Russia Goes to the Polls


Tomorrow's elections in the Russian federation, the largest and most populous of the 15 Soviet republics, is one for the history books. For the first time in the documented 1,000-year history of Russia its people will directly elect their leader. Momentous questions appear on local ballots as well, including one which would change the name of Leningrad to the pre-revolutionary St. Petersburg.

As millions of Russians go to the polls, they will be pallbearers at the burial of the centralized Soviet Union that Lenin and Stalin molded. What will emerge in its stead is not entirely clear. But the recent power-sharing agreement between Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev and nine of the republics suggests that a more compact federation is likely, with the possibility that rebellious Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Moldavia, Georgia and Armenia may be allowed to go independent.

If Boris N. Yeltsin wins by a landslide tomorrow and becomes Russia's directly elected president, his victory could hasten the Soviet Union's seemingly inevitable transformation into a post-communist constellation of states. Should the foghorn-voiced populist merely squeak in, however, that could re-energize the conservative forces that do not want the Communist Party to lose its primacy and the centralized union to disappear.

The proposed name change of Leningrad could have similar impact. If the St. Petersburg name is returned, it would accelerate the dismantling of the personality cult that has long been attached to the founder of the world's first socialist state.

Six candidates are campaigning for Russia's presidency, a post Mr. Yeltsin currently occupies, having been chosen by parliament. Because of his well-publicized clashes with the Kremlin, Mr. Yeltsin is often seen as a rival of Mr. Gorbachev. Two other candidates, former Prime Minister Nikolai Ryzhkov and former Interior Minister Vadim Bakatin, also served in the Gorbachev inner circle but are more palatable for the Communist Party. The rest of the hopefuls include a hardline general and a candidate who wants to slash the price of vodka.

To broaden their base, the two leading candidates have put military men on their tickets. Mr. Yeltsin's running mate is a 44-year-old pilot who was a prisoner of war in Afghanistan. Mr. Ryzhkov's running mate, a general, also is a hero of the Afghanistan war. Military credentials seem to be valuable in coalition building.

Although puny by American standards, the campaign has introduced Western-style politicking, including mud-slinging, to a country that until recently knew only human automatons casting ballots according to Communist Party wishes. Nobody said learning democracy would be a tea party.

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