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THE PRESIDENTIAL ELECTION IN RUSSIA

Fundamental Differences Divide a Nation

Politics: Many Russians have embraced reforms. But embittered Communists cling to their philosophy.

July 04, 1996|ELIZABETH SHOGREN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

OBNINSK, Russia — Valery A. Tolstikov and Yuri I. Yershov are two nuclear physicists who spent most of their careers helping develop the Soviet Union's atomic weapons at an elite, super-secret institute in a city that was closed to foreigners.

After decades of working together for the same goal--protecting their country from the U.S. nuclear arsenal--the two men could not be further apart when it comes to their hopes for Russia's future.

Tolstikov, 66, is still a Communist Party member and an ardent believer in the ideals upon which the Soviet Union--and this special atomic city--were built.

Yershov, 53, who quit the party in 1991, wishes only that he were younger so that he could participate more fully in the economic and political freedoms of the new Russia.

Wednesday's election was equally momentous for both men.

While Tolstikov saw it as a chance to try to put his country back on the right track, Yershov viewed it as a critical opportunity for the country's 105 million voters to confirm their support for Russia's reforms.

"It is extremely important to me that Yeltsin win--it's like a life or death thing," Yershov said. "If Zyuganov wins, I will find some way to leave the country. There would be no future for me or my children."

But Tolstikov countered that "if Yeltsin wins and we stay on this path of reform, it will not seem like my country anymore."

Yeltsin's victory indicates that most Russians, like Yershov, support the general course of reform despite the hardships they face as their country moves from a controlled economy to a free-market system and from a totalitarian political system to democracy.

But five years after the breakup of the Soviet Union, more than a third of all voters, like Tolstikv, have not adjusted.

Yeltsin's team acknowledges that it will have to take steps to appease Zyuganov's voters because they represent such a sizable chunk of the electorate and because they do not appear to be altering their views over time.

"Our country is split," said Tolstikov, who was an election observer for Zyuganov at an Obninsk polling station and spent part of the day arguing with Yeltsin's observers.

It will be extremely difficult for Yeltsin to appeal to Zyuganov's supporters because many disagree with the fundamental ethics of the new capitalist Russia--individualism and personal initiative.

"To build a new path that is based on the principle of individualism contradicts everything about our past," Tolstikov argued. "I don't believe in all this individualism. Russia is a very special country. It always existed on the principle of collectivism. These reforms are going counter to the Russian spirit."

Obninsk, like many Soviet cities, was built around one goal. Here, it was defeating the United States in the nuclear arms race.

For their efforts, the 100,000 residents of Obninsk were rewarded with better living conditions and stores that were well-stocked by Soviet standards.

But as Russia slashed spending for its military-industrial complex in recent years, government orders for the 14 institutes in the city have dropped significantly. And, as in much of Russia, an every-man-for-himself mentality has emerged.

Tolstikov and Yershov bemoan the decline of science in Russia and grumble about their worsening living standards.

But Yershov has risen to the occasion. In addition to his research and work as a professor, he has found side jobs as a nuclear security consultant for the Russian government. Despite all his efforts, his family struggles to make ends meet.

"I work a lot more than I ever did before," Yershov said. "It's very difficult for me to live now. But it's worth it. Now I feel like a free person, and freedom is the most important thing."

While the Communist Party was in control, Yershov was not allowed to travel abroad or talk to foreigners. Party functionaries interfered in every aspect of his personal life. He was not allowed to subscribe to Soviet newspapers without the permission of party bosses.

For Yershov, what is so thrilling about the new Russia is the possibility that individuals with initiative can make something of their lives.

"I like everything that is happening in the country--except, of course, the increase in crime," Yershov said. "You know what makes me really happy? All of a sudden we have lots of rich people. I love seeing those guys driving those expensive cars. I think, look, there's someone who figured out a way to make himself rich. I think it's terrific."

This is exactly what Zyuganov supporters find so disturbing about the new Russia.

Sergei Pinchuk, 49, a researcher who develops instruments for monitoring radiation pollution, said he is frustrated by the disappearance of the collective spirit.

Instead of everyone working together to fulfill a plan handed down by the central government, each scientist struggles to find his own way to attract business and earn money.

"Our director tells us to go out and find our own work. If we don't we won't have anything to do," Pinchuk said.

"Now there is an unnatural atmosphere at our institute," he added. "Everyone is selfishly working on his own project. People even hide things from each other. I liked the collective atmosphere that we used to have much better."

Pinchuk, like many of the tens of millions of other Russians who voted for Zyuganov, said he is beginning to feel alienated from his own country.

"Many people, not just me, are beginning to lose the feeling that this is our homeland. We're losing our pride in our country and our desire to defend it," he said. "I'm a reserve officer. I was always ready to be called on to go and serve my country. But now if they called me, I do not think I would go."

As Yeltsin begins his second term, one of his biggest challenges will be persuading people like Pinchuk and Tolstikov that Russia--despite all its changes--is still their country.

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