Yeltsin mines vote in Siberian 'city of graves'

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The Independent Online
Say what you like about Boris Yeltsin's failings, you cannot accuse him of fighting shy of enemy territory. This time his opponents were not his silk- suited political rivals in Moscow, but the hard-bitten miners of Vorkuta, a former gulag in the Arctic wastes of Russia's far north.

Yesterday workmen were clearing soot-stained turrets of snow and sprucing up this half-wrecked town in readiness for the arrival of the president, where he was once hailed as a reforming hero but has since run short of friends.

It was the miners who helped propel Mr Yeltsin to power by leading national strikes against Mikhail Gorbachev. Since then, his overwhelming popularity has melted away, corroded by falling living standards, broken promises, and rising indignation.

Two of the town's 13 pits have closed with thousands of lay-offs; many miners still chiselling out a living are owed months of pay. Significant private enterprise has yet to arrive. This far-flung settlement has a new class of inmate and a new kind of incarceration: it has become an economic gulag.

"It is really hard here," said Leonid, a 28-year-old miner, who remembers when coal miners were the elite of the Soviet workforce, with holidays on the Black Sea, cars, health care, and good apartments. "When I went on holiday to St Petersburg, six years ago, I ate in a restaurant every night - like a king. Now I'm living on bread and milk and I cannot afford to go anywhere. That's what's Yeltsin's brought us."

There is no tougher political territory than this, and not only for Mr Yeltsin. Vorkuta was built in the 1930s under Stalin, who paid little heed to the economics of hauling coal by rail over a huge stretch of Russia, and even less to the cruelty of using prisoners to do it.

The nine-month winters, -30C temperatures, and the work took a heavy toll. When the snow melts, the bones of some of the thousands of victims appear above the tundra, shining beneath the near-permanent summer sunshine. Some call Vorkuta, with its thousands of simple wooden crosses, the "city of cemeteries".

"People don't like to talk about those troubled times," said Galina Odincoba, director the city's museum, whose father was a political prisoner. Some of the dead were miners - shot en masse after striking in 1953.

Communists - even Gennady Zyuganov's self-proclaimed "new" Communists - have to overcome a long, and terrible, legacy if they are to win votes. In December's parliamentary elections, they won 10 per cent of the vote, less than half their national average, and about the same as the government- backed "Our Home Is Russia". The results reflected a prevailing mood of blind despair: Vladimir Zhirinovsky, the-neo-fascist, came first.

Although the Communist opposition is small, it has won recruits. For example, Timor, 36, an Ossetian trader, has an inventory of grievances such as the Chechen war, rising crime and social injustice. "Democracy is the rule of law. Both the bum on the street and the president must respect it and that's not happening."

Mr Yeltsin's team is mounting a tough, murky fight, with the help of the local administration. Residents speak in wonderment about local officials who had become fervent Communist supporters, and then switched. Three months ago the miners were rumbling about another strike; this week money began, as if by magic, to arrive.

It is unclear how much difference this will make. "There are a lot of people here who say they will vote for Mr Yeltsin but when it comes down to it they won't," said Sergei Borski, a journalist. The city, once full of political prisoners, now has "the freedom of Hyde Park", he said. "But this hasn't changed anything. We don't live any better."

Nor are matters helped by the dismal lack of facilities. Vorkuta's cinema is hardly ever open. Nor are its swimming baths. There are no discos or bars, and only one - dismal - restaurant. (Here when Mr Gorbachev passed his anti-vodka laws, he was signing his own political death warrant.)

But Mr Yeltsin is not entirely isolated. His fans include Alyena, 78, who was yesterday sitting outside the Miner's Palace of Culture beneath a pale sun. She was sent to Vorkuta from her home in Odessa 50 years ago, because "Stalin didn't like her". Life is tough, goods are expensive. But, she said firmly: "I don 't want to see a return to Soviet power."

They also include the world's most optimistic businessman, Giorgi Rushanski. A Ukrainian, he came to Vorkuta to make a living trying to persuade passers-by to pose for photographs alongside his stuffed reindeer. He admits he only has two or three clients a day, earning $10 (pounds 6) at most. He admits that in the winter he cannot work outside. And yet, he said: "You can get anything now, if you are prepared to work. That's why I will vote for Yeltsin."