Russian mayoral candidate takes first steps as U.S.-style politician


KSTOVO, Russia -- Still struggling with capitalism, Russians are finding themselves confronted by yet another crazy American import -- the political campaign.

The mayor of Kstovo, a Volga River community of 175,000 people, has expressed doubts about that latest fashion, but he can hardly escape history. So he has recently taken his first, hesitant steps as a campaigner.

"The law says the mayor must now be elected," said 44-year-old Mayor Vyacheslav I. Bolyak, a frown darkening his face, "but I think it's better if he's appointed."

Mr. Bolyak was annoyed. The election is Sunday. He is used to being appointed. He is used to having a driver and a car. But now he has stiff competition from an attractive candidate from the local oil refinery, a big employer that wants its own man in the mayor's office.

So there was nothing for Mr. Bolyak to do but cut ribbons and eat chicken dinners.

Mr. Bolyak doesn't live in Kstovo, and no law requires it. He lives in the city of Nizhny Novgorod, about 25 miles away. This doesn't trouble Russian voters: Last year, a suburban Moscow district elected to parliament the head of a failed investment firm accused of bilking millions of people, a candidate who had never set foot in the district.

Mr. Bolyak's entourage assembled early one morning at the Kstovo administration building, a structure overlooking a large, deserted square. A large statue of Lenin stands in the middle, as if rising out of a desert.

The group, including a bevy of imposing women who run the town offices and a reporter and photographer for the local newspaper, piled into an assortment of Russian jeeps and Volgas -- the official car of government. They followed the mayor and his wife, riding in a suave, dark blue Ford.

"We should have a proper structure -- me, the governor over me and the president over him," the mayor said. "How can I answer to the governor if I have to be responsible to the electorate?"

Mr. Bolyak, a lawyer by training, is accustomed to answering to the governor. He was an aide to the governor until the governor appointed him mayor for this region of farms and battered factories in 1992.

This day's destination was Podlesovo, a village that is home to the Podlesovo chicken factory.

The factory is one of the region's largest employers, along with the refinery, a feed plant and 10 huge collective farms that are being broken up.

The mayor was thinking chicken. On his schedule was a ribbon-cutting for a veterans home on the chicken factory grounds.

A crowd of about 50 had gathered outside the veterans home, a brick building that had been used as a dormitory by the chicken factory.

With money from the mayor's office, the rooms had been repainted and made ready for 14 elderly residents.

The crowd waited in 10-degree weather. The first residents of the home, five improbably small, wrinkled women in their 70s and 80s, stood stoically before the uncut red ribbon. They looked cold in their threadbare cloth coats.

When a woman wearing a fur coat appeared, someone whispered that it looked Chinese. "Probably dog," said another member of the crowd.

Finally the mayor drove up. He quickly cut the ribbon. The five old women walked stiffly inside and gamely climbed three sets of stairs; ramps for the disabled are still unknown.

Political glad-handing doesn't exist; so far it is enough to appear, to be looked at and to proclaim how much you are doing for the local folk.

The mayor's wife, Galina, tied bright-colored scarves around the heads of each old woman, as if wrapping babies in bonnets. The mayor presented the women a samovar and cups, so they would always be assured of hot tea. Tears rolled down their cheeks.

But it's still connections that count, and not the little folk. So the elderly women were left behind as the factory and town administrators rode to the company cafeteria to celebrate the opening of the home, and each other.

Mr. Bolyak doesn't belong to a party -- they're still not entirely trusted and aren't a factor in the race. His chief opponent, Sergei Melkin, is relying on his refinery connections.

"I support the democratic movement," Mr. Bolyak said. He counted on the chicken factory director telling his workers how to vote. Russian politicians have not yet been sighted outside factory gates, shaking hands.

A long table in the cafeteria had been set for 18, with Mr. Bolyak at one end and Mikhail Sukharev, the factory director, at the other.

In between were oases of drinks -- bottles of vodka, champagne, bright green kiwi-flavored soda pop and a blood-red strawberry-flavored elixir within easy reach of all.

Russian custom requires that vodka be drunk only after a toast, and then the entire glass must be tossed down. There were toasts to the young, to the old, toasts to each other for taking such good care of the elderly, toasts to friendships.

Alexander Shirokov, 78, who retired from the factory and heads the veterans' club, leaped up from the table and played an ancient accordion between toasts.

His hearing was harmed in the war, so each time there was a toast he stood up so he could hear better. Once on his feet, he added a toast of his own, picking up the pace of the vodka consumption.

The chicken is served, but everyone has already had salami, potato salad, pickled fish, canned salmon, bread and pelmeni (a sort of ravioli).

Finally, the murmuring group files slowly out through the kitchen. Mr. Shirokov follows with his accordion into the cold dark night. He plays of love found and love lost, of vodka drunk and soldiers gone. The old verities drift through the night as they have for centuries, and chicken is tasting just fine.

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