Vote of Sheer Defiance, Future of Grave Doubt : Why a 'St. Petersburg platform' swept the Russian election

The first democratic election in Russia's thousand-year history, and the largest contested election ever held in any Soviet republic, has produced an overwhelming repudiation of all that 74 years of communist rule has come to represent.

Russians have chosen as their president Boris Yeltsin, the onetime Communist Party hack now politically reborn as an uninhibited populist and exponent of capitalist development. The preliminary count indicates that Yeltsin took about 60% of the votes in a six-candidate field, a landslide in any country. By even larger margins voters chose reformist mayors for the nation's two largest cities, Gavriil Popov in Moscow and Anatoly Sobchak in Leningrad. And, in a defiant gesture, Leningraders voted in a non-binding advisory to restore the name that Peter the Great gave to the city he founded nearly 300 years ago, St. Petersburg. If that step is officially approved, it will erase the name of Soviet communism's greatest icon from its most prominent place of display.

In all, it was quite a day.

YELTSIN'S TRIUMPH: Yeltsin's victory was not only expected but, given the competition and what it stands for, probably inevitable. Yeltsin has become one of those politicians who is esteemed not least for the enemies he has made; the eleventh-hour effort by Pravda to smear him with the testimony of three psychiatrists--a profession more identified in the Soviet Union with oppression than with insightful healing--probably served only to help his cause. Whatever else may be said about him--and there are plenty of negatives to his character--Yeltsin has come to exemplify the most powerful reformist impulses in Soviet society. Whatever the substance of his program, he has come to embody the deepest longings of a people whose hopes for a better life may spring eternal, but whose patience could at last be nearing an end.

Yeltsin promised much in his campaign, certainly more than real-life conditions could possibly allow him to make good on any time soon. Russians, accustomed to more than seven decades of grand promises made, broken and then shamelessly offered up again, probably didn't take them too seriously. It is what Yeltsin is perceived as standing for, not what he may be able to deliver, that counts. And what he stands for most of all, or so he says, is a clear break with the discredited past and bold efforts to create a materially better and more equitable future.

YELTSIN'S PROBLEM: More than anyone else in the Soviet Union--more than President Mikhail Gorbachev, who has never submitted himself to a popular vote--Yeltsin can now claim a mandate to try. By insisting on a free and contested vote and then by sweeping the field, he has earned a political legitimacy unique in the history either of Russia or of the Soviet Union. But legitimacy, like electoral popularity, doesn't guarantee success in office; any number of American Presidents could ruefully attest to that.

Does Yeltsin grasp the magnitude of the challenge he faces? He has stopped his Gorbachev-bashing--some of it certainly merited--and instead moved toward responsible cooperation with the Soviet president and other republic leaders to produce a treaty for a new union of sovereign republics. This interest in conciliation, though, has its limits. Yeltsin remains a zealous champion of Russia's right to control its own vast natural resources--a stand that could quickly put him on a collision course with the central government and with other republics--and a zealous proponent of expanded political freedoms and sweeping economic reforms.

Like politicians everywhere, Yeltsin has been vague in saying how he proposes to go about achieving these things. But now high office is his, fairly won. And now the true test of his abilities begins.

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