If any single place could be found to represent Russia's vast heartland on the eve of this year's presidential elections, the city of Voronezh, half way between Moscow and the Black Sea, would have an excellent claim.
With a population of 1.2 million and growing, Voronezh is the centre of the black-earth agricultural region. It should have prospered in the boom presided over by Vladimir Putin, and in some, very patchy, ways it has. But the change has been nothing like enough for many of its voters, who are caught up in one of the fiercest election battles in the country.
In Moscow it is hard to find anyone the slightest bit engaged about the contest. It is taken for granted that Dmitry Medvedev will win. People will turn out on Sunday for form's sake, but there is no impassioned campaigning.
Not so in Voronezh, where a stroll down any city-centre street will be interrupted several times by persistent campaign workers proffering glossy brochures for one party or another. Posses of activists in bright jackets have become a hazard for pedestrians, along with the cavernous pot-holes and the icy remains of the winter snow.
Loudspeakers summon voters to rallies outside the town hall at almost any hour. Local television is punctuated by amateurish publicity videos, peddling the merits of a candidate.
The election that is convulsing Voronezh, however, is not the contest between Mr Putin's designated heir, Dmitry Medvedev, and his three notional opponents: the Communist, Gennady Zyuganov; the right-wing populist, Vladimir Zhirinovsky; and the token fourth candidate, Andrei Bogdanov. It is the election for mayor which is being held on the same day. No fewer than 13 candidates – a "devil's dozen" as described locally – are competing for the post, with two neck and neck in the polls and another two with an outside chance.
The incumbent mayor, Viktor Skrynnikov, is campaigning for re-election, but is thought to have only a remote chance. A former teacher, whose lack of administrative experience (and therefore of dubious deals) was seen as the chief reason for his surprise win four years ago, he is now seen as not up to the job. He is accused of not representing the city's case for more central funds effectively, and neglecting the decaying infrastructure.
This is a nasty battle full of skulduggery. One story had it that one of the leading candidates, Viktor Vitinik, was subject to an assassination attempt, when his car was shot at. His opponents said it was all a stunt to bring him attention and sympathy, noting he was for some reason using his cheap Russian runabout at the time, rather than the 4x4 he usually drove around in.
Two other candidates found themselves summarily expelled from the United Russia party – "Putin's party" – at rowdy meetings. Their offence was to have dared to persist with their bids once the local party had endorsed another candidate, Sergei Koliyukh, chairman of the city council. They were deemed – a very Soviet-era offence this – to have flouted party discipline. There are also persistent reports of votes being bought. The alleged methods vary from patronage by wealthier contenders to cynical exploitation of pensioners' poverty. "If you have only the rouble equivalent of £25 a month to live on, an extra £5 makes quite a difference," said a long-standing critic of the way Russian elections are run.
Complaints have also been made about posters which suggest a personal endorsement of Koliyukh by Mr Putin, an apparent attempt to draw an association with the Kremlin that does not exist. The intention was to capitalise on Mr Putin's undoubted popularity to boost his chances of being elected mayor.
Such tactics may be less successful in Voronezh, though, than in many other cities. A traditionally conservative place, it has consistently lagged behind in its enthusiasm for Mr Putin. At the national parliamentary elections in December, officials are said to have been under pressure to deliver a 65 per cent vote for United Russia, then headed for electoral purposes by Mr Putin. They managed only 47 per cent – one of the lowest scores in the country. Turnout fell below the national average, too.
With the frenzy over the mayoral elections, and the level of popular involvement, it would be tempting to conclude that democracy – albeit a primitive variety – is taking hold at the grassroots, even if it seems moribund at national level. And surely, once serious contests are held at local and municipal level, the taste for genuinely contested elections will surely spread?
This is not quite how it looks to Voronezh voters. The only reason there are so many candidates, they say, is because they want a share of the spoils. "It's all about rich men wanting to get even richer," according to one of the younger voters I spoke to.
But Voronezh still lives in two worlds: Soviet and post-Soviet. Roads and utilities are no better than when I spent 10 months here 30 years ago. There is real poverty in the haunted look of elderly people as they pass kiosks stuffed with prohibitively priced fruit, salami and cakes. Meanwhile, speculators buy up two-thirds of new flats, knowing the price will rise, and new hotels costing £75 a night find a clientele.
In these circumstances, the wide choice they are being offered for mayor is little appreciated, compared with the "no-brainer" contest for president. They profess to be disgusted by the slanging match and will mostly cast their votes negatively, to eliminate the worst. It is mainly to endorse Mr Putin's choice of successor that most – even in doubtful Voronezh – will be turning out on Sunday.Reuse content