DUBNA, Russia -- If ever there was a bright and promising moment in the Soviet era, a time when communism seemed poised to solve all problems and build a better world, then Dubna must have been one of its foremost emblems.
Dubna, a new town built around the country's leading nuclear physics laboratory, was among the finest creations of the system -- a system that Russia's conservative politicians still remember as a source of pride, whose loss they blame on their reform-minded opponents.
Built in the late 1950s and early 1960s and devoted expressly to nuclear research, Dubna is a small city that was a lodestone of Soviet power and optimism. Here the best minds in physics from around the Soviet Union were assembled to conquer the future.
It didn't happen, of course, and today the political fight going on in Moscow derives much of its bitterness from the memories of that Soviet effort and of what places like Dubna meant -- memories that still haunt this diminished nation.
But as Russia readies now for a referendum on President Boris N. Yeltsin and his free-market reforms, don't come to Dubna looking for Communist resurgence fantasies. Mr. Yeltsin's enemies in the Russian Congress of People's Deputies would find little comfort here.
"The point is, , says Guenakh Mitselmakher, a specialist in high-energy physics, "everyone here recognizes that in truth the national economy was never high enough to support the kind of scientific research that went on here," says Guenakh Mitselmakher, a specialist in high-energy physics.
Dubna was part of a giant military complex. But far from building a better future for the Soviet nation, its ambitions bankrupted the country instead -- and the people here understand that only too well.
Dubna was founded in 1956, on a flat piece of woodland where the Dubna River flows into the Volga, about 80 miles due north of Moscow.
Its low brick and stucco apartment houses are nestled among birch and pine, and even show some attention to architectural detail -- a rarity in postwar Soviet housing.
Life was intended to be pleasant for Dubna's 60,000 residents, whose lives revolved around the Joint Institute for Nuclear Research. Here, in the glory days, 7,000 physicists pushed the boundaries of science.
But now so much has changed.
The institute is still here, as are most of the physicists. The government still pays their salaries, but there are none of the big projects that come with big science. There just isn't the money. Most people here, like most Russians, are worrying today about making ends meet, and wondering nervously what will become of their country.
In order to support some of its work, the institute has entered into a venture to breed horses on some of the land it controls -- a typical example of the imaginative fund-raising that has become prevalent among cash-strapped organizations in this country.
But if there's a future for physics in Dubna, it lies in contracts and exchanges with the West -- the same West that Nikita S. Khrushchev, Dubna's founding father, once promised to bury.
A few scientists, in fact, have gone West. Dr. Mitselmakher,
TC native Lithuanian who worked for more than 20 years in Dubna, left for Geneva three years ago and today lives in Dallas, where he is part of the team working on the U.S. Supercollider.
But he returns regularly to Dubna, where he maintains working relationships with other researchers. That's the kind of contact that would have been completely impossible in the Soviet years, and people here have come to treasure it.
Moreover, Western governments and foundations have agreed to sponsor millions of dollars of scientific research throughout Russia, with the aim of keeping some of the world's best scientists productive -- and out of the hands of potential adversary governments elsewhere.
Dubna stands to receive a share of that flow.
And that's one reason why Mr. Yeltsin's opponents -- Ruslan I. Khasbulatov, the leader of the Congress, and his hard-line allies -- have few supporters here. Residents fear that their contacts with the outside world, and thus their hope for the future, would vanish under a new government run by men so overtly hostile to the West.
"Khasbulatov and the deputies are so insincere when they say they support democracy and reform," said Irina Chupriniuk, a teacher who grew up here, the daughter of scientists. "People recognize that -- at least, I think they do."
But they didn't take to the streets. Last Sunday, while thousands of pro-Yeltsin demonstrators marched through Moscow and other thousands took to the streets of St. Petersburg, all was quiet in Dubna.
Not a banner, or political sign, or spray-painted slogan was anywhere to be seen. A hundred or so worshipers gathered at the town's golden-yellow 18th century church.
They came by bus and on foot to the remote old church, across the still crisply white, unsullied snow, which is only now giving way to emerging ridges of mud in the fields.
The politics of Congress and president, impeachment and referendum, seemed far away.
People here are for Mr. Yeltsin because of who his opponents are -- but not in any heartfelt way.
"I don't think our future course can be any worse than the one we've been following," said Mrs. Chupriniuk, with a small sarcastic laugh.
"I know two things for certain," said Dr. Mitselmakher. "Things won't get better here any time soon. But they'll never go back to the past."