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Documentary : No 'Photo Ops' or Jogs for This Candidate : Parliament hopeful Kovalev barnstorms Russia's heartland the old-fashioned way, without pretension.

December 07, 1993|SONNI EFRON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

TAMBOV, Russia — The Russian campaign train chugs out past the dingy cement housing blocks that blight the Moscow suburbs, toward the rich farmland of Tambov, where silvery birch trees line the train tracks, and no soot stains the snow.

Inside his steamy compartment, the candidate sits on his bunk eating tangerines, bread and cheese and sipping sugary tea. He keeps a dreamy silence while his friends chat around him.

Even on the campaign trail, Sergei Adamovich Kovalev, Soviet concentration camp veteran and human rights crusader, is taciturn.

To an American political image-maker, candidate Kovalev would be the stuff dreams are made of.

The 63-year-old biologist, an intimate of the late dissident physicist Andrei D. Sakharov, was arrested in 1974 for publishing information about Soviet human rights violations.

He spent seven years in the gulag, then three more in internal exile in the Arctic Far East.

In the hands of a Russian James Carville, this shy hero of the anti-Communist crusade could be "sold" as a man who dared defy the Soviet yoke, paid a heavy price and emerged from prison camp to win a seat in the first Russian Parliament, where he helped lead his country to democracy.

Like U.S. Sen. Bob Kerrey, the introverted hero who lost a leg in Vietnam and whose views on military and veterans' issues were listened to with special respect during his 1992 presidential bid, Kovalev could be marketed as a man with the moral authority to call on his fellow citizens for the courage to stay the course of reform.

But Russia's fledgling democratic process has yet to produce spin doctors, schedulers or slick TV ads.

For a reporter who has covered American political campaigns, the Russian version is refreshingly free of pomp, pretension and manipulation. The stump speeches are much longer--testament to the legendary Russian patience and the legacy of Soviet ideological indoctrination.

The food is heavier, as the candidates are not obsessed with keeping trim for television. Nobody jogs. And fast-food joints are not among the whistle-stops.

On Kovalev's campaign, no chartered planes whisk the candidate and his entourage from one "photo op" to the next "media market." No preppy "advance men" armed with cellular phones keep the candidate on schedule.

No "body man" sees to it that the candidate has a freshly pressed suit and tries to make sure he is not photographed looking disheveled or goofy.

No, Kovalev will travel the 250 miles from Moscow to Tambov by overnight train, spending $7.40 for a "luxury" compartment that sleeps two instead of four.

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He will spend a day barnstorming through the agricultural heartland, taking the pulse of a conservative district where the democrats know they are in trouble. Then Kovalev will try to get some sleep on the overnight train back to Moscow.

He looks tired setting out.

Kovalev was swept into the old Russian Parliament on the anti-Communist wave of 1990, becoming chairman of the Supreme Soviet's Human Rights Committee.

Now he is running for a seat in the new legislature, or Duma, for Russia's Choice, the only party that officially supports President Boris N. Yeltsin.

Kovalev is No. 2 on the ticket, after First Deputy Prime Minister Yegor T. Gaidar.

On the Tambov trip, his entourage is made up of Arseny B. Roginsky, an old friend and wisecracking fellow prison-camp veteran who does most of the talking for Kovalev, as well as providing on-the-spot political strategy and moral support; a fellow candidate, economist Vasily I. Selyunin, whose job is to explain Gaidar's economic policies to an angry, frightened electorate; two American journalists, and one photographer.

The free press still being a novelty in Russia, the three of us are not viewed as vultures, as has become increasingly common on the U.S. campaign trail. Instead, we are graciously indulged like disruptive but nonetheless welcome guests.

Eventually, we are asked for our impressions and political pointers. For the president's party seems in fearful disarray.

Kovalev listens without comment while Selyunin reads aloud from a briefing fax on the grim situation in Tambov.

The region has a million voters, more than half of them rural. Most live on collective farms that still bear Leninist names, and sentiment is against Yeltsin's plan to privatize land.

Tambov's main industry is defense, which has suffered deep cutbacks. Workers fear that reform will cost them their jobs.

Former Communist Party apparatchiks have new titles but wield the same old power.

The city and regional soviets, or councils, have been dissolved on Yeltsin's orders--but the head of the local administration promptly reappointed each city council member a "deputy in charge of liaison with the population."

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Worse, the Tambov democrats have split into two feuding factions, which both claim to represent Russia's Choice.

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