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'Forgotten' Gorbachev plods to his exit poll

Russian election: Lukewarm response for former Soviet leader on campaign trail as Yeltsin comes under fierce attack from liberal opponent
The hall was ready. The crimson roses were on the podium. The crowds, mostly students, teachers, and pensioners, were cramming the aisles. All that was missing was the star attraction, Mikhail Gorbachev. Then, just before he swept in an hour late, the lyrics on the sound system aptly summed up his quandary: "It must have been love, but it is over now."

These were not surroundings to which the architect of glasnost and perestroika, Time magazine's former Man of the Decade, was accustomed during his years on the world stage, when the only better- known leader on the planet was Ronald Reagan. Here he was, 500 miles from the glittering halls of the Kremlin, campaigning like any other hack politician in a provincial civic building in the autonomous republic of Tatarstan.

Russian politicians have a patchy record in this place, with its 3 million population, mostly Russians and Tatars descended from Genghis Khan. But on this, his first shot at running for office through the ballot box, Mr Gorbachev, 65, was looking remarkably relaxed.

It was not always thus. Over the past few months his baffling campaign for the Russian presidency has been interspersed with humiliating moments. He has been spat on, jeered at, and karate-chopped on the head by an angry onlooker.

During a swing through St Petersburg, local officials scuppered his plans to visit three factories, claiming that they were closed to visitors. On a Victory Day visit to Volgograd last month, he was greeted with shouts of "Traitor" as he wandered beneath the statue of Mother Russia that towers over the city from a hilltop.

But these moments have been incidental irritations, and are the exception rather than the rule. True, most Communists will never forgive him for the destruction of the party and the Soviet empire. And true, many supporters of market reforms blame him for failing to finish the job, plunging Russia into economic chaos, and worsening living standards. Others still resent his candidacy, believing it will split the anti-Communist vote.

Yet, for the most part, those who gather to listen to Mikhail Gorbachev are more curious than hostile. "You have to agree that he has left his mark on history," said Rudi, a middle-aged schoolteacher, after watching him arrive in Kazan. "One simply can't be indifferent to him."

But nor can one stop wondering why he has embarked on this lonely odyssey round a huge slice of the land that he once governed, being greeted by embarrassed local officials and lukewarm applause. Although he disputes the polls, most of which show him with a miserable rating around 1 per cent, even he would agree that he stands not a snowball's chance in hell of winning. His wife admits she tried to talk him out of running. Yet on he plods, the Ancient Mariner of Russian politics, compelled to tell his story.

Why? One principal reason appears to be that he is simply desperate to avoid the worst fate that can befall any politician - obscurity. "People seem to have forgotten Gorbachev," he said recently: his campaign for the presidency would be a "break-through from oblivion".

In the years since Boris Yeltsin unceremoniously ousted him from the Kremlin, Mr Gorbachev claims to have been repeatedly denied access to the Russian media. He says that the "information blockade" is continuing in the run-up to the first round of the election on 16 June.

Yet his main platform is face to face with the people, arguing his case in a slow, occasionally witty, often painfully long-winded, way before audiences in the heart of Russia. Here, he is away from the cruel intelligentsia of Moscow and St Petersburg, amid friendly folk - many of whom are pleased to see him merely because he is a celebrity.

His message is much the same wherever he goes. Russia faces a Hobson's choice, he explained to the audience in Kazan. It is asked to choose between Mr Yeltsin, "a disaster" who is responsible for "destroying science, education, and culture", and the Communist leader, Gennady Zyuganov, who is no better.

"The people around Mr Zyuganov are the ones who poked their sticks into the wheels of reform during perestroika, who cobbled together the 1991 coup, producing terrible results."

The audience seemed sympathetic, but unconvinced. Roman Popkov, a student, put it succinctly: "He is a political corpse."