VORONEZH, Russia -- Shortly after Boris N. Yeltsin banne the Communist Party in 1991, the top Communist in Voronezh, Ivan N. Shabanov, got himself elected leader of the district council. Today he is as powerful as ever.
He is anti-Yeltsin to the core. And, like hundreds of his counterparts across Russia, he awaits the April 25 national referendum with satisfaction, sure that the Russian president will go down in defeat.
"A normal president would resign immediately, in favor of the people," he says. "It's clear here in Voronezh that if the reformers go on they will ruin the economy."
Voronezh is the kind of place where people have a hard time seeing what was wrong with the Soviet Union. Sausages under the old system cost about a ruble a pound, the border with neighboring Ukraine was a legal technicality, and the certainties of life were unshakable.
Now the economy is closing down, prices are heading for the moon, trade has ground to a halt, and nothing is certain.
Mr. Yeltsin's personal representative -- a sort of ward heeler -- in Voronezh is a physics professor named Viktor A. Davydkin. He heads the scanty campaign to back the president and readily concedes he is aiming for a "moral victory" in the referendum. That is, he hopes not to do as badly as people expect.
Here, on the banks of the Don River, and throughout Russia, ordinary people will go to the polls April 25 to vote yes or no on four questions: Do they support the president? Do they support his economic reforms? Do they want early elections for the presidency? For the Congress of People's Deputies?
For simplicity's sake, Mr. Yeltsin is urging Russians to vote yes on all four questions, although he would actually rather not have early elections for his own post.
The referendum is designed to put an end to the intense political battling between the reform-minded Mr. Yeltsin and his conservative opponents in the Congress. Mr. Yeltsin faces serious disenchantment in the outlying regions of the Russian federation. A clear-cut outcome is unlikely in the referendum. Nevertheless, the result could determine the course of the political battles that lie ahead.
In June 1991, when Mr. Yeltsin was elected president, the Voronezh oblast, or district, voted almost identically with Russia as a whole. Mr. Yeltsin received 57 percent of the votes here.
Communists in charge
But Voronezh is hardly a center of reform sentiment. In August 1991, when many thousands of people in Moscow and St. Petersburg were rallying on the streets against the attempted putsch, a demonstration here on vast, dusty Lenin Square, fronted by the buildings of the local authorities and the local Communist Party, mustered all of 15 democrats.
Today, the sorts of people who have taken control of the Congress and forced the showdown with Mr. Yeltsin are the sorts of people who are easily in charge in Voronezh.
Mr. Shabanov, the council chairman, is one of the leaders of the newly reconstituted, and newly legal, Russian Communist Party. His dissertation as a university student was on "Forms and Methods of Strengthening Party Discipline." He says he doesn't want to return to the past because in the past Russia never achieved a sufficiently developed state of real communism. Instead, he wants to press on into the future.
Mr. Shabanov is particularly outraged that the reformers are attacking collectivized agriculture. With emotion, he talks about the blood and toil that were required to create collectivized farms in the first place.
"The Great October Revolution took place in 1917," he notes. "And only in 1930, after nearly 15 years, through bloodshed, through force, did we manage to make the first collective farms. And it took another 15 years to stabilize these collective farms. And now they would wreck this."
To Mr. Shabanov, collectivization is an unviolable achievement of the Soviet era, one to be treasured -- even if means ignoring facts.
In truth, collectivization is generally regarded as having ushered in a disastrous collapse in productivity, from which Russia will take many years to recover. And the blood that was shed was not that of Communist heroes but of their victims -- millions of peasants who resisted the party's brutal strategy of moving them off their own farms.
But that's not the prevailing view in Voronezh oblast.
"We should take care of the riches we have here in Russia," says Mr. Shabanov, who sits under a gigantic portrait of Lenin. "If they try to sell off the farmland here, that will be the quickest way to a civil war," he warns.
Across town, another Russian Communist Party leader, and one of the founders of the hard-line National Salvation Front, sits in the director's chair at the Voronezh Mechanical Plant, which makes everything from rocket engines to meat grinders. He is Georgi V. Kostin.