Red Town longs for cheap sausage

Russian elections: With 43 parties on the ballot, some voters find it difficult to get to grips with democracy
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The Independent Online
Father Konstantin looks as if he modelled as an apostle for a cathedral mural. His grey beard, black robes and baldness give him a saintly, stoical look. But, as Russians trooped to the polls yesterday, there was anxiety in his face.

Fifty-seven years ago his church, a crumbling 19th century brick building, was shut down under Stalin. Its decorated walls were painted white, and it became a garage. Yesterday, as he stood in the hall of his church, the priest was pondering the possibility that his aisles might again echo with the clatter of godless mechanics.

"The Communists are willing to say anything to get into power," he said, "It would be a disaster for the people. If they come to power, sooner or later, they would break up the Church." He had advised his several hundred Sunday regulars not to vote for any "extremists" - left or right. " People need peace," he explained.

Peace is a word with special resonance in Krasno Gorsk, "Red Town", a community of 50,000 on the edge of Moscow. You only have to brave the biting winter winds for a few minutes to find someone who'll tell you not only about the horror of the German wartime advance, but exactly how close they came - seven miles. There is an anti-Fascist museum. The military hospital is treating wounded soldiers from the Chechen war. Yet the priest's wishes may not be fulfilled.

Boris Gurelik, 60, was towing his small grandson along on a sledge after casting his vote in the Palace of Culture. "I voted for the 'new' Communists," he said cheerfully, referring to the Communist Party of the Russian Federation, led by Gennady Zyuganov - who yesterday assured the world that, if his party wins, there would be no return to Soviet-era Communism. "Everyone's voting communist," continued Mr Gurelik. "Yeltsin cheated us all. If the Communists win, they'll form a coalition, take over the cabinet, and the economy will revive at once. At least, I hope it will."

Inside the palace, polling station No 933, dozens pored over election documents. Choice, like real democracy, is still new and rare in Russia; some were clearly puzzled by the list which - with 43 parties - occupied a poster-sized sheet of paper, festooned with helpful party symbols. Clusters of voters formed, studying the field. Only a few bothered to retreat behind the curtains of two voting booths. Many voted in front of everyone else.

Although the elections were for the State Duma - or lower house - their impact on next year's presidential election is more important. In parliament, their effect will almost certainly depend on whatever alliances are formed by the largest parties. But the Duma's power is limited, compared with the presidency; the ruling group would need a consistent two-thirds majority to overturn the president's veto. What matters is which party leaders emerge to run for the Kremlin's top job.

Half the Duma's 450 seats are allocated to parties by proportional representation. The other half go to individual candidates, elected on a first-past-the- post system in each constituency. In the Palace of Culture, a list of the latter was being studied earnestly by elderly women, who had clearly never heard of most of them.

"It should be someone with a Russian name, but there aren't any ," muttered a middle-aged woman. "I like his face," she added, pointing at the photo of a stern-faced individual with a Jewish name, "but he's not Russian." She eventually settled on a local administrator.

Predictions of strong Communist gains seemed to be holding up. But, in Krasno Gorsk, not everyone wanted Red Town to become just that. The town has its share of "new Russians", the minority who have profited from free-market reforms. Dozens spent yesterday afternoon skiing, flitting up and down a small slope in brightly-coloured jump suits. "I want to beat the Communists," said Alexander, a 33-year-old businessman who runs an international translation service. "So many people want the Soviet Union back. They want cheap sausage. But I know what cheap sausage means - it means long queues."