These were election headquarters, but the seething throng had little interest in policy or ratings. Few seemed to care that the candidate to whom they were offering their services was the ex-model wife of Sergei Mavrodi, architect of the MMM pyramid investment scheme that left millions of Russians destitute when it collapsed in 1994. Even now, protesters still assemble outside his Moscow headquarters, seeking compensation.
The crowd was there for money. They had come to collect 3,000 roubles (35p), the reward for signing up as a cam- paign "agitator" on behalf of 27-year-old Yelena Mavrodi in her battle to become a member of parliament for Tula, a military-industrial city two hours' south of Moscow. There was another 35p for every person whom they could persuade to fill out a form giving their name and address, with a maximum of five.
"We are simply here to fill our stomachs," said Alexyeva Chu-lkova, an unemployed engineer, who was among the 1,500 who descended on Ms Mavrodi's headquarters to cash in on the offer, a scheme with sinister echoes of pyramid-building which seeks to avoid breaking any election laws. "Unlike these politicians, I have nothing - no bank account, no yacht, no apartments. We just want a crust to put on the table."
For the volunteers, votes were not the issue. After waiting four months for wages, and three for pensions, and after seeing some 20 local factories close, they had lost faith in the ballot box. They had queued, many of them since dawn, because they wanted to be able to buy bread.
In the past, the residents of Tula have boasted about their city's Orthodox churches, Tolstoy's nearby estate, and its famous sweet pastries. But they are far less pleased that it is the backdrop for a by-election, this Sunday, that ranks as one of the more unusual pieces of political theatre to arise on Russia's faltering path to demo-cracy.
Also prowling the frozen landscape in search of votes is the portly figure of Alexander Korzhakov, Boris Yeltsin's former chief bodyguard, hawkish adviser, and drinking companion, who has locked horns with the Kremlin since his sacking in June. Others in the race include Nikolai Novikov, a local wrestler in jail awaiting trial on racketeering charges, and Anatoly Karpov, the former world chess champion. Mr Novikov is making his second bid for power from behind bars; last year, he was elected to the regional assembly. In his previous job, Mr Korzhakov was not known as an enthusiastic champion of demo- cracy. Russians have not forgotten how he caused a storm by calling for the presidential elections to be postponed, a remark that he later attributed to his concern for his boss's health.
For most, the president's former right-hand man belongs to a secret world of Kremlin intrigue - an impression that deepened still further when he responded to his sacking by threatening to reveal a stash of "kompromat" (compromising material) about his arch-enemy, Anatoly Chubais, Mr Yeltsin's chief-of-staff. But Candidate Korzhakov is selling himself as a gentler figure, no more sinister that a tubby village bobby.
His election leaflet reminds voters that he is noted for his "honesty, modesty and noble nature". And while his enemies have compared his decade at Mr Yeltsin's side with the role of Rasputin, Mr Korzhakov, a balding man who looks older than his 46 years, prefers to compare himself with Kevin Costner, the loyal minder who stole the heart of Whitney Houston in The Bodyguard.
He is fighting a gritty campaign, and is leading the polls. It appears he also has other gifts at his disposal. Few who know the modus operandi of the former KGB officer were surprised when tens of thousands of potential voters received a new year gift of a bottle of vodka, tea, and a small calendar bearing a picture of the candidate himself.
"To be a bodyguard today is the most honourable profession in Russia. It doesn't mean you are a monster or a bandit," he told journalists this week before giving a lecture to small crowd at a local metal goods factory on the merits of protectionism and state investment. An admirer of Alexander Lebed - the former occupant of the vacant seat, who was based in Tula, and launched Mr Korzhakov's campaign - his programme makes clear he wants the nationalist vote.
Overshadowing the contest, however, is the widespread suspicion that some runners are less interested in representing 600,000 down-trodden citizens of Tula in the State Duma - Russia's lower house of parliament - than they are in immunity from criminal prosecution that members of parliament enjoy.
"Our candidate is one of the few who is not after immunity," said Mr Karpov's aide, Sergei Korolyov. But the chess master's chances are not great - at least, not judging by a campaign rally, where less than 150 people turned out to listen to a monotonous lament about the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Rumours abound that Mrs Mavrodi's agitators are the hapless victims of a plan to create a new database for MMM. And Mr Korzhakov would probably feel more comfortable in the knowledge that he is not likely to be thrown in jail, if ever he releases his allegedly incriminating "kompromat" against the Kremlin's high and mighty.
Public scepticism about the by-election has bred contempt. "People here are now allergic to the word 'candidate'," said Konstantin Leonov, deputy editor of MK, a daily Tula newspaper.Reuse content