Plain-speaking son of a rough Russian city

Helen Womack visits Tula, the adopted town of General Alexander Lebed (below)
Tula - "Anyone who doubts that Russia has her own special path should try travelling on our roads," said the nationalist retired general Alexander Lebed during his election campaign.

Indeed. The road to Tula is strewn with fairy lights to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the founding of Russia's notorious bribe-taking traffic police. But directional signs are few and far between and, a mere 100 miles south of the capital, you can easily lose yourself on roads that start out covered with asphalt and quickly deteriorate into dirt tracks.

General Lebed, Tula's adopted son, came third in the first round of the presidential election and now plays a pivotal role in deciding the future of the country. Nationwide, General Lebed took nearly 15 per cent of the vote on the 16 June, but Tula gave him an impressive 25 per cent. This was because of his long association with the city, famous for manufacturing arms and samovars.

Alexander Lebed was born in 1950 in the region of the Don Cossacks, but, after serving in Afghanistan, he came to Tula to command the paratroop division which is based here. Last December, he was elected to the State Duma as Tula's constituency MP.

The Tula region, where the author Leo Tolstoy had his estate, stands halfway between Moscow, which has benefited most from President Yeltsin's market reforms, and the "black-earth" farming zone running down to the Ukrainian border, where the Communist leader Gennady Zyuganov, can count on his strongest support.

Here, General Lebed's philosophy of economic freedom but strict law and order appears to have found a particular resonance. The paratroopers of Tula have voted en masse for their former commander, who is respected in the army for his professionalism and plain talking. But many civilians also chose him because they believed he offered a third way between the anarchy of Mr Yeltsin's rule and the defeat of retreat towards Communism.

The Yeltsin years have hardly changed the face of Tula, which still looks like any one of a hundred Soviet cities with its regional administration block and statue of Lenin in the central square. A few kiosks selling low quality imported goods are the only achievement of four years of capitalism. Few, in any case, can afford to shop there.

"Conversion has been very patchy," says Konstantin Leonov, deputy editor of the local newspaper Molodoi Komunar, who combines his journalistic work with acting as General Lebed's spokesman in the region.

"The workers in the arms factories used to be the elite of the working class. They have not taken kindly to making pots and pans for lower wages."

Another category of Lebed supporters are women, frightened by the crimewave which has accompanied the freeing of the market. It is no secret that guns can be bought at the back doors of Tula's factories. Mafia gangsters come here to arm themselves. The city is, in the current Russian slang, "krutoi" (rough).

Fear of crime prompted Antonina Vladimirovna to vote for General Lebed in the first round and she will heed his call to support Mr Yeltsin now. "Lebed is a really honest man. It's hard to trust anyone in politics but I do trust him," she declared, as she presided over the samovar in the station buffet.

But General Lebed has lost some support, even among his paratroopers. "I consider that he has betrayed us," said a paratroop major, Vyacheslav. Pressed to say why, he said he thought the general had "taken on a burden he can't manage. How can you fight crime when the whole population is impoverished? Putting poor people behind bars is not the solution." He would vote for neither Mr Yeltsin nor Mr Zyuganov.

Evidently what had really upset the major was General Lebed's alliance with Mr Yeltsin, who he could not forgive for the war in Chechnya.

"I have sent my lads into that meat grinder," he said before abruptly breaking off our conversation.

For many Russians - and not only Communists - the Kremlin leader remains unpalatable. The odds are on his victory in the second round of the presidential elections on Wednesday. But it is not yet a foregone conclusion.