A grudging yes for the President: On Sunday, the people will decide Yeltsin's fate. Steve Crawshaw samples the mood across Russia

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AT 18 Tverskaya Street in central Moscow, near the Izvestia newspaper building, a wall plaque announces that Maria Ulyanova, Lenin's sister, once worked here. But the sign does not receive much attention these days. Immediately beside it is a brand new showroom full of American cars.

Just up the road a small kiosk - one of thousands across Moscow - sells pineapples, kiwi fruit, avocados and bananas (two days' wages per kilo). In the state department store, Gum, which once contained only a host of nondescript Soviet shops, you can find Benetton, Galeries Lafayette and other Western stores.

The visitor returning to Moscow for the first time in a year can only stand and gape. The Western presence is not, in itself, so startling. Even in the Gorbachev era, there were a few Western shops in Moscow - strictly for foreigners, dollars only. Stand in the queue - yes, the queue - for Benetton or Galeries Lafayette today, and you are among Russians. Not all the customers are hard-currency prostitutes or members of organised crime syndicates. Less than two years after the collapse of 70 years of Communism, the fragile foundations of a market economy - real earnings for real goods - are beginning to be laid.

For the moment, most Russians cannot afford Benetton, let alone a foreign car. Poverty is real, and so, understandably, is the resentment. Visit an exhibition site in northern Moscow and you can feel the disillusion. This was once the Exhibition of Economic Achievements, a monument to Stalinist grotesque. Its pavilions - huge mock-classical buildings decorated with muscle-bound workers and peasants - proclaimed the triumphs of the Soviet Union. Now, the complex is called the All-Russian Exhibition Centre. The contents of the old exhibition have vanished, consigned to the political knacker's yard, to be replaced by Levi jeans and Panasonic video recorders.

Zoya, a tiny woman in her sixties who worked in the (now-closed) Cosmos pavilion, with its heroic exhibits of Yuri Gagarin and other Soviet cosmonauts, does not conceal her bitterness. She unlocks the huge pavilion, and wistfully shows the remaining dusty exhibits. 'In Stalin's day things were better. People worked well, things were peaceful. Everything was cheap, you could buy everything.'

Ask about the climate of fear and the labour camps, and she shrugs. Her certainties have been destroyed, and replaced with nothing. For Zoya - not an aggressive propagandist, just a loyal believer in Communism, like millions of others - things are unlikely to get better in her lifetime.

But Moscow - with its beggars in the underpasses and opulent neon advertising on Mayakovsky Square - has always been untypical. Take the overnight train east and one can begin to search for an answer to the question, crucial for Boris Yeltsin in the run-up to Sunday's referendum: what is the mood in the provinces?

Gorky, a centre of military production, was for decades closed to foreigners - which is why the authorities exiled Andrei Sakharov there. It was the dull, grey kind of place that everybody knew would never change. Now known again by its old name of Nizhni Novgorod, the town is the scene of a miniature revolution.

Inside the town's kremlin, perched on a steep hill overlooking the Volga and Oka rivers, an experiment has begun. If it succeeds, then reform in all of Russia may succeed; if it fails, there can be little chance of peaceful change in the foreseeable future.

Nizhni Novgorod's boyishly enthusiastic governor, Boris Nemtsov, has introduced a radical privatisation scheme, seen by the Yeltsin government as a potential model for the rest of the country. Half the retail trade has been privatised; trucks have been sold off to improve distribution; and land privatisation is under way.

Nizhni Novgorod was one of Russia's most important trading towns before 1917. Now it wants to regain that status. Nizhni hopes to imitate the experiences of Poland, whose reforms began in earnest in 1990, and has invited many members of the Polish reform team to visit.

Although Poles and Russians like to emphasise how different they are - entrepreneurial drive versus hatred of the market; individual spirit versus collective apathy - there is evidence in Nizhni that Russians may not be as allergic to the market as they once seemed. Western advisers who have experience of Eastern Europe point out excitedly that there are as many green shoots in Nizhni Novgorod as there were in Poland in the early days.

As in Moscow, you hear on the streets only grudging acknowledgements of positive change. Again, though, remember Poland. There, too, everything was said to be 'worse than ever' after the Communists went. The general prediction was of impending catastrophe all round.

But the prediction was wrong. Poles never rebelled, and today, even as the grumbling (and relative poverty) continues, Poland has the beginnings of a market economy. Even official statistics - always slow to catch up with reality - have begun to reflect the turnaround.

In April 1991 I had sat in a Warsaw government dining room with the then Polish finance minister and one of his Western advisers, Anthony Doran, who talked passionately about how Poland's achievements had not been widely recognised. Now, two years later, the US-based co-ordinator of the Nizhni Novgorod advisory team is that same Mr Doran.

It is easy to dismiss the enthusiasm of reformers in Nizhni Novgorod as nave - one need look no farther than the reactions on the street. But the lesson of Poland is that such complaints did not reflect a real nostalgia for the old order. They were a safety valve, not a rebellion.

Nizhni Novgorod offers a hint of the positive changes that might lie ahead. But you need go little farther to smell the decay that has already set in elsewhere in the Russian federation. An overnight train journey east from Nizhni lies Kazan, a university town and capital of the self-declared sovereign republic of Tatarstan.

Tatarstan has declared itself a 'subject of international law' - an expression of defiance that has not been reflected in any act of independence from Moscow. Among the crowds on the streets of Kazan nobody has much time for Moscow. Ribkat, a road worker, expressed a widely held view, that oil-rich Tatarstan would be better off alone: 'Before, Moscow was always taking from us. Now, we'll keep whatever we need.'

The republic's president, Mintimer Shamiyev, is an old-style Communist- turned-nationalist. On his staircase, pictures of the 1917 revolution have pride of place. There may be Snickers bars on sale in the kiosks, but there is little meat or fresh vegetables in the shops. The biggest bookshop has a book about setting up a private business, another about securing your home against break-ins, and some soft porn. More prominent, though, are the tomes of Marx, Engels and Lenin, which fill much of the shop.

Despite its oil, Tatarstan seems unlikely to find its way alone and will probably remain in a kind of limbo. A new federal agreement is being discussed between Moscow and its regions, but Tatarstan, like other regions, is wary, and unenthusiastic about President Yeltsin.

People have persuaded themselves that they will be better off if they break from Moscow altogether. The rhetoric is all about the suffering of the Muslim Tatars at the hands of the Russians in the past 400 years. But so far, at least, there has been no violence, in a republic that is almost evenly split between ethnic Tatars and Russians. The question here is whether people use their referendum votes against Moscow, or whether some reform-minded people might not use their votes against their own little-changed regional government.

Throughout Russia a huge amount is riding on Sunday's referendum. With the agenda partly hijacked by Mr Yeltsin's opponents, who railroaded through a question about the painful economic reforms, no one should be surprised if large numbers of voters give the thumbs-down on the economy. Yet Mr Yeltsin still has an approval rating about five times that of any of his conservative rivals. That serves as a crucial reminder that he would be very hard to replace. And it does his opponents no good to dream up populist policies if they are propounded by unpopular leaders.

There has been much resistance to change in Russia, and even greater political apathy. Even if, as is likely, the referendum confirms Mr Yeltsin in power, it may not give him a mandate for further economic reform. Certainly, it is easy to criticise what has already happened. One can complain, as many people do, about all the nouveaux riches in Moscow. But what should the alternative have been - vieux riches? An instantly packaged middle class? There are still, as when the reforms began, only two choices for Russia: to jump or not to jump.

Although there are endless reasons for pessimism, in the 16 months since Boris Yeltsin launched his programme of economic reforms, enormous changes have taken place, changes that many Russians - how many will be shown on Sunday - will be loath to give up.

On the evening that Boris Yeltsin made his dramatic television appeal to the people last month and announced his referendum, I was dining with Russian friends from my student days in the Brezhnev era. Alya and Nikolai were excited that the gloves were now off in the battle for change. They were worried, not just about the power struggle, but because they could scarcely afford to buy basic food and clothes. Above all, though, they expressed a cautious hope that their world was on the edge of being irreversibly transformed. Their votes, and the votes of others like them mean that the Zoyas of Moscow will not get things all their way in Sunday's referendum.

An updated version of Steve Crawshaw's 'Goodbye to the USSR' (first published in April 1992) is scheduled to be published by Bloomsbury in August.

(Photograph and map omitted)