Spiritual battle overshadows democracy's future

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THE QUEUE moved at snail's pace, taking a small step forward every time one of the women completed her examination of the goods and laboriously scraped together the money to pay for them. The prices were high but nobody complained; they were, after all, buying their salvation.

Though only a few shops were open yesterday in Vladimir, the longest line was not in front of the food kiosks, but inside the Cathedral of the Assumption, where icons, copies of the Bible and votive candles were selling like hot cakes. Vladimir, a city steeped in history in the spiritual heart of the Russian steppe, seemed to care little for material things, and was even refusing to get excited about the referendum on democracy's future. Turn-out was anything but brisk; by early afternoon only 750 of 2,000 eligible voters had voted at the polling station in the centre.

The city that handed Boris Yeltsin a thumping 73 per cent majority in the presidential elections two years ago, against his 53 per cent score nationwide, did hang out a few Yeltsin posters, but these fell foul of vandals.

On the wall outside one of the polling stations, only the piercing eyes of an elderly woman weighed down by beads and jewellery gazed down on voters. She was 'Mother Mary', the poster proclaimed, the 'Messiah on Earth' who had come to Vladimir to fight the anti-Christ.

The battle for Russia's soul has been waged mercilessly in recent weeks, with Mr Yeltsin claiming the moral high ground and Ruslan Khasbulatov, his parliamentary opponent, occupying the low. Mr Yeltsin attended Mass in Vladimir last Sunday and met religious leaders, as he sought the spiritual vote. Mr Khasbulatov struck one of the sourest notes in the campaign when he accused the Orthodox Church of bankrolling the Yeltsin bandwagon.

All the evidence suggests that Mr Yeltsin won that war of words. Of those who did turn out in Vladimir yesterday, the overwhelming majority appeared to have given the President the three 'yes' votes and one 'no' he wanted. A straw poll by the Independent could unearth only one person who voted against Mr Yeltsin.

The reasons why religious fervour fuels the President's battle against his Communist foes are plain to see throughout Russia. While idle cranes tower above abandoned building projects, scaffolding is springing up around church domes.

In Vladimir's Princess Convent, reopened last week with six novices after a gap of 60 years, Olga Ivanovna, the caretaker, said: 'I voted for Yeltsin.' On the verge of tears, she recalled her tribulations under the old regime. 'I know what it was like for him - we are the same age. And, like him, I am a Christian.'