Yeltsin mines vote in Siberian 'city of graves'

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."

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
News
Young Winstone: His ‘tough-guy’ image is a misconception
people
News
David Ryall in Harry Potter
people
Arts and Entertainment
Man of action: Christian Bale stars in Exodus: Gods and Kings
film
Sport
Adnan Januzaj and Gareth Bale
footballManchester United set to loan out Januzaj to make room for Bale - if a move for the Welshman firms up
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Sport
Wayne Rooney warms up ahead of the English Premier League football match between Tottenham Hotspur and Manchester United at White Hart Lane
football
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Mayhew as Chewbacca alongside Harrison Ford's Han Solo in 'Star Wars'
film
Arts and Entertainment
British actor Idris Elba is also a DJ and rapper who played Ibiza last summer
filmIdris Elba responds to James Bond rumours on Twitter
News
Hackers revealed Oscar-winning actress Lawrence was paid less than her male co-stars in American Hustle
people
Arts and Entertainment
Ellie Levenson’s The Election book demystifies politics for children
bookNew children's book primes the next generation for politics
News
Outspoken: Alexander Fury, John Rentoul, Ellen E Jones and Katy Guest
newsFrom the Scottish referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones
film
News
i100
Sport
Yaya Sanogo, Mats Hummels, Troy Deeney and Adnan Januzaj
footballMost Premier League sides are after a striker, but here's a full run down of the ins and outs that could happen over the next month
News
Nigel Farage celebrates with a pint after early local election results in the Hoy and Helmet pub in South Benfleet in Essex
peopleHe has shaped British politics 'for good or ill'
Voices
Strictly Come Dancing was watched by 6.9m viewers
voicesIt has been hard to form generally accepted cultural standards since the middle of the 19th century – and the disintegration is only going to accelerate, says DJ Taylor
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Panel & Cabinet Wireman

£20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Panel Wireman required for small electro...

Recruitment Genius: Electronics Test Engineer

£25000 - £27000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An SME based in East Cheshire, ...

Recruitment Genius: Marketing Assistant

£18000 - £22000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Do you have previous experience...

Recruitment Genius: Accounts Administrator

£16000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Day In a Page

War with Isis: The West needs more than a White Knight

The West needs more than a White Knight

Despite billions spent on weapons, the US has not been able to counter Isis's gruesome tactics, says Patrick Cockburn
Return to Helmand: Private Davey Graham recalls the day he was shot by the Taliban

'The day I was shot by the Taliban'

Private Davey Graham was shot five times during an ambush in 2007 - it was the first, controversial photograph to show the dangers our soldiers faced in Helmand province
Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

Many flyers are failing to claim compensation to which they are entitled, a new survey has found
The stories that defined 2014: From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions

The stories that defined 2014

From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
Stoke-on-Trent becomes first British city to be classified as 'disaster resilient' by the United Nations

Disaster looming? Now you know where to head...

Which British city has become the first to be awarded special 'resilience' status by the UN?
Finally, a diet that works: Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced

Finally, a diet that works

Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced
Say it with... lyrics: The power of song was never greater, according to our internet searches

Say it with... lyrics

The power of song was never greater, according to our internet searches
Professor Danielle George: On a mission to bring back the art of 'thinkering'

The joys of 'thinkering'

Professor Danielle George on why we have to nurture tomorrow's scientists today
Monique Roffey: The author on father figures, the nation's narcissism and New Year reflections

Monique Roffey interview

The author on father figures, the nation's narcissism and New Year reflections
Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

Their outrageousness and originality makes the world a bit more interesting, says Ellen E Jones
DJ Taylor: Good taste? It's all a matter of timing...

Good taste? It's all a matter of timing...

It has been hard to form generally accepted cultural standards since the middle of the 19th century – and the disintegration is only going to accelerate, says DJ Taylor
Olivia Jacobs & Ben Caplan: 'Ben thought the play was called 'Christian Love'. It was 'Christie in Love' - about a necrophiliac serial killer'

How we met

Olivia Jacobs and Ben Caplan
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's breakfasts will revitalise you in time for the New Year

Bill Granger's healthy breakfasts

Our chef's healthy recipes are perfect if you've overindulged during the festive season
Transfer guide: From Arsenal to West Ham - what does your club need in the January transfer window?

Who does your club need in the transfer window?

Most Premier League sides are after a striker, but here's a full run down of the ins and outs that could happen over the next month
The Last Word: From aliens at FA to yak’s milk in the Tour, here’s to 2015

Michael Calvin's Last Word

From aliens at FA to yak’s milk in the Tour, here’s to 2015