The Russian Referendum: Kirovsk sees first shoots of reform

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The Independent Online
KIROVSK - One of the main lessons of life in this paradoxical land called Russia is that you should never jump to conclusions. In St Petersburg a young woman called Svetlana, who runs a small private grocery shop and would seem to have a strong personal interest in Boris Yeltsin winning Sunday's referendum so that reform can continue, says: 'I won't bother to go and vote. We young people are not interested in politics. We just want to get on with our work.'

About 20 miles down the Neva River, in the town of Kirovsk which used to be strictly off-limits to foreigners because it produced spare parts for submarines, pensioner Lyubov Andreyevna, a former Communist living on 6,400 roubles (pounds 5) a month who has benefited hardly at all from reform, says: 'I shall certainly cast my vote for Yeltsin. He has his faults but he is Russia's best hope. I will not live to see any positive change here. But maybe the next generation will.'

It is hard to see why Kirovsk, only a short bus ride from St Petersburg, was closed for so long. Apart from the once top-secret Ladoga factory, now trying with limited success to produce electronic goods which can compete with Japanese imports, the dreary little town has nothing to distinguish it. Surrounded by forests and marshes, it lies under feet of thick mud at this time of year after the winter snow has melted. Soon the mud on the unpaved roads will turn to dust for the duration of the short summer.

Under the shadow of the statue of Lenin, who despite the collapse of Communism still points the way forward, the people live either in little wooden shacks with outdoor toilets or, if they are lucky, in concrete blocks with foul smells coming from the broken sewage systems. The children, chasing stray cats and playing among the mounds of litter, have little future. Crime is rife on the housing estates so that the elderly fear to go out after dark. Perhaps the Soviet authorities simply did not want foreigners to know how squalid this supposedly special military town was and still is.

And yet even here tiny shoots of reform are starting to appear. The shops, about half of which have been privatised, have imported beer and sweets for those who can afford them. 'It's not very nutritious but it's an improvement on empty shelves and ration cards that bought nothing,' says Lyubov Andreyevna. The local newspaper, also called Ladoga after the lake into which the Neva flows, is calling for a 'yes to Yeltsin' vote in the referendum so that the reforms may continue.

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