Russia's old capital rejects return to past

Historic city poised to spurn swing towards Communism
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The historic city of Yaroslavl defies the stereotype of the deeply conservative Russian provincial city, which is stuck in the mud and dreaming of a return to the predictability of Communism.

In last December's parliamentary elections, Yaroslavl delivered one of the biggest votes in the country for Yabloko, the party of the liberal economist Grigory Yavlinksy.

If local opinion polls are to be trusted, the city looks set to give Boris Yeltsin a strong vote of confidence in the coming presidential elections to continue his reforms

At the same time, a minority of Communists and nation- alists remains active in Yaroslavl. Adverts for Japanese audio and video equipment are plastered over with handwritten diatribes about how "so- called democrats" have "covered the Motherland in filth" and "given freedom to criminals".

People are courteous on the elegant streets but just under the surface the tension is tangible between those who retain faith in reform and those who have become embittered.

Zinaida Ilychevna, standing in the doorway of her private jewellery boutique, was about to give me an interview - and I imagine that she would have expressed pro-market views - when an old woman standing nearby started to shout about the "destruction" of the country. The nervous shopkeeper slipped inside and the interview was off.

As in the rest of Russia, the political split in Yaroslavl more or less coincides with the generation divide. Those young enough to have a hope of seeing reform bear fruit one day want to press on.

"Life's hard but, since we've started, it does not make sense to go back," said Ella Vorontsova, a recent graduate in computer science who is earning the equivalent of $100 (pounds 65) a month selling drinks from a tiny kiosk in the wall of one of the city's medieval towers.

But old people who have known little but totalitarian rule and will not live to see the possible good side of capitalism are nostalgic for the social safety nets which Communism guaranteed.

"[The Communist leader Gennady] Zyuganov gets my vote," said Antonina Fyodorovna, a pensioner who was involved in a strange bazaar on the road into Yaroslavl.

The villages of wooden cottages, where normally there is nothing for sale except radishes and spring onions, were hung from end to end with garishly coloured, Chinese-made beach towels. "The Moscow mafia bring them in for us to sell," she explained. "They pay us kopecks, only enough to buy bread."

Yaroslavl's political split is not an equal one, however. An opinion poll in the local Gorodskie Novosty (Town News) showed that after a recent visit by Mr Yeltsin, during which, as the paper said, he came across as a "Russky muzhik" (regular Russian bloke), 30 per cent of sampled voters said they planned to support him. A further 20 per cent favoured Mr Yavlinsky, while only 15 per cent backed Mr Zyuganov and 9 per cent preferred the ultra-nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky.

Why is Yaroslavl, 250km north-east of the bright lights of Moscow, so liberal? History is one important factor. Yaroslavl, which has the tourist potential of a city like York, was briefly the capital of Russia during the "Time of Troubles", the period of uncertainty after the death of the dictatorial Ivan the Terrible, which in many ways resembles the chaotic post-Soviet Union today.

Yaroslavl boasts that it produced the first Russian- language theatre and the first Russian newspaper. The Orthodox Church is strong here. During the Civil War, many people in Yaroslavl were involved in an anti-Bolshevik uprising. All this helps to explain the strength of a local intelligentsia which has an anti-Communist tradition.

Gusman Kadirov, the ethnic Tatar editor of Gorodskie Novosty, says the journalists of Yaroslavl, which now has an impressive total of 20 newspapers, were particularly committed to glasnost.

In the Soviet Union's first free elections, held when Mikhail Gorbachev was still in power, Yaroslavl returned a democratically inclined local council. Mr Yeltsin closed it down in 1993 along with councils across the country which he suspected of supporting his opponents in the White House (the former national parliament). But Viktor Volonchunas, the man he appointed to run Yaroslavl, has since been confirmed in office in democratic elections and he seems popular.

The face of Yaroslavl has certainly changed dramatically. When I visited it in 1989 the food shops were nearly empty. In 1993, when I covered the election campaign of a famous hypnotist who was running for Mr Zhirinovsky's party (he did not get in) the shops still had little to offer and the most exciting thing you could do on a wet afternoon was weigh yourself.

You can still weigh yourself in Yaroslavl. But now you can also buy popcorn and cosmetics and books which range from All About The Internet to Tantric Sex in jolly little street kiosks. The shops are full of mostly imported food at near-Moscow prices, which is expensive for most wage earners but at least it is available.

Industry in Yaroslavl has not developed under Yeltsin as well as the retail trade. But at least the city's factories are operating and not standing idle, as they are in many parts of Russia.

The mostly female workers pouring out of the Yaroslavl Tyre Plant at the end of the day shift testified to the factory's survival, if not its success.

"We have got by with natural wastage rather than mass redundancies," said Vladimir Nosov, the technical manager of what is now a share company.

He said the 5,000-strong work force, which has been pared down by about one-third since Soviet times, had received more regular wages than most Russian workers, who often wait months for their pay.

Mr Nosov said if his factory and Russian industry as a whole were to develop, taxes ought to be cut and applied to everyone equally. It is one of the reforms for which Mr Yavlinsky argues.

"At present,small firms dodge tax and we get hit," he said.

Then foreigners might be interested in investing here. "We need the West to help us create jobs, not just flood us with goods. The modern world is small. The West also has a responsibility to keep reform alive in Russia."