SARATOV, Russia -- If the Kremlin embodies the powerful fist of Russia, the great Volga River pulsates with its heart and soul.
Many Russians see that fist as a grasping one, plundering the country to feed the Moscow elite while the rest of the nation starves. For them, hopes for national regeneration lie far from the capital -- in regions like this one, nurtured by Mother Volga.
Here in Saratov, Gov. Dmitri Ayatskov has taken up the task of fulfilling those dreams. His region staggers under the same burdens that sap all of Russia: military factories that have either shut down or stopped paying their workers, inefficient agriculture, low government revenues and huge social obligations.
Resurrecting the region's economy and improving the prospects of its 2.7 million people would have national resonance, siphoning power out of the Kremlin and sending it trickling throughout the cities and regions of this huge land, 500 miles southeast of Moscow.
Ayatskov has wasted no time developing a remarkable persona. In the past few months, he has been shown on national television galloping through the snow on his pet camel: ("If you can manage a camel," he says, "you can manage a government."). He has pushed through the first law in Russia permitting the sale of land; he has proposed legalizing prostitution and President Boris N. Yeltsin has introduced him to President Clinton and the world as the next president of Russia.
"Here in Saratov a new ideology is being born for the Russian state," says Ayatskov, presiding in his lush office on a Saturday morning as a long line of officials and importuners piles up on a horse-shoe-shaped gray leather sofa that fills his lobby.
The ideology is a work in progress, but Ayatskov says it means laws that protect rather than strangle business, a fair tax code, with revenues shared between federal and local governments, the promotion of land ownership and entrepreneurship and the opportunity for individuals to work in an economy that rewards effort.
Ayatskov, who grew up on a collective farm and went on to manage a group of them, was appointed governor by Yeltsin in April 1996, and was elected to the job five months later, winning 82 percent of the vote against his Communist challenger. At the end of last year, he startled the nation by persuading the regional legislature to pass a law permitting private land sales.
Yeltsin, who has been unable to get a law through the State Duma, the lower house of the Russian parliament, permitting private land sales nationally, decorated him and proclaimed Ayatskov his favorite governor. Only last month, he introduced him at a meeting of world leaders in Birmingham, England, as the next president of Russia.
"I can't say whether I want to be president or not," says Ayatskov, a tanned, roundish man of medium height. I have first to prove to Russians that reforms can be developed here. Only after that will I have the moral right to aspire to a higher position."
By all accounts, Ayatskov, 47, is making an energetic effort. He works seven days a week. "It's my hobby," he says. A weary-looking press aide reports that his department begins work at 6 a.m. -- when the papers arrive -- so they'll have news digests ready for Ayatskov by 8. They finish work at 8 p.m., after the local TV news broadcast.
He flies around the world, courting investment. He visited Baltimore in 1992, and pronounces its aquarium excellent. He crisscrosses his domain -- a region the size of Belgium -- by helicopter, dropping in uninvited when he spots a languishing farm, bearding its workers and demanding to know what they need to get it moving.
The flurry has had an effect. In the past 18 months, a survey found that Saratov had risen from 69th place in a list of Russian regions attractive to investors to 10th place. Ayatskov made a deal with with Hyundai to assemble cars here, and he's trying to lure a tractor company. Last year, foreign companies invested $25 million in Saratov.
"I hope to attract $2 billion this year," Ayatskov told a meeting of European businessmen in Moscow at the end of May. "We want to work out a model for investment in Russia and show the world Russia is not dying but thriving."
So far, the citizens of Saratov say, they have felt little difference in their daily lives under Ayatskov. They want an end to their poverty and uncertainty. Foreign investment? That takes time to trickle into opening factories and creating jobs, and ordinary people are tired of waiting.
"He hasn't done anything for me," says Olga Gubanova, who sells sunglasses at an outdoor stand.
Gubanova's travails are typical of what's happened to the average person, here and elsewhere in Russia. During the Soviet era, she worked at Tantal, a huge factory that made electronics for the military. She earned enough to meet her daily needs. Most important, she felt secure. She had a pension, health benefits and a job that was assured for life.
As the military work disappeared, Tantal tried hard to adapt. The factory began to produce video recorders and microwave ovens, but it could not compete with Japanese imports and closed in 1994.
Gubanova works every day from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. selling sunglasses. She only makes $4 to $8 a day, and she has no pension, no health benefits and certainly no security.
A little farther along Kirov street, Saratov's busy pedestrian walkway, Ludmilla Alexandrova is selling ice cream. Alexandrova, worked at Tantal 22 years before being laid off in 1991, when the factory began to trim its work force.
"Let him," Alexandrova says of Ayatskov's presidential aspirations. "I don't care. If he was really efficient, our factories would be working. Everything is at a standstill here. We're only trading, not making anything."
Alexandrova earns $50 a month selling ice cream. "I wouldn't call this working," she says.
Ayatskov can't disagree with them. Nothing is being made here, he says, and the region needs industry. He expects to start factories, but that will take time. "I have a Japanese television set," he says, "and I need a Russian one. We need furniture -- we should have a furniture factory."
People such as Gubanova say today's officials are just like the old ones -- spending money on themselves. Ayatskov's office is enclosed in pink marble-like walls with gold trim, and remodeled by a Finnish company. But he says he needs a decent place to do business. Certainly, walking into offices elsewhere in the Soviet-era government building,with their flaking plaster and shoddy workmanship, would hardly inspire investor confidence.
Ayatskov promises jobs, if only people can be patient a little longer. "I expect breakthrough results by 2005," he says.
His critics contend Ayatskov will fail. "He has very limited potential," says Michael Malutin, a researcher at the Institute of Electoral Processes in Moscow. "He is much spoken about because Yeltsin has noticed him, not because of his talents."
Some of his citizens agree, criticizing him for cutting education funds.
"Big businessmen support Ayatskov, no doubt," says Vyacheslav Yumashin, dean of the prestigious Saratov Conservatory, where the most talented professors earn $140 a month. "But people working in culture, education and science look at him with great care."
Not far from the conservatory, the mighty Volga surges on along its journey to the Caspian Sea. It is 2,300 miles long, the longest river in Europe. And it gives the cities along its course a distinct character and vitality.
There's a bustle here, unknown in many other provincial towns. Sidewalk cafes have sprung up everywhere, along with the recently arrived warm weather. People don't have much money to spend, but those who can, stop, buy a beer or a soda, and linger.
Vladimir Sorokin, 67, entertains pedestrians with his accordion, as his wife, Valentina, 62, looks on. Sorokin drove a tractor and combine for 40 years and now has a pension of $50 a month. His wife, who worked at the post office for 40 years, receives about $65.
Sorokin only gets a few small coins from his playing, but it's enough for an ice cream they couldn't afford otherwise. Crowds of people walk by, smiling, enjoying the music, the weather, each other. They may be poor, but they don't dwell on it.
"We're used to living with enthusiasm," says Natalya Konetzskaya, who teaches piano at the conservatory.
Ayatskov has little patience for critics.
"The Volga is the symbol of Russia," he says. "It's the strength of Russia. It's the bastion of Russia."
And Saratov, he proclaims, will one day be the glory of the Volga.
Pub Date: 6/16/98