Once a crusader against the Communist-era practice of masking this nation's rot with paint and varnish, President Boris N. Yeltsin has embarked on an apparent reelection campaign with a blinkered, sanitized tour of Russia's struggling heartland.
The first days of a two-week southern sojourn, combining whistle-stop appearances with a seaside vacation, have fired the starting shot for the 1996 presidential race and offered a glimpse of Yeltsin's growing isolation from the Russian people.
At a train station stopover in the village of Rybnoye, at a brand-new hospital in downtown Ryazan and along a more-than-100-mile route from Moscow, Yeltsin exhibited no remnant of the vigor that set him apart from other Communist Party officials before Russia's democratic revolution. Nor did he take much notice of the ubiquitous, cosmetic wet paint or the dearth of supporters.
His popularity has sunk so low in strapped regions such as Ryazan that local politicians not only spruced up the streets and buildings he would pass but also swept the vista flanking his motorcade clean of people.
"All he was doing was driving along the road in front of our building, yet they sent us all home to be sure there was no trouble," construction forewoman Tatiana Churikova said Tuesday of Yeltsin's passage by her office the previous day. "They sent the workers of at least 30 enterprises home in the middle of the day for no damn reason."
Churikova echoed many Ryazan residents in saying she had little confidence in Yeltsin.
Like Russians across this vast country, most in this provincial capital seemed eager for his term to end--even if they have no idea who might replace him. And many would just as soon have Russia's painful effort at reform thrown out with him.
Yeltsin may embody the last, best hope for Russian democracy in the eyes of President Clinton, whose decision to visit Moscow for May 9 celebrations of the Allied victory in World War II was believed to be partly motivated by a desire to help Yeltsin.
But Russians in the roiling provinces say no amount of Western backing could persuade them to vote for Yeltsin again.
The latest national poll, a sample of 1,500 by the Social Opinion group last week, showed that 6% approved of the job he has been doing and that 78% said they did not trust him.
He has been abandoned by democrats for resorting to force to stop the secession attempt by the republic of Chechnya--a deadly undertaking that has cost him much international support and undermined the first hopeful indications that Russia's wrecked economy could be on the mend.
Pensioners blame him for destroying the Communist structure they spent their lives building and for the hardship that the economic transition has visited upon them.
"He surrounds himself with morons. Everything now is a thousand times worse," complained Anna Y. Ivashechkina, a retired geological engineer who has to live with her daughter to survive on her pension.
Housewives, manual laborers and wage-earning clerks hold Yeltsin responsible for the social upheaval that has fostered a crime wave and steadily eroded already deplorable living conditions.
"I'm the sole support for my family now," said Natalya Ilyashenko, 49, whose husband's employer can no longer pay him and whose two grown sons also live in her two-room apartment because they cannot find jobs. "It's important to vote, and I will, but I wouldn't support Yeltsin or any reformer ever again."
Yeltsin's only personal contacts during his sweep through the Ryazan region were with small, carefully screened audiences devoid of any detractors who might have offered him a piece of their minds.
"People here will never understand why he didn't visit a single industrial enterprise," said Nadezhda Kurbacheva, editor of the daily Priokskaya Gazeta, referring to Ryazan's bounty of bankrupt defense plants and wheezing factories. "Intellectuals are peaceful, well-brought-up people who envelop their ideas in palatable phrases. In a factory, it would have been more confrontational, but I would have done it. The best defense is always a good offense."
That Yeltsin chose the safe course of praising the local pokazuka --the dressing up of the drudgery to create an illusion of prosperity--suggests that he has been corrupted by sycophants and his shady security detail, the editor said.
"It's only natural that this has happened. If you put up a Chinese mural around the leader and his aides tell him that on the other side the peasants are flourishing and the fields are in bloom, any ordinary man will come to believe it," said Kurbacheva, who is mostly supportive of Yeltsin but regards him as a spent force.
Although presidential press secretary Sergei K. Medvedev said Yeltsin was embarking on the provincial stumping with the aim of "maintaining his contacts with the people," Yeltsin left his special train behind at Ryazan and flew to his next stop.
And once in the Caucasus city of Kislovodsk, he slipped behind the high, guarded walls of a sprawling spa and dacha compound built in the decadent days of late Soviet leader Leonid I. Brezhnev.
The official Itar-Tass news agency reported that Yeltsin planned "a short rest" before resuming his meetings with the people.
Yeltsin looked weak and exhausted as he began his journey, which Medvedev declined to characterize as the start of a reelection battle.
The president's speech was halting, his step slow and his gaze unfocused, enforcing a widely held belief that the 64-year-old Siberian once known for staging personal inspections of bread stores and consumer enterprises lacks the stamina for another campaign.
But Yeltsin's poor ratings, reported heavy drinking and declining health may not be enough to edge him out of the political arena.
His wife, Naina, who told journalists Monday that she did not want her husband to run again, suggested that he intended to anyway because of the frightening prospects for a successor.
"Who would take his place?" Russia's First Lady beseeched her audience at the Rybnoye stopover, with a look of genuine distress. "If not him, then who?"
It is that question that disturbs many in Russia and the rest of the world, including Clinton.
Political leanings in Ryazan mirror those throughout Russia, where nostalgia for the stagnant but predictable Communist era and support for extremists are on the rise, even if no one candidate has swept into fashion.
Ryazan Communist Party chief Vladimir N. Fedotkin boasts of having the strongest following in the region. But he and political rivals warily concede that there is growing popular support here for ultranationalist Vladimir V. Zhirinovsky as parties jockey for position ahead of December parliamentary elections.
"We hope the democrats win in the next election," said Valery M. Novinsky, a local leader of the pro-reform Russia's Choice party that backed Yeltsin for his current term. "But we have to keep in mind that these are difficult times for us."