Huddled in leather coats, heavy sweaters and fur hats, the voters of Organika, an aging water filter factory, sat almost motionless on rigid row seats in a cold room of peeling wallpaper and sagging fortunes.
On a television perched in front of the room, they watched an enticing campaign video showing clean bottles of soda and vodka rolling off the modern conveyor belts at a plant built by Vladimir Pekarev, a candidate in the Dec. 19 election for Russia's State Duma, the lower house of parliament.
In District 109, about 30 miles east of Moscow, the questions that Pekarev fielded following the video spoke volumes about Russia's mood after eight tumultuous years of change.
An old man in a cloth coat wanted to know about Pekarev's factory--will it expand? Others demanded to know when they could tour the factory. Will there be jobs there? Is there a direct bus route? What will happen to the factory if Pekarev is elected and takes up full-time work in Moscow? What is the salary at his factory?
Eyes opened wide when Pekarev said his workers earn about $155 a month--at the water filter factory a worker with two decades on the job makes only $15 a month. When Pekarev noted that the audience was rather sullen, he was reminded of their low wages by a woman who added, "And you want us to smile?"
Such is the course of the parliamentary campaign that not a single hand was raised here to inquire about the war in Chechnya. Nor did anyone so much as utter the name of Russia's ailing and distant president, Boris Yeltsin. Pekarev said later that he has yet to be asked a single question about global events such as the war in Yugoslavia or arms control, issues that often have provoked an uproar in parliament.
The Duma election is the first nationwide vote since Yeltsin's reelection in 1996, which preceded a boomlet in Russia's economy that attracted billions of dollars in foreign investment in stocks and bonds. But in 1998 the boom turned to a bust that included devaluation of the ruble and default on Russia's internal debts that left many people disillusioned and angry about market reforms. The outcome of this election may offer a clue to how the disenchantment will be translated into political choices in next year's presidential campaign.
Here in Electrostal, a day in the life of a Russian parliamentary candidate revolves around the most basic concerns of life--economic survival. In a string of campaign events that lasted from morning until early evening, Pekarev was confronted over and over again with the same tableau: nicely dressed, patient voters, wondering how they were going to make it. In separate events he was asked spontaneously and worriedly why voters should allow a businessman who is creating jobs to leave them behind for Moscow.
"Many decent people went to the Duma and didn't come back," lamented a young woman at one of Pekarev's later appearances, at a metal works. "It broke them. You're a decent owner--aren't you afraid you will be broken there, too?"
Her question captured a deep vein of distrust and disgust that was a theme throughout the day. Voters are tired, and they long ago lost whatever early romanticism they felt about their newly minted democracy. They no longer believe that politicians will listen, or that elections matter.
When Pekarev, 41, appeared at the water filter plant, an elderly worker stood just outside the door. "I work in the research department," he said. "I invited people to come down and listen. But they said no. They dislike the system. In my view, people are tired. They haven't seen anything good."
In an interview later, Pekarev acknowledged the mood of the public has darkened. "People are just sick and tired of old men" running the country, he said.
Pekarev is one of 13 candidates running for parliament from this single-member district. These districts elect half the 450-member Duma. The other half is elected from party lists. Pekarev describes himself as an independent, although he was earlier affiliated with a new party led by Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov. He also served in a regional legislature for two years.
District 109 was once thriving with defense factories, part of a massive Soviet military-industrial complex. But the factories have suffered a long, agonizing decline in recent years, in part because the government refuses to close them. The hulking plants stay open, many still owned by the state, all trying to scrape by in Russia's crude market economy.
Organika, for example, is trying to survive by making water purification filters for commercial use. But it is still owned by the state; earlier efforts to privatize it fell apart.
Amid the gloom, Pekarev has a bright story to tell. In the nearby town of Chernogolovka, once a center of defense work, he built up Ost-Alko, which produces 38 kinds of vodka and 16 flavors of soda. The competition in alcoholic drinks is fierce in Russia, and Pekarev's line is considered upscale--vodka with cranberries, for example, and a carbonated drink with traditional herbs. He bottles them all in glass, not cheap plastic.
Every campaign stop begins with the video that shows how he built the bottling plants. He doesn't say much in the film, but the message is: jobs, jobs and more jobs. The voters at each stop were clearly impressed by the sales pitch, sitting in their cold, dying factories. Pekarev got his start sewing jeans as a youth and was part of the groundbreaking experiment in the late Soviet years known as the cooperatives, the first small private businesses.
Now, he's unmistakably part of the relatively new entrepreneurial class in Russia, and he rides around in a black Mercedes sport utility vehicle, a style that's often associated here with the brash, brawling businessmen of the day. He's campaigning on a simple theme: that only industrial rebuilding can save the country. Well-dressed in a navy blazer and understated silk tie, Pekarev comes across as earnest; he is not a charismatic speaker.
Pekarev said he was running for parliament because it needs new faces, and because the last session didn't enact laws to protect Russian industry from imports. "Today's Duma failed to do anything," he said. "Conditions have been deteriorating. People talk and promise--I am sick and tired of words. They promise to pass laws and don't do anything."
Pekarev moves from social workers to laborers to teachers on this day, his aides pass out literature and make sure the video is ready in the cramped, dark meeting rooms of the old factories. Pekarev refused to discuss details of how he is financing his campaign, although he said most of it is his own money. The spending limit for a Duma campaign is $62,227, although the limits are not enforced and most candidates spend far more.
Pekarev tried to tap into voters' impatience with the tide of corruption that has been one of the most distinguishing characteristics of the new Russian capitalism. "Millions of dollars are stolen and no one is punished!" he declared. "No one is arrested. A militiaman will not protect the law if his monthly salary is $23. We don't have a normal system."