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O Say, Does That Hammer-And-Sickle Yet Wave?

June 30, 1996

TAMBOV, Russia (AP) _ The scarlet Soviet flag still flies in Tambov, a striking symbol of the pain and bitterness that rend the Russian heartland. Wednesday’s presidential election isn’t going to bring it down.

This lush region is deep in the Red Belt, this sharply divided nation’s Communist bastion. President Boris Yeltsin managed to eke out just one vote in five here in the first round of voting last month.

More than half voted for Communist leader Gennady Zyuganov, one of his best showings nationwide. Zyuganov was so confident of the region’s ravaged factories and farms that he didn’t even bother to campaign here.

Nationwide, Zyuganov didn’t fare as well and most polls say he might lose in Wednesday’s runoff election. But Tambov’s Reds aren’t blue.

``We’ll survive,″ laughed Alexander Klemenko, deputy chairman of the city council, which flies the attention-grabbing red flag and uses the Communist-era name of city Soviet.

Such confidence in the party’s future springs from Tambov’s appalling economic collapse. It created deep reserves of anger and unhappiness for the party to tap _ and nothing Yeltsin has done so far seems to promise much relief for the region’s 1.3 million people.

Hundreds of farms in this region 285 miles south of Moscow are failing, most of its factories are idle. The average monthly wage in the countryside is just $33 a month.

At best, people here hope the election returns will warn Yeltsin that he can no longer ignore their problems. At worst, they fear he will punish the Red Belt for voting Communist by withholding federal subsides.

Even the liberal mayor, Valery Koval, doesn’t expect much from a Yeltsin victory other than breathing room in his long-running battle with the city Soviet and the region’s ``red″ governor.

``Our opponents won’t be so pushy if Yeltsin wins,″ he said.

Like the mayor and his Red foes, the entire region seems to live in a state of uneasy coexistence between those trying to cope with change and those resisting it.

Valery Sedykh, the editor of a liberal newspaper, says a lot of people are more interested in finding a scapegoat for their woes than in getting on with their lives.

``They blame Yeltsin for everything,″ he said. ``It’s like a drug. It makes them feel better about themselves.″

For some serious blame-casting, one need go no further than the Tsna Collective Farm, 10 miles north of Tambov. Zyuganov got 80 percent of the vote in the first round.

``If Yeltsin wins, farms are going to just disappear,″ deputy farm director Vladimir Redin said.

The workers at Tsna speak of Soviet times with deep nostalgia. They pine for the days of central planning, fat farm subsidies and free vacations. They look forward to the past.

``The Brezhnev era!″ a group of tractor drives cried out when a visitor asked them about their hopes for the future.

Things at Tsna are done the way they always were. The farm grows the same crops it always did. The same Soviet-era directors run things. And they still, by their own account, tell the workers how to vote.

Tsna’s farmers show the same mulish resistance to change that has driven Russian reformers since Peter the Great crazy. They don’t care that the farm is now theirs. Not one of its 320 farmers struck out on his own when private farming became legal.

``It’s not the Russian way,″ Redin said.

Times are also dire at the Tambov Shoe Factory in town, where wages are paid sporadically _ and sometimes in shoes. The workforce has shrunk from 1,300 to 300; production has fallen from 5 million pairs a year to 360,000.

Workers here voted heavily for Zyuganov, but not as heavily as their country cousins. And some seem determined to make a go of things.

``Sure, it’s hard,″ said Boris Anashkin, a 55-year-old factory hand. ``But we have our hands. And our brains. We just need the right conditions.″

The workers, who own a controlling interest in the factory, brought in an energetic young director, Andrei Deyeev. He says the factory just might survive if he can just find investors.

But Deyeev says he’s trapped in a downward spiral. Communism thrives on tough times, he says, and that scares away investors. And no investors means times stay hard. Which means the Communists and their red flag don’t go away.

``If somebody is a Red today, he’ll be a Red tomorrow,″ the beleaguered director said. ``And he’ll be a Red five years from now.″

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