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RUSSIA'S HISTORIC VOTE

Hinterland Reveals Russia's Rifts in High Relief

Balloting: At a rural polling place, split between election observers is a microcosm of a divided society.

June 17, 1996|ELIZABETH SHOGREN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

RAMESHKI, Russia — The two groups of election observers sized each other up with a mixture of disdain and disinterest from across the gloomy auditorium that served as the voting station Sunday in this rural town about 115 miles northwest of Moscow.

On one side sat two gray-faced, retired locals, dressed in Brezhnev-era suit coats, observing the voting on behalf of Communist candidate Gennady A. Zyuganov.

On the other sat three young people from Moscow, wearing jeans and stylish clothes, who traveled all night by bus to watch the polling station as representatives of Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin.

Although the distance between them was not more than 15 yards, they might as well have been sitting in different worlds. The huge gap in political views between the Zyuganov and Yeltsin observers reflects the broad chasm that has developed in Russian society--between those who desperately want to return to the days when the Communist Party ruled most aspects of life and those who cannot imagine such a fate.

As the day wore on, the election observers in this Communist stronghold scoffed at each other from opposite sides of a bank of polling booths with purple curtains.

Nikolai Kharkov, 62, a retired construction manager, gestured toward the young people sitting across the room and said dismissively: "They're barely out of kindergarten.

"What kind of life experience do they have? They probably still live off their parents and grandparents," added Kharkov, who has lived and worked his whole life in the town. "If Yeltsin's such a solid candidate, then why can't he have a solid team supporting him at the polls?"

The young Yeltsin supporters commented on their competitors with a strong tone of superiority.

"The fact that those old guys are here shows that Zyuganov has no real support among the contributing members of the population," said Ilya Smirnov, 18, a medical student from Moscow. "They want to pull the country backward, but we young people won't let them."

The observers were an apt microcosm of the split society. Russians who favor Zyuganov are predominantly older and rural voters, while those who support Yeltsin and other pro-reform candidates tend to be younger and urban. And, like the Yeltsin observers, many of those who support the president have felt some personal benefit from the market economy, while those who support Zyuganov have probably suffered.

Kharkov's comrade, Vasily Vikharev, argued that Yeltsin is the one who is leading the country into the past.

"He's taking us backward toward capitalism," said Vikharev, 59, a retired builder. "Zyuganov wants to take us forward into deeper socialism. Zyuganov wants to make the factories and agriculture work again. The simple working people lived well under socialism. Now the working class has become poor."

But Alexander Rybkin, 20, an auto mechanic observing for Yeltsin, heartily disagreed.

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"Life is so much better now," argued Rybkin, who works for a private garage. "Young people like us have already made gains in this new life. If he works hard, even a 17-year-old can earn enough money to support himself. This was not possible under the old system. It's the kind of time where if you have a head on your shoulders, you can make a good life for yourself."

Rybkin said he and his fiancee, Alina Mashurova, 18, volunteered to observe for Yeltsin at the polls because they wanted to prevent the Communists from stealing the election. They were among about 300 young people who gathered in Moscow late Saturday night for a dance sponsored by the Yeltsin campaign, then set out by bus for polling stations in rural areas where the Communist Party remains strong.

"We are getting married soon, and I want our children to live in a free country," said Rybkin, who wore a T-shirt with Yeltsin's ad campaign slogan: "Vote or You'll Lose."

"We were raised on lies," he said. "I want our children to be raised on the truth."

Although there were exceptions, most of the voters casting ballots in Rameshki on a chilly, rainy Sunday afternoon seemed to fit the general pattern.

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Nina Gromova, 63, a retired schoolteacher, said she voted for Yeltsin five years ago but was now casting her ballot for retired Gen. Alexander I. Lebed, a military hero. In the event of a runoff pitting Yeltsin against Zyuganov, she planned to vote for Zyuganov.

"I'm firmly against Yeltsin," Gromova said. "He did not fulfill his promises. He said only the lazy and stupid would suffer. I'm neither lazy nor stupid. I worked my whole life, but now I'm poor. But my pension is so miserly that I can only afford bread and sometimes milk. I want justice and order."

By contrast, Tatyana and Sergei Tarasov, who are both 31, voted for pro-reform candidate Grigory A. Yavlinsky. In a runoff, they said, they would vote for Yeltsin.

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