Yeltsin's town prepares a bitter homecoming for its fallen idol

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The Independent Online


There was a time when no one in Ekaterinburg would have been rude about the super-smart glass and concrete skyscraper in the heart of their city, the tallest building in the Urals. Not any more. These days, they joke about it becoming Russia's answer to the leaning tower of Pisa.

Not that it's falling down. Yesterday the building, towering incongruously over the decrepit industrial landscape, stood as straight as ever against the blue winter sky. Rather, the jest is aimed at the man who built it, Boris Yeltsin, the erstwhile local hero who, as the city's Communist Party boss, ran it for almost a decade.

Last night Mr Yeltsin flew home: he is expected today to announce plans to run for a second term in the Kremlin, in spite of his recent heart attacks, his advancing years (he is 65) and low popularity ratings. But the city where he grew up and studied can no longer be depended on to deliver the 90- per-cent vote that helped propel him into the President's suite. Like the rest of Russia outside Moscow, it was long ago embittered by broken promises and post-Soviet economic decline.

Ekaterinburg, in Yeltsin's day the 10th largest city in the Soviet Union, manufacturing heavy machinery, tanks, rockets and transport equipment, has not become enemy territory so much as disorientated.Witness the scene yesterday underneath a large statue of Lenin.

A man was carrying a fat silver-coloured sword in one hand and a huge orange-and-black nationalist flag in the other. Next to him stood a stack of hand-written notices to greet the President. "Murderer and destroyer of Russia, go away to your masters across the ocean," said one. "Revenge is unavoidable," said another.

In front of him, two women were arguing with a scruffy young man who was a Yeltsin supporter. "What's Yeltsin ever done?," asked one. "Look, if it wasn't for him you wouldn't have foreign journalists standing here," said the man (For years, Ekaterinburg, then called Sverdlovsk, was closed to tourists). "That happened under Gorbachev," shot back one of the women.

"Well, you've got food in the shops now," he persevered. "Yes, but we can't afford to pay for it. If you gave us normal pensions and wages, the shelves would be empty within a day." The women support a liberal economist, Grigory Yavlinksy, believing Mr Yeltsin is an altered man: "Men are like rivers. They change," one said.

In December's parliamentary elections, the Yeltsin-backed group, Our Home Is Russia, trailed in third place here, behind a regional party and Vladimir Zhirinovsky's extreme nationalist Liberal Democratic Party. Although the Communists - clear winners nationwide - were fourth, they rise to the top if votes given to a smaller Stalinist party are included.

The vote reflected an alienation from the Kremlin evident everywhere. Gennady, a former businessman who now drives a cab, is not a Communist, although he used to be. Today, he belongs to the growing mass of the restless, unhappy, and unsure. "If you are on the high seas with a force- eight gale blowing, and you are on a big ship, and the captain's drunk, that's what this country is like."

Outside stood a department of Uralmash, the heavy machinery factory. In Soviet times, it employed 50,000 and sprawled over 1,000 acres. Now only 19,000 work there. The remaining workers tell a story heard across Russia: some have been waiting three months for their wages.

"If Yeltsin wants my vote, he will have to end the Chechen war, and pay us on time," said Vitaly Martushkin. "Otherwise I will vote Communist."

None of this bodes well for the President. It was in Ekaterinburg that the Bolsheviks murdered Tsar Nicholas and his family 78 years ago. The Communists are, figuratively speaking, planning the same fate for Mr Yeltsin.