View from the streets: Vast changes have swept the army, business and society, reflected in the hopes and fears of three voters

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The Independent Online

'The officers tell us about the candidates'

Vadim Virikov makes an ideal Russian soldier. In a month's time, his commanders will put a rifle in his hands, dispatch him to Chechnya, and tell him whom to shoot. And in a fortnight's time, they will put a pen in his hands and, if the pessimists are to be believed, tell him whom to elect.

One glance at the 18-year-old youth, his baby face half hidden by a Chicago Bulls woolly hat, is evidence enough that these are both challenges for which he is ill prepared.

It is hardly surprising to hear his unsuspecting reply, when asked to describe plans for election day at the camp in Volgograd, where he has been based for five months. "The senior officers are going to take us to the booths and tell us the strengths and weaknesses of each candidate. Then we will decide who we think are the best ones, and go in to vote."

No matter how many foreign observers are scattered across Russia on voting day, they are unlikely to eliminate the risk of electoral malpractice in the closed booths of the military. Vadim, a factory worker's son, is no more inclined to question his officers than thousands of other young conscripts.

The issue is critical, given the numbers involved. With 1.5 million in the military and 2.5 million border guards, Interior Ministry troops and special forces, voters in uniform represent a vast constituency. Add in veterans and families, and it becomes more than 10 million.

In the quest for this prize, parties are fielding 123 military candidates. The most famous is Alexander Lebed, a retired general and former commander- in-chief of the Fourteenth Army in Moldova, whose gruff patriotism and anti-Western stance have made him arguably the most popular leader in Russia. His party, the Congress of Russian Communities, is expected to do well in the barracks. This alarms the reformers, as Lebed speaks admiringly of Stalin.

The Kremlin hopes the military will back the Yeltsin administration, having received a shock in 1993 when soldiers voted in droves for the ultra-nationalist, Vladimir Zhirinovsky. The government has showered the military with promises of better conditions, and the Prime Minister, Viktor Chernomyrdin, head of the Yeltsin-backed Our Home Is Russia party, has signed up a general, Lev Rokhlin, as a running mate.

Whether this strategy will work is doubtful, as the army has had a dismal few years. It is still nursing its injured pride after the loss of its imperial status. In some areas, troops have gone unpaid for months. One commander in Russia's Far East recently cabled his superiors in Moscow with an ultimatum - provide food and heating, or evacuate the bases.

Senior ranks have been buffeted by scandals, and by humiliation in Chechnya, a dispute it has not resolved. Vadim does not know how he will vote. He talks impassively about his pay of 20,000 roubles (pounds 3.50) a month. But when conversation turns to his assignment in Chechnya, he gets animated. "It is a bad war. No one likes it. It's just tears and suffering. " It is spirited stuff, and enough to hope that, perhaps, he will not be dictated to by the commanders in the polling booths.


'Barring U-turns the economy is set to take off'

In Communist times, Andrei Zaborsky was a French translator for the Soviet state travel agency, Intourist. He received a miserable salary and did not even enjoy the perks one might expect from an employer in the tourism business - travel opportunities - as his job was to entertain French visitors to Moscow and forget about the world beyond the Iron Curtain.

Today Mr Zaborsky sits in a black leather swivel chair, surrounded by laptop computers and artificial flowering trees, running his own multi- million-dollar private business. He has all the money he needs to satisfy his long-repressed wanderlust. Already he is planning his Christmas holidays in New York.

But Mr Zaborsky will not leave Russia until he has cast his ballot in the elections. He believes the vote will be close and that it is the duty of every Russian who cares about democracy to reject the Communists and nationalists and support parties committed to reform.

Readers of the Independent were introduced to Mr Zaborsky last year. Then his AZ firm, which started by trading in batteries, had a turnover of $7m (pounds 4.5m). Since then he has branched into light bulbs, opened 10 subsidiary offices and increased his turnover to an expected $12m this year. He says he has done it all legally and paid taxes "higher than a Scandinavian would have paid".

Mr Zaborsky has a strong stake in seeing the continuation of reforms which have allowed him to thrive while millions of others have been reduced to poverty. He and his wife, Olga, want for nothing. They have bought the flat next to their own to expand their Moscow home, and rent an apartment in Switzerland, where AZ has a bank account.

The businessman says he will not be voting for reasons of self-interest alone. He believes that if the country perseveres with reforms, more Russians will reap the benefits. "The economy is set to take off if there are no dramatic U-turns in policy," he says. "Wealth will spread out to wider and wider circles".

Nearer the time of the election, he will study the opinion polls and decide whether the Our Home is Russia movement of the Prime Minister, Viktor Chernomyrdin, or the Yabloko (Apple) grouping of the liberal economist Grigory Yavlinksy has the best chance of beating the Communists and nationalists.

Mr Zaborsky has just returned from Poland, where a former Communist defeated Lech Walesa in presidential elections. "The Polish Communists are not frightening but our Communists are another matter," he says. "They would re-nationalise property, they would impose a dictatorship."

A conservative victory in the elections would not cause Mr Zaborsky to panic, as President Boris Yeltsin would still be there to check them. But if a hardliner won the presidential election next June, the globetrotting businessman might leave his country, if he could escape across the border in time.


'Nobody respects us any more'

Soviet Communism conferred its privileges on many citizens, from ballet dancers and cosmonauts to KGB officers and party hacks, but it gave very little to Mikhail Matveyev. His only privilege was to work in a machine- building factory in the provincial town of Kolomna for a subsistence wage. He retired two years ago with few rewards for his lifetime of labour.

He admits this and yet he says the Communists can count on his vote in the coming elections because he wants to go back to a world where he feels safe.

The giant factory, which consumed his life, did give him one thing in return - a tiny allotment on which he built himself a wooden hut for summer- time gardening. Now Mr Matveyev, a 64-year-old widower, lives there all year round.

The council flat in town where he spent his life has become overcrowded with his daughter's family and their babies and there is no room for him. His pension of 200,000 roubles (pounds 25) a month is inadequate, as prices have spiralled with economic reform. So for another 200,000 roubles a month he works as watchman at the allotments, guarding huts of his fellow factory workers.

The huts may be pleasant enough in summer, when a swim in the nearby pond makes up for the lack of running water. But winter, when snow drifts up to the roof, is another matter. There is no electricity and, when darkness falls at five o'clock, Mr Matveyev potters about to candlelight and the glow from his wood-burning stove like a man living in the Middle Ages. He takes his duties as watchman seriously. Every night, he patrols with an air rifle, which would hardly protect him if robust young criminals set on him. Time was when you could leave the huts unlocked, he says, but now all manner of "hooligans and shady types" are lurking about.

The crime wave which has struck Russia under President Boris Yeltsin is the main reason why Mr Matveyev will vote Communist. In parliamentary elections two years ago, he opted for the nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky, but he says that was just a protest vote "to make the powers-that-be in Moscow wake up to the dissatisfaction of ordinary people. Now it is time to be serious. The Communists gave us security before. Only they can bring law and order."

Mr Matveyev, who listens to the radio, is also angry about Moscow's foreign policy under Mr Yeltsin. "Nobody respects Russia any more," he says. "The Americans have done what they want in Yugoslavia. But I am ready to defend my homeland, even at my age."

Strangely, Mr Matveyev is less concerned about the way prices have risen with the freeing of the market, which is often the chief issue for Communist- leaning pensioners. He remembers how shops were empty in Soviet times. This was particularly true in the provinces. People from Kolomna used to travel by train 100km into Moscow just to buy sausage. "It's good to see meat on the local market now," he says. "Even if I can't afford it, it's nice to know it's there."

Mr Matveyev's daughter Natalia, who runs a sewing business, disagrees with his intention to vote Communist, warning him that the clock could be turned back to a time of shortages and lack of freedom.