Forgotten Russians find voice

December 19, 1993|By Kathy Lally | Kathy Lally,Moscow Bureau

MOSCOW -- The person who terrified the rest of the world by voting for Vladimir V. Zhirinovsky party last week was a youngish man, less-educated and lower-paid than those who chose the parties of reform.

This person -- as he emerges from pollsters' profiles -- most likely is not really a fascist now, though Mr. Zhirinovsky himself has been so labeled. But within his soul he harbors all the danger signs.

He is a person who will be ardently courted in the coming `D months by the nationalist, anti-reform elements that emerged from the Russian parliamentary election. And he is the same person who must stand behind democracy and reform if those forces are to prevail.

Such a person is Alexander Chebakin, who works in Murmansk for a government shipyard that has been nearly bankrupted by Russia's fall from wealthy superpower to humiliating impoverishment.

Mr. Chebakin is the technician in charge of running the mechanical systems at the sports complex attached to the shipyard. He and other workers have been paid only sporadically since April.

Nearly penniless, he lost confidence in the government, which promised right up to election day that money was on its way. When Mr. Zhirinovsky swept through Murmansk, promising a better life in six months, Mr. Chebakin knew where his vote would go.

"Zhirinovsky," he said. "How else can I vote? I don't believe anything the government says anymore."

Mr. Chebakin, a pleasant, mild-mannered man of 30, will be at the heart of the battle over Russia's future. Whoever can sway him, and the millions like him who turned Mr. Zhirinovsky into such a prominent figure, will influence what kind of nation this will be.

They well could stir to the rising nationalist voices; just as plausibly, they could stand firmly behind reform and democracy. They have already voted for both, particularly in Murmansk.

Cloudy motives

There were two votes Dec. 12, one for a party list and one for individual candidates. In Murmansk, Mr. Zhirinovsky Liberal Democratic Party easily overwhelmed Russia's Choice, led by reformer Yegor T. Gaidar.

Yet Andrei V. Kozyrev, the Russian foreign minister, who is a staunch member of Russia's Choice and is despised by conservatives and nationalists, won a huge percentage of the vote in the individual race. He was a carpetbagger in Murmansk, devoid of local connections. Still, he won.

This phenomenon, not at all unusual throughout the country, clouds attempts to understand what the voters are looking for.

"What would I like to hear?" asked Mr. Chebakin. "It's a complicated question, because every day from morning to night I'm dealing with problems resulting from not getting paid."

Mr. Chebakin said he is not very attuned to politics, though he was aware of Mr. Zhirinovsky when he ran for president in 1991, capturing 8 percent of the vote on a promise of cheap vodka.

"I didn't think much of him then," he said, "but now he promises to restore some of what we have lost, to keep us working, to improve our lives."

When pressed, Mr. Chebakin said he didn't quite understand how Mr. Zhirinovsky could make good on his assurances.

"I don't really believe his promises either," he said, "but I have to believe in something, and I know I can't believe the government."

In the end, Mr. Chebakin said, he had to believe that Russia would be strong once more. And a government that wasn't paying him couldn't inspire confidence in the future.

Strong nationalism

Like Mr. Chebakin, many Russians are influenced by a barely articulated nationalism, but one that is powerful nonetheless.

"The peculiarity of Russian nationalism is its political coloring," Yevgeny V. Proshechkin, chairman of the Moscow Anti-Fascist Center, said in an interview.

While in Germany and Italy, powerful nationalist movements have been influenced by ethnic identity, in the multiethnic Soviet empire the pride came from a strong sense of national power, even while Mr. Zhirinovsky was railing against darker people from the south.

"There is an upsurge of nationalism in the country now," Mr. Proshechkin said. "This is quite natural. The empire collapsed. The economy is in a grave state. The standard of living has deteriorated considerably."

Despite the political repressions of the past, many people were extremely proud of their country, which put the first man in space and possessed great military might.

"And you shouldn't forget that in the Russian mentality, the idea of a messiah was always present," Mr. Proshechkin said. "This upsurge of nationalism brought victory for Zhirinovsky, who talked about the greatness of Russia."

Mr. Zhirinovsky strength in the election, he said, is cause more for vigilance than panic. "He could exist harmlessly in a stable society," Mr. Proshechkin said. "Here, such ideas could spread quite rapidly."

Right now, voters are desperately searching for answers.

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