MOSCOW -- It's the day before Russia's first presidential election. You open your copy of Sovietskaya Rossiya, the Russian Communist Party newspaper, and you learn the following about front-runner Boris N. Yeltsin:
He is linked to a scheme to sell 140 billion rubles to Western swindlers to buy up Russia's industry and natural wealth (Page 1). He is lying to the press and public to cover up his connections with the ItalianMafia (Page 3).
He has had his minions draft a Russian constitution that would give the president "unlimited and practically uncontrolled power" Page 1). He is for "destroying the state unity" of the Soviet Union and breaking up its armed forces (Page 3).
He promised 50 much-needed buses to the Arctic city of Vorkuta last August -- and never delivered (Page 4). In the village of Molokovo outside Moscow, his daughter and son-in-law are building a country house (Page 4).
nTC And don't overlook Page 3: He ordered the printing of 4.8 million campaign posters and leaflets -- "multicolored, bright, on excellent paper" -- knowing full well that the same paper could have been used to print "not fewer than 700,000 children's books."
This is the first time that Russians have had the opportunity to elect their leader in this diverse area nearly twice the size of the United States, with a population of 150 million.
But while the country's politicians and pollsters, campaign managers and media mavens may lackexperience in conducting elections, the experience of the three-week campaign preceding today's vote shows that they are catching up fast in the low art of slinging mud.
"There has been an awful lot of demagoguery," said Boris V. Mikhailov, a political scientist at Moscow's U.S.A.-Canada Institute who knows both U.S. and Soviet politics well. "And the ++ programs were vague, and there were a lot of promises."
Mr. Mikhailov said the candidates' attacks on one another have been a natural result of the biggest contrast with a U.S. presidentialcampaign: the diversity of views among the six candidates. They stretch from the reactionary neo-Bolshevism of Gen. Albert M. Makashov to the Western-style, pro-market liberalism of Mr. Yeltsin.
"They represent the entire political spectrum," Mr. Mikhailov said. "I can't imagine anyone whose views are not represented by one of them."
BIf their rivalry was often bitter, the candidates left most of the dirty work to Russia's extremely partisan press. With a few exceptions, major newspapers these days were taking sides in a way reminiscent of 19th-century U.S. journalism.
The Communist Party newspapers, especially Sovietskaya Rossiya and Pravda, took upon themselves the burden of exposing the ex-Communist Mr. Yeltsin.
Yesterday Pravda even printed three professors' pseudo-scientific analysis of Mr. Yeltsin's character. It concluded that he was power-hungry -- because he used expressions related to power 397 times in his autobiography. It criticized his speeches for "monotonous vocabulary" and use of slang.
Rossiskaya Gazeta, the newspaper of the parliament Mr. Yeltsin chairs, took the opposite tack. While lavishing tributes on Mr. Yeltsin -- even printing a clip-and-save "Vote Yeltsin" leaflet yesterday -- the paper was curt and snide about his opponents.
It reserved plenty of space for allegations of dirty tricks against the campaign of Nikolai I. Ryzhkov, former Soviet prime minister and Mr. Yeltsin's chief opponent. The most common claims were that Mr. Ryzhkov's backers were offering peasants livestock feed or vodka in return for their votes.
But the campaign also was short -- and wondrously inexpensive by U.S. standards. Each candidate was given 200,000 rubles of state funds to spend -- less than $8,000 at the market exchange rate -- most of which went into posters and leaflets.
There was no TV advertising, the big cost in a U.S. campaign. Rather, each candidate was given an hour's live broadcast in prime time to answer viewers' questions on the main national channel and another hour on the second, Russian channel.
Monday, Soviet television screened a two-hour live "round table" with five of the six candidates. Mr. Yeltsin suddenly found it necessary to visit the far north town of Sytyvkar -- thus frustrating his opponents by skipping the TV debate.
But profligate promises from the dark horses in the race helped turn the debate into good television.
Vladimir V. HD, a glib lawyer who preaches a kind of eccentric imperialist capitalism, vowed to cut the price of a bottle of vodka from more than 10 rubles to 7 rubles and see that it was sold "on every corner." He apparently calculated, with some reason, that the boozer vote in Russia was big enough to be worth fighting for.
General Makashov, a reactionary army officer, said that under his presidency, those who violate the constitution "will be whipped on Red Square." The anchorman interrupt
ed with a tense smile: "About the whipping, you're joking, right, General Makashov? The viewers should understand that it was meant to be humorous."
Some remarks during the campaign might strike a hardened American voter as touchingly naive.
Vadim V. Bakatin, the photogenic former minister of internal affairs, complained bitterly to friends about
the dirty trick played on him by an interviewer from Nezavisimaya Gazeta (Independent Newspaper), one of the best of the new crop of aggressive, non-Communist publications.
The interviewer, Mr. Bakatin said, had the gall to print the text verbatim -- without giving him the opportunity, standard in Soviet journalism, to review and correct it.