreme. He hates Mr Yeltsin and all he stands for and led the Voronezh chapter of the now-banned National Salvation Front, a dark alliance of Russia's far right and far left. When Mr Yeltsin dissolved parliament by decree on 21 September, Mr Kostin responded by joining some 3,000 workers in a protest rally and hoisting a red flag above the Mechanical Plant. 'I'm not even a democrat but I defend the law,' he says. The flag fluttered defiantly for two weeks until Mr Yeltsin sent tanks to shell the Russian White House.

'Kostin stopped being a director and became a political fighter,' says Mr Yeltsin's envoy, Mr Davydkin. Though a theoretical physicist by training, Mr Davydkin can fight a dirty political battle. He got the local gas and electricity companies to threaten to cut off supplies if Mr Kostin returned to the Mechanical Plant. Banks started refusing credits.

Mr Kostin hit back. He hired a lawyer and threatened to go to court for his job and 24m roubles in damages. He sent out appeals to his business contacts at home and abroad condemning 'crooked machinations'. He called in all the chits he could think of: former employees, collective farm bosses, factory directors all signed petitions.

'He was too involved in politics but this is not a reason to fire him,' says Valery Dryabin, boss of the Voronezh Machine Tool Company. All worry that they could be next: 'We are the most vulnerable group of all,' believes Vyacheslav Kondratev, boss of the Kalinin Factory. 'The economy is in total collapse. The only 'good' director is one who pays high salaries. This means they think only about today. Anyone who thinks about tomorrow is 'bad'. Kostin's case is pure political persecution. It is against the law, against common sense.'

Many workers at the Mechanical Plant seem to agree, and see Mr Kostin as the best barrier against unemployment. Others attack Mr Yeltsin for forcing the plant to move out of military production: 'It is like forcing a fine jeweller to cut keys,' said Viktor Birkin.

For both sides Mr Kostin's fate has taken on a significance far beyond Voronezh. 'People in Russia tend to authoritarianism,' says Mr Morozov, democratic zealot and prospective parliamentary candidate. 'They say: if you can't do anything to Kostin you can't do anything at all. In half a year he will be nobody. He will be sitting out there in the square on a barrel with 200 babushkas.'

The former party secretary, Mr Shabanov, responds: 'Kostin has grown into a symbol of opposition to the regime. Whatever I can do I will. But now I do not have that much power.' Beneath the bravado, though, there is a hint of clarity: 'What was done to Kostin was done in a very Kostin way.'

(Photographs omitted)