MAGNITOGORSK, U.S.S.R. -- This steel city in the Ural Mountains is the stuff of Soviet legend, built by Stalinist shock troops in the 1930s, supplier of much of the muscle to defeat Hitler in World War II and long a potent symbol of the industrial might of the U.S.S.R.
" 'Legendary Magnitka,' they called it," said Georgy M. Tikhonov 42, editor of the local newspaper. "It was waved like a flag, like a banner of socialism."
It is a Spartan city of 447,000 people deep in the Russia heartland, 1,000 miles from intellectualizing Moscow, untouched by the independence talk of faraway Lithuanians and Georgians.
So you might expect Magnitogorsk to deliver an overwhelmin vote in today's referendum in favor of preserving the Soviet Union.
Don't count on it.
Interviews with Magnitogorsk residents strongly suggest that th vote may backfire for its initiator, President Mikhail S. Gorbachev. Many residents, especially the elderly, say they'll back the union, but even in Magnitogorsk the outcome seems likely to be deeply divided.
"I think every republic should live separately," said Rina Yusufyanov, 34, who works at the steelworks. "Look at Luxembourg. They're a little country, and they're doing OK. I'm voting 'no' on the union."
"I'll say 'no' to the union ballot," said Sergei Morozov, 36, a electrician. "Even if we say 'no,' the union will still be here. There will have to be economic ties anyway.
"So I think it's really just a question of someone trying t strengthen his political power," he said, referring to Mr. Gorbachev.
"I'm personally for the union, but as a lawyer, I think the questio is incorrectly formulated," said Pyotr P. Gess, 37, the city's Communist mayor. "It includes too many sub-questions. It's over-ideologized. So I plan to cross out both 'yes' and 'no.' "
All three said they would vote 'yes' without hesitation to th second question posed to citizens of the Russian Federation: whether Russia needs a directly elected president.
Mr. Gorbachev hopes to win a rousing endorsement for his visio of a "renewed" union, a big "yes" vote that can be wielded against independence-minded republics and against his chief rival, Russian Federation leader Boris N. Yeltsin.
But six of the 15 republics -- Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Georgia Armenia and Moldova -- are refusing to take part in the vote, forcing Moscow to organize polling for its loyalists there on army bases and in Kremlin-controlled factories.
Soviet troops charged pro-independence demonstrators yesterday outside an army barracks in Moldova, where voting was taking place, according to Reuters. Ironically, one of those beaten by soldiers was a cameraman for the official television news program "Vremya," which has vigorously campaigned for a vote in favor of the union.
Most observers still expect a majority vote in the remaining nin republics in favor of preserving the union. But a substantial "no" vote and many abstentions -- possible by not voting, by carrying the ballot away or by crossing out both answers -- are probable even in Rus
sia, as Magnitogorsk indicates.
About 10,000 supporters of the Ukrainian independenc movement Rukh rallied yesterday against the union question in Kiev, capital of the second-most-populous republic.
The state-controlled news media kept up a steady campaign to persuade people to vote yes. But on Leningrad television, where reformers still hold sway, Mayor Anatoly A. Sobchak, probably the second-most-popular Russian politician after Mr. Yeltsin, said would cross out both yes and no on the ballot.
So Mr. Gorbachev runs the risk that the referendum wil undermine his position by dramatizing the union's division and fragility.
By contrast, support in Russia seems overwhelming fo switching to direct election of the Russian president, and the indisputable front-runner would be Mr. Yeltsin. Like earlier Russian Federation leaders, Mr. Yeltsin was chosen by the Russian parliament, but he faces bitter opposition from conservative Communists and wants to strengthen his political hand with a direct election.
In Magnitogorsk, which has remained relatively sleepy throug the tumultuous Soviet politics of the last few years, the run-up to the referendum has been a turning point.
A rally called last Sunday by democratic activists to urge a "no vote on the union question and a "yes" to the Russian presidency drew a crowd of about 2,500 -- a political event unprecedented in Magnitogorsk, where Stalinist fear and Stalinist paternal
ism live on.
"For this city, a city with a slave psychology, that was breakthrough," said Vladimir A. Karelin, co-chairman of the local Social Democratic Party. The Social Democrats -- who number ** about 80 members in the city to the Communist Party's 20,000 -- organized the rally.
"There was interest in politics during the elections [in 1989 and
1990], but now it's really taken off," said Mr. Tikhonov, editor of the Magnitogorsk Worker. "