Yeltsin draws broad support in old city of Pskov


April 23, 1993|By Will Englund | Will Englund,Moscow Bureau

PSKOV, Russia -- The people who live in this medieval riverside city like to think of it as the true heart of Russia. If they're right, that's good news for Boris N. Yeltsin, because his support here is strong and deep.

In dozens of interviews, the citizens of Pskov (pronounced pi'scoff) overwhelmingly said they plan to vote "da" in Sunday's referendum, to back Mr. Yeltsin and his reform policies and to show their disdain for his opponents in the Russian legislature.

"We have only one leader. That's Yeltsin. We're ready to give him a chance," said Igor Sirotin, the union representative at an enterprise that runs tourist buses.

"We have to trust him. How can we go on without him?" said Samara Arkhipova, a deputy on a neighborhood council.

DTC Pskov enjoys an ancient and secure place in Russian history. Here, 10 centuries ago, thousands were converted to Christianity. Here the great Russian warrior-saint, Prince Alexander Nevsky, set out in 1242 to do battle with the Teutonic knights. Here the conquering Mongols never came, nor the Poles nor the Swedes.

Dozens of venerable churches and stout log houses dot the city, all dominated by the 13th-century Kremlin, or fortress, and its towering, golden-domed Trinity Cathedral.

From here Moscow looks like an 800-year-old upstart.

Yet Pskov is not buried in the past. People here have closely followed the political events of the past several months. They don't match the stereotype of the apathetic, cynical Russian. There isn't a political poster to be seen in Pskov, and there have been no rallies or demonstrations, but virtually everyone interviewed said he planned to vote in Sunday's referendum.

"Even the blind and deaf know about it," said Viktor Kokoshkin, a 52-year-old designer.

Mr. Kokoshkin, too, supports Mr. Yeltsin.

"I just trust him as a man," he said. "We're trying to break down this Communist system and find our way to the market. Of course there will be mistakes. I know we're in for difficult times. But nevertheless I trust him."

Mr. Kokoshkin, whose ancestors crafted a type of women's headdress called a "kokoshnik," is proud of his city's history. Although he lost his first job, in part because of the economic upheavals accompanying Mr. Yeltsin's reforms, he is happy now working for an archaeological institute restoring some of Pskov's churches.

"This is what we call Rus," he said, using the ancient term for Russia.

Yet the pride can't quite mask the central truth of Pskov: It stands not so much for Russia as Russia is, as for the Russia that might have been.

Pskov and its larger neighbor Novgorod developed into small republics in the 14th and 15th centuries, ruled by councils and boasting a vigorous merchant society. But in 1511 the city was swallowed up by a very feudal Moscow, and its middle class was deported and destroyed.

Just 400 years later, in one of history's ironies, the city saw the end of the czarist system and Romanov dynasty. On March 15, 1917, Nicholas II stepped off his train onto the railway platform here and learned that revolutionaries would not permit his return to St. Petersburg. He went back into his car and several hours later signed his abdication.

Today, down at the imposingly baroque light-blue train station, on the main line from St. Petersburg to Berlin, there are no monuments to that event. There's only a plaque honoring the arrival in 1900 of Vladimir I. Lenin, the patriarch of the Soviet system.

In a sense, Sunday's referendum replays history. It pits the Communists, the nationalists, even the monarchists on one side, and on the other an open, entrepreneurial Russia, a would-be descendant of medieval Pskov.

To be sure, Pskov, like all of Russia, is hurting these days.

The big factory in town, which makes radios, is having trouble both with obtaining parts and with sales, and is closing in May for an enforced three-week vacation. Salaries in general have lagged behind prices.

The big red tourist buses, Mr. Sirotin said, are still getting business, but now instead of vacationers traveling to the nearby lakes and monasteries they're carrying local people to Belarus and Poland in search of bargains and profits.

"Materially it's hard for me, of course," says Lena Andreyeva, who works at the radio factory. "But morally it's better."

People here have little trouble focusing their anger on the anti-Yeltsin leaders of the Russian legislature.

"I'm ashamed even to look at them on television," said Irina Skornyakova, whose second child is due any day but who expects to vote for Mr. Yeltsin on Sunday if she can.

"They just get together and yell at each other," said Nikolai Pavlov, a bus driver. "We have no use for them."

There are, naturally, dissenters. Several people attending services on a cold, blustery evening at Trinity Cathedral said they planned to vote against Mr. Yeltsin.

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