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Russians go to polls for beer and future


MOSCOW -- A merry threesome walked through the steadily falling wet snow to the school on Pisovaya Street yesterday, on their way to help determine Russia's future.

About 11 a.m., Lena Ilingina had knocked on the door of her upstairs neighbors, Yura and Natasha Shlyakhtin, to ask if they wanted to vote.

This was awesome business, a time to decide on a new constitution that President Boris N. Yeltsin had proclaimed could mean the difference between creating a new nation based on law (if the constitution was approved) or one consumed by civil war (if it failed.)

"We must go quickly," Mr. Shlyakhtin insisted. "They promised beer, and it always goes quickly."

While the election for a new constitution and the first post-communist Parliament was unprecedented, some things didn't change: keeping to long-established practice, snack bars were opened at most polling places. They sold fruit, sandwiches, juice, mineral water -- and beer.

"Let's get the beer first," Mr. Shlyakhtin said, his priorities firmly set. "Then we can vote."

Mr. Shlyakhtin, who works in the central headquarters of the traffic police, quickly bought 10 bottles of beer for 310 rubles each -- about 25 cents each. He and his wife, who works at a secret military installation, drank two bottles.

"Now I'm ready to vote," Mr. Shlyakhtin announced.

Both supported the constitution and parliamentary candidates of Russia's Choice, the political party led by Yegor T. Gaidar, Mr. Yeltsin's economic adviser.

Neither voted for any candidates for the Moscow city legislature because they had no idea who any of them were.

Ms. Ilingina, a teacher and translator, had discovered she had forgotten her passport and couldn't vote. She didn't bother to go home to get it.

"I didn't want to add my vote to something I didn't quite understand," she said. "I didn't want to feel responsible if something awful happened."

Ms. Ilingina, who eagerly voted for Mr. Yeltsin for president in 1991, said she wasn't sure whether she now wanted to vote for his allies who were running for Parliament yesterday. At the same time, she couldn't find any inspiring alternative to the Yeltsin team among the candidates.

"I didn't feel my vote would influence the course of events," she said.

Back home, Ms. Ilingina set up a sort of election central, tracking how everyone she knew was voting. Her ex-husband voted for TC the constitution but against the Yeltsin men. He voted for Nikolai Travkin's Democratic Party of Russia.

"He wanted to create some checks and balances," Ms. Ilingina explained. "The constitution gives the president enormous powers, and he wanted to create some democratic opposition to balance that."

A friend, a high-level officer in military intelligence, dropped by. He voted for Mr. Yeltsin's constitution. "We need order," he said. And he voted for the Communist Party led by Gennady Zyuganov. "He's very smart," the officer said, "and I believe he can do what he says he'll do."

His female friend -- a doctor -- chose Vladimir Wolfovich Zhirinovsky, the head of the Liberal Democratic Party, who wants to restore the Soviet Union and has been labeled a fascist.

"He's changed," the woman said -- and Mr. Zhirinovsky has indeed toned down his rhetoric and gotten a television-friendly haircut. "I like his manner."

A 20-year-old neighbor called, wanting to know where to vote, and how. An elderly neighbor named Tatyana asked Ms. Ilingina how to vote, though the evening before Tatyana had invited Mr. Shlyakhtin in, opened a bottle of vodka for him, asked the same question, and received a very long and detailed answer -- one that lasted, as it happened, until the vodka was gone.

All day yesterday, from 8 in the morning until 10 at night, the voters came and went, eager, reluctant, hopeful, discouraged. Several miles away, at Precinct 61, Anton Doroshkevich had made a long trip back to Moscow from the countryside, feeling driven to vote.

"I wanted to help stop Zhirinovsky," said Mr. Doroshkevich, a 33-year-old scientist. Like many Russians, he was appalled to see how adeptly Mr. Zhirinovsky used television, creating a last-minute groundswell of support.

"Maybe he's not so dangerous now," he said, "but Hitler started small, too."

Mr. Doroshkevich was ambling through the school lobby, holding the five-page ballot in his hand. He had gotten the ballot upstairs and then had run downstairs to check a list of candidates and their biographies.

"I'm for Gaidar," he said. "It is very important to go to private property as quickly as possible."

Most people spent a very long time in the voting booth, some crowding in with their best friends or entire families, trying to figure out how to vote. They had to choose party slates as well as individual candidates to the new bicameral national legislature. Then there was the local legislature and the constitution.

"Before it was easy," said Nikolai Soloyev, who came to the polls with his wife and granddaughter. "You didn't have to think about anything. You had one name and you put an X next to it."

He voted for the constitution. "It's a bad one, but we should have a real one at last," he explained cheerfully.

In the nearby subway station, a policeman walked back and forth. His cap still bore the red star and hammer and sickle of another day.

He had no intention of voting.

"I don't believe in anything," said Alexander Shaligin, 33. "We have low salary, poor equipment and terrible apartments. What could I possibly vote for?"

The snow was still falling.

Mr. Shlyakhtin, his civic duty performed, proclaimed a holiday. He lined up his remaining eight bottles of beer and sat down at the table before them. Nothing, he said, would move him for the rest of the day.

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