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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

In Politics, 130 Kilometers Is a Very Long Way

NOVINKA, Western Russia - The people tending tiny vegetable plots and rawboned cattle in Novinka live only 130 kilometers from westward looking St. Petersburg, but politically they are a world apart.


In this rustic village of 200, where crusty bread is trucked in twice-weekly from nearby Vyritsa, the election campaign rhetoric of the big city - about privatization, democracy and other such bright concepts - seems a little unreal.


Standing in his 20-hectare plot, a morass of dirty, snow-covered mounds which this fall yielded twisted carrots and misshapen potatoes, the farmer Rem Dmitriyev frowned when asked about his main concerns.


"This land is too waterlogged. No money to buy drainage equipment", he said.


Some 35 percent of the Leningrad region's 1. 2 million rural voters are farmers. Many, like Dmitriyev, are eking out an existence in bucolic pockets scattered over 85, 000 square kilometers in northwestern Russia.


The fact that the city, but not the region as a whole, has changed its name from Leningrad to St. Petersburg aptly symbolizes the political divide that exists here, although Dmitriyev, 66, is far from a being communist.


The farmer had worked for years in an agricultural institute before receiving his private plot two years ago, and was not hardened by years of communist cant on a collective farm. But neither is he inspired by market-economy changes.


"I don't see one candidate, either communist or democrat, who can resurrect Russian agriculture", he said with a scowl.


That brand of discontent has reformist campaigners worried about how to take their messages beyond the city limits of St. Petersburg, a citadel of reform-minded sophisticates, and into the Leningrad region.


At the Russia's Choice regional headquarters in Gatchina, 40 kilometers south of St. Petersburg, coordinator Alexei Kozlyatnikov said that delivering an effective message to the region "would be tough".


"There are no native democratic forces in the Leningrad region like there are in St. Petersburg", added Igor Artemyev, local coordinator at the Yavlinsky-Boldyrev-Lukin bloc.


The roster of regional candidates is more varied than might be expected for a largely conservative electorate: there are Communist and Agrarian Party rank-and-filers and former elite administrators, but also a Harvard-educated import from Moscow and democrats.


Nonetheless, St. Petersburg Communist Party leader Yury Belov was betting that dissatisfaction would hand conservatives a solid 40 percent of the provincial vote.


"The region does not harbor the democratic illusions that St. Petersburg does, because it shoulders the burden of these so-called transformations", he said.


Dmitriyev believed the electoral mood was less predictable. "A lot of us don't know the political affiliations and programs of all the candidates", he said. "I'll vote for someone with an honest, decent face".