Irkutsk, Russia, June 27 (RFE/RL) -- The poplars are blooming in Siberia, blanketing the streets of Irkutsk with white feathery seeds, like a dusting of summer snow. It is an unusual sight, this summer snow. But, as locals claim, Irkutsk is an unusual city.
Once an isolated frontier town, connected to the rest of Russia by a single muddy track, Irkutsk became an overnight intellectual center in the last century, thanks to the legions of dissidents exiled here by the Tsar. The city also grew into a rich merchant town, exploiting its position as a trading post between Russia and China. Soviet times were crueler to Irkutsk: trade with China was halted, the intellectuals were liquidated, high-rise towers and factories were thrown up all around.
Today's Irkutsk looks like most other post-Soviet cities: a dusty urban sprawl of collapsing concrete, which occasionally reveals glimpses of a more prosperous past. Walk around the downtown neighborhoods of sagging wooden houses with their delicately carved eaves, and it is still possible to imagine that time. Imagining the past is something everyone does in Irkutsk on occasion, but most people would prefer to look to the future. Yet less than a week before the final round of Russian presidential elections, there is little official debate about the way forward. The campaign has nearly ground to a halt.
Heads may be rolling in the Kremlin, 5,000 kilometers distant, but here in Irkutsk, you would hardly know the country is on the eve of a national election. The streets are awash in poplar seeds, but little else. And Moscow, which remains four days' train journey away for most people, still seems remote.
The local manager of President Boris Yeltsin's re-election campaign, Vladimir Matienko, claims Yeltsin has already succeeded in getting his message out. He says results from the first round of voting on June 16, indicate that Yeltsin can count on support in the city of Irkutsk and the other four main cities in the vast Irkutsk region.
Matienko has already conceded the region's rural areas and small towns, which overwhelmingly voted Communist in the first ballot. He notes that the urban population outweighs the rural population, and he adds, "it's a numbers game. All of our staff's efforts are now concentrated on achieving maximum voter turnout - especially in the big cities."
Most observers agree that since an overwhelming proportion of Communist supporters are sure to come to the polls on July 3, high voter participation will favor Yeltsin, while low turnout will help his challenger, Gennady Zyuganov.
To this end, Matienko is pulling out all the stops. Rock bands have been ordered from Moscow for a weekend outdoor concert in Irkutsk. Newspapers have been directed to print banner headlines on the eve of balloting, urging readers to vote. Local officials have been recruited, as has the public transportation network, which will offer free rides on voting day.
Matienko smiles, "Even the police have been instructed to patrol on the eve of the election and give people friendly reminders to vote." Along the banks of the Angara River, young people are making the most of Irkutsk's short summer: strolling, picnicking, drinking. And they say they will not need police to remind them to vote. Most are not interested in politics, but nearly all claim they will come to the polls to support Yeltsin. As Volodya, a university student, puts it, "This is about the future." His girlfriend nods, paraphrasing a Yeltsin campaign slogan, "It's about our generation's future."
Yuri Pronin, political correspondent for Eastern Siberian Pravda, one of Irkutsk's two principal newspapers, says urban areas in the Irkutsk region are weathering the effects of economic reforms, thanks to the region's abundant natural resources. Irkutsk region produces a surplus of hydroelectric energy, which it can now sell both abroad and to other Russian regions on its own terms, following an economic sovereignty agreement recently signed with Moscow. The region also has Russia's second largest aluminum plant, which exports most of its production, as well as several paper mills.
Unlike many other parts of Russia, Irkutsk is home to few defense industries - the sector most hard-hit by market reforms. As a result, says Pronin, workers get more regular wages than in the rest of Russia and social tensions are comparatively lower.
But he cautions that the potential Communist electorate remains varied. Pronin adds, "It's not just a case of pensioners and farmers voting for Zyuganov." Disaffected workers remain and the 25 percent of voters in the Irkutsk region who cast their ballots for liberal economist Grigory Yavlinsky and retired General Aleksandr Lebed in the first round cannot be counted on to automatically switch loyalties to Yeltsin. Some could vote Communist or more likely, "none of the above," which exists as a third option. Disaffected best describes the atmosphere at Communist Party headquarters across town, in a musty room of the public library. Two elderly men sit hunched over a pile of mimeographed sheets. The local campaign director, only slightly younger, sits at her desk, facing a bust of Lenin draped in a velvet red banner.
Nina Bakanova, a former professor of Russian, speaks softly, but her eyes are angry. She says the Communist loss in Irkutsk and other cities in the region can be explained by several "objective" reasons: a near total lack of access to the media and fraudulent vote counts.
Bakanova takes out a carefully annotated copy of the official ballot results and points to the thousands of unregistered voters who were suddenly added to the rolls during the last hours of polling. The numbers add up to less than one percent of the total, but Bakanova says what matters is the principle.
She holds up a copy of the Organization For Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) report on the election, which criticized the lack of balance in official media coverage of the campaign. She says this time around, the Communists have prepared new TV commercials, but the local station will only air them at 5 p.m., when most people are still at work. There will be no street rallies to support Zyuganov before the second round - there is no money. Bakanova speaks of the Communists' concern for young families, the environment, the human condition. If the message could only get out, she says, "what's done is done. We are looking to the future."
But if the Communists are looking forward, a visitor asks, why do they still cling to their old party name and symbols? Bakanova answers, "Maybe we could have gotten more votes if we had recast ourselves as Social Democrats. But we couldn't do that. The idea of Communism lives, and after all, it is even one espoused by our Orthodox Church."
Today's Communists, says Bakanova, remain idealists - indeed, like the early Christians, almost martyrs. "We keep having elections and the wrong people keep winning,' she shrugs. Her eyes drift away and then quickly refocus. "Let me write your name down," she demands, "so that you won't write any lies about us."