Yeltsin's legacy to Russian voters - another Stalin?

THE ICE-bound evergreen forests and the foggy fields are the same as when Tchaikovsky lived here, but Russia's most famous composer would hardly recognise modern Klin, a city of poverty, violence and despair.

Like the rest of Russia, Klin will hope that today's parliamentary elections mark the beginning of change for the better. There is certainly next to no chance that they will transform the country overnight - and they could conceivably make things even worse.

The significance of the elections to the 450-seat State Duma, in which 26 parties are running, is that they will identify the politicians with the best chance of making a good showing in the presidential poll next June.

The announcement on Friday by the former premier, Yevgeny Primakov, that he would join the race for the Kremlin meant that the Prime Minister, Vladimir Putin, popular because of the war in Chechnya, will not go without a serious challenge when he bids for ultimate power.

In the short term, Mr Primakov's commitment to try for the presidency put his centre-left opposition bloc, Fatherland-All Russia (FAR), back in the running for the Duma elections. Before that, the Communist Party looked likely to attract most of the votes of Russians disgruntled with President Boris Yeltsin's so-called "reforms". FAR advocates the "correction" of reforms, rather than a retreat to communism, and constitutional changes so that a future president could not arbitrarily sack prime ministers in the way that Mr Yeltsin has done.

The legacy of the Yeltsin years is clearly visible in Klin. The road into town is lined with wooden hovels, the homes of the poor, interspersed with crenellated red brick castles, like smaller versions of the Kremlin. These are the entirely misnamed cottagi of the New Russians, who made their fortunes as much through crime as enterprise. Some have been trying to register themselves as candidates for parliament in the hope of winning immunity from prosecution for crimes as serious as murder. But the mafia- busting election supervisor, Alexander Veshnyakov, has done his best to weed them out.

Recently near Klin, police discovered a cache of automatic weapons in one of these obscene mansions. The guns, of the kind used to assassinate the democratic politician Galina Starovoitova last year, were walled in next to the fireplace. The owners evidently intended to use them to settle further scores. This is not Chechnya - Klin is only 50 miles north of Moscow - but in its way, it too is a battle zone.

Klin now boasts a branch of McDonald's. But only the lucky workers of the thriving brewery, who earn by local standards "astronomical" wages (the equivalent of pounds 150 a month), can afford to treat themselves there. The less fortunate, who toil in the chemical plant or have no work at all, go hungry. Take Roman Burtsev and his wife Marina, who live in one room of a communal flat. The state benefits they receive for themselves and their two children come to just 358 roubles (about pounds 8.75) a month.

Yet, like many Russians, they are besotted with President Yeltsin's chosen successor, Mr Putin, because he is bombing the hated Chechens. "We are ready to follow him with closed eyes," said Roman. Thus, today, they will vote for the party he has endorsed despite the fact that Unity, or the "Bear Party", has existed for only a few weeks and is an artificial creation, designed to support the Kremlin.

Not everyone in Klin has abandoned thought. A middle-aged man who gave only his first name, Viktor, said he was going to boycott the Duma elections in protest at the corruption and manipulative behaviour of national politicians. But he would take part in the simultaneous local elections and vote for the local man, who had a record of doing concrete good for the city. That, he said, was the only course of action that made sense as long as Russia had such an imperfect democracy.

And Tolya, a mechanic who feared to give his surname, said he thought there was something disturbingly authoritarian about Mr Putin and that, if he won the presidency, he could become "another Stalin".

Yelena Dashinskaya said she approved of the tough policy in Chechnya, but for her it was by no means a foregone conclusion that Mr Putin would become the next president of Russia. Ms Dashinskaya was planning to vote for the Communist Party.

The sorry state of the Tchaikovsky Museum, of which she is assistant curator, as well as the fact that she has not been paid for months, explained her choice. The grey clapboard house, in which Tchaikovsky spent his last years, is in urgent need of restoration. It survived the Bolshevik Revolution. It survived the Second World War, when the occupying Nazis stored fuel and parked motorbikes in the drawing room. But it is succumbing to the general post-Soviet decline.

From this nadir, Russia can only rise - whether peacefully and constructively or on a wave of nationalism remains to be seen. On the eve of voting, election-related opinion polls were no longer allowed. But another poll revealed that 37 per cent of Russians thought Stalin an "outstanding" personality and 48 per cent believed that, were he alive today, the old Soviet dictator could win power through the ballot box.