KURSK, Russia -- A stranger in a strange land, Larissa Piasheva is a carpetbagging capitalist down from the big city to win this provincial, working-class town's seat in parliament.
She is a disciple of Milton Friedman and aspects of Reaganomics, and she is running for election from the heart of the old Soviet Union. In Kursk, former Communists still keep their party cards locked in safes like heirlooms.
The region's favorite sons are Nikita Khrushchev, who was going to crush capitalism under his heel, and Alexander Rutskoi, who went to jail for leading a hard-line parliamentary Communist rebellion against President Boris N. Yeltsin in 1993.
Ms. Piasheva is a 47-year-old mother of two daughters. She has impressive credentials as a senior parliamentary staff member and well-known economic theorist. She has prominent local supporters who lured her to this muddy backwater 300 miles south of Moscow. But she is perhaps the last parliamentary candidate imaginable.
"It's considered to be a Communist region, and that's why democratic parties decided not to waste their money here -- they thought they'd have no chance to win here," says Ms. Piasheva.
Kremlin regional political analyst Leonid Smirnyagin says Ms. Piasheva's run is "too risky for such a radical," for she is campaigning in an area where the Communist Party's tendrils can still get out the vote of pensioners and the poor, who are weary of economic reform and fond of the past Communist stability.
No polls of support
But there are virtually no statistics about political opinions on the local level. Scientific polls are a luxury no one can afford, and there is no history of voting patterns to consult.
"The old and the poor vote Communist because they hope that with Communists back in power, it will guarantee their benefits come back," says Ms. Piasheva. "But political activity here is low. I aim at the passive layers of the population, the young and the intelligentsia." They are perhaps the most likely to gamble on her ideas.
She calls her program "radical," and for Russia it is, combining the free market with support for social programs.
"I propose very low taxes and none at all for all beginning businesses," she says. "I want to change budget priorities so there's practically no expenditures for administration, or arms, and a reorientation of budget priorities to social programs like medical services and education. All enterprises should be private -- even resources like oil and gas, and they should be priced without controls."
In short, she wants to do everything that market reformers here dream of doing, and she wants to do it overnight and without reservation.
On the stump at Ball-Bearing Plant No. 20, Ms. Piasheva offered her program to a crowd of 200.
To the right sat management; to the left sat the workers.
The right side, struggling with taxes that eat up 85 percent of the plant's profits and its best-laid plans, was the only one that applauded her.
The left side, preoccupied with layoffs and unpaid wages, asked questions such as this: If you lower taxes, how will you pay for pensions, medical care and education?
Ms. Piasheva answered that when the ball bearing plant makes a profit, it can pay wages as well as taxes. But as long as it faces a huge tax burden, it may not be able pay either one.
Deep in the Red Belt
Kursk is part of the fertile Black Earth region, known also as the Red Belt, because of its Communist leanings in the first democratic elections here when three out of five Duma seats in the Kursk region went to Communists.
The Duma seat for the Kursk city district is held by a member of the far-right party of nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky. The local and regional governments have a mix of former Communists appointed by democratic President Yeltsin (himself a former Communist) and leaders of the leftist Agrarian Party, which is often an ally of the Communists.
Political analysts characterize the area as a Communist stronghold, but the locals don't see it that way. For it's not always easy to find Communists: Their official membership in the region has sunk from nearly 200,000 during the Soviet era to 7,800.
Few people can name a local Communist leader; few can name any of their representatives in the Duma, or anyone who is now a candidate.
"I'm definitely not a Communist. And I don't know who my representative is," says 48-year-old tractor driver Mikhail, who would not give his last name.
If Communists are in power here, he says, they're not doing a good job. "In old times you could apply to the Communist Party when you had a problem; today there's no one to complain to."
The Communist Party two weeks ago conducted polls that found the party with a regional popularity of 27 percent, and "a large portion" of the population undecided, says Nikolai Ivanov, a regional party official.
When Communist influence seems high, he says, old party members come out of the woodwork to remind him that they still have their party cards.
In the past, the election turnout was about 60 percent. And backers of Ms. Piasheva think she may appeal to the 40 percent who feel there wasn't previously a viable candidate professing democratic reform.
Her backers -- a mixture of journalists, a human rights activist, and members of two local Social Democratic parties -- think
the numbers could fall their way if there were a healthy election turnout because there are six candidates for the seat, and it takes only a plurality of votes to win.
"How did Thatcher start in Britain? Our aim is that people at least know who she is. The more who do, the bigger the chance of finding those who are sympathetic to her ideas," says Vyacheslav Molokoyedov, an economist who is active in the campaign.
Her backers think that voters will be impressed by her national fame as the economist who was hired to help Moscow privatize business and property and who was fired because she wanted to do it too quickly, by the books she has published, and by her clean, uncorrupt record.
Those are the reasons other districts have selected impressive carpetbaggers over locals, thinking they have better connections in Moscow.
Foreign Minister Andrei Kozyrev, for example, is a Muscovite who was elected to the Duma from Murmansk in the Arctic Circle.
Ms. Piasheva's national reputation may be the only thing distinguishing her from the other six candidates, says Igor Chukhrayev, who is running against her on the Agrarian Party line.
"Larissa Piasheva has many reasonable ideas," says Mr. Chukhrayev, who has two of her books on his desk in his statehouse office, where he is the regional head of agriculture. "I can't see any differences between any of the candidates; we're all saying the same thing.
"It's going to come down to who the voters believe."