RUSSIAN PRESIDENTIAL ELECTIONS: Democratic fervour fades in the sunshine

Boris Yeltsin lost at least one vote yesterday because of the "dacha factor". Vitaly Matveyev, a musician from Moscow who was relaxing at his dacha (hut and allotment) in Druzhba, south of the city, had planned to get up early and take the the suburban train to the capital to re- elect the Russian President, especially since public transport was free on election day.

But when he woke and saw the sun was shining after two days of torrential rain, he changed his mind. "I'll stay here and take my kids into the woods instead," he said. What about the fate of Russia? "What will be, will be. "It's in the hands of the gods. I don't think my little voice will make much difference." Typical Russian fatalism, typical Russian susceptibility to mood, which is why experts told us not to set too much store on polls showing Mr Yeltsin having overtaken his Communist rival, Gennady Zyuganov.

The President's fate will depend on the rest of his supporters being more committed than Mr Matveyev: on any summer weekend, 20 per cent of urban Russians are out of town. In view of the Russian preference for not taking anything for granted, it was surprising Mr Yeltsin last week announced, like a bumptious sportsman, that victory was in the bag. It was an invitation to his constituency to be complacent.

Anti-Yeltsin voters, many from the older generation, were thought more likely to go to polling-stations because they lived through Soviet times when voting, albeit for a single candidate, was a citizen's sacred duty.

Yesterday Mr Matveyev's father was up at 6am for an hour's walk over muddy fields to the bus which would take him into the nearby town of Kolomna to vote. A pensioner and lifelong Communist who has found economic reforms hard to accept, he was planning to vote for the nationalist retired general, Alexander Lebed. "It's because I don't like Zyuganov as a personality," he said.

Old Mr Matveyev intended to combine voting with going to his daughter's flat in town to take a bath for the first time in two weeks. Druzhba (Friendship), one of a chain of Soviet-era allotment settlements which also includes Raduga (Rainbow), is 100km (62 miles) from the capital but conditions are primitive. The commuter belt south of Moscow is not exactly Surrey. Here, for example, there is no running water and Mr Matveyev normally washes from an upturned bucket.

Across the lane from the Matveyevs, Viktor Frolov, an engineer at a railway centre, was watering his cucumbers, after which he and his wife were going to drive home to Moscow to vote for Mr Zyuganov. "The Yeltsin years have been hard for all involved in science and teaching," he said.

At 10am there was a lively stream of traffic to and from Moscow. People who had voted early were driving out to their dachas to enjoy the rest of the day. People who had been at their dachas were cutting the weekend short and returning to town to vote. Police were gearing up for huge traffic- jams.

By the side of the road, the real country folk were coming from village polling-stations dressed in their Sunday best, as if for church. In the market town of Bronitsa, halfway to Moscow, the local House of Culture, turned into a polling-station for the day, was reporting brisk business.

To the side of the yellow-curtained booths, on a trestle table decorated with vases of peonies, a local catering firm was running a buffet. Manager Lyudmila Logvinova said her voting intentions were private but hinted she would opt for a pro-reform candidate. "Food may be expensive," she said, "but at least now there are no more empty shelves and a good choice of things to eat."