BALAKHNA, RUSSIA — THE ''Volga'' paper mill is the sort of factory that Russian reformists dreamed of when they set about dismantling communism.
It is making a profit, thriving on foreign investment, and paying decent wages to workers enthusiastic about reforms. It is a model of what the new Russia was meant to be.
But the mill, dominating this industrial settlement in the heart of Russia, is unique. And in its uniqueness lie the seeds of the defeat that pioneering free-marketeers are facing in Sunday's parliamentary elections.
The democrats, as the Western-oriented, reform-minded candidates are loosely known, simply don't have enough success stories to tell. And though the body of their support is growing, it is not growing fast enough for success in the elections.
Sergei Komarov, a senior operator at the mill who controls massive machinery from a computer screen, has no doubt that reform is good for Russia: It's good for his wage packet, which is three times the national average.
Since foreign investors pumped $100 million into the faltering company last year, turning it around, ''We've started to live like human beings,'' he says. ''Of course we have to go on with reforms. Why should we stop?''
But he realizes how unusual his job and his attitude are. Down the road is a factory that once made electronics for the Soviet military, where wages and conditions were top-rate. Now the plant lies idle, bereft of orders. Employees work a three-day week and haven't been paid for three months.
That is much more typical of Russian industry today, even here in Nizhny Novgorod province, which claims to be in the vanguard of economic reform. And it is a familiar picture across Russia, where heavily subsidized Soviet-era enterprises are not making the grade under capitalism.
''The people at the radio factory are not happy, and they don't like us,'' says Mr. Komarov with a wry smile.
Even less do they like the politicians who crusaded under the banner of radically new economic policies, such as former acting Prime Minister Yegor Gaidar, who dragged Russia out of the era of state socialism.
Once the golden boy of the new dawn, Mr. Gaidar has become a whipping boy for every voter with a grudge about reforms.
At the last elections to the Duma (lower house of parliament) two years ago, Gaidar led his Russia's Choice party to a sweeping success, making his the largest group of deputies. Opinion polls suggest that on Sunday, his party will be hard-pressed to win the minimum 5 percent of votes needed to get into parliament at all.
Associated with the hardships of economic shock therapy, reformist parties have seen their popularity plummet. Squabbles among their leaders and disorganization have not helped matters.
The only reformist group that seems certain to overcome the 5 percent barrier is Yabloko Party, led by the youthful economist Grigory Yavlinsky, a vociferous critic of President Boris Yeltsin.
And even Mr. Yavlinsky has found it expedient to focus less on the free-market aspects of his platform, and more on the social aspects.
His fellow candidates have learned the same lesson. Olga Beklemishcheva, a doctor running for Yabloko in the Kanavino district of Nizhny Novgorod, says her greatest disadvantage is that her leader is perceived as a free-market reformer.
''You cannot win an election in Russia without defending the level of social protection that people are used to,'' insists Ms. Beklemishcheva. ''We have to show that the Communists do not have a monopoly on the fight for social justice.''
If the reformers once had hoped that they could bring Russians higher salaries, they now can promise only better social services to make up for what most people have lost. Few enough Russians feel that they are better off than they used to be as a result of reforms.
In Nizhny Novgorod itself, according to a recent poll by Alexander Prudnik of the local Sociological Research Institute, only 6.3 percent of local residents feel that their living standards have improved since 1990.
Undoubtedly among them, however, would be the workers at the Volga mill. With bonuses, employee newsletters, and their trade-union leader on the company's board, workers say they feel they have a stake in both their firm and the system that made it possible.
Tipping the scales
Not surprisingly, employees in privatized firms are the people most supportive of reforms, followed by youths who began their working lives after the collapse of Communism, according to studies by Mr. Prudnik.
The number of such people is growing every year, and their political weight is increasing, but only slowly, he worries.
Meanwhile, points out Yuri Gapeyenkov, his colleague at the Sociological Research Institute, Russians are divided between ''those who prefer to live quietly and without stress, with a minimum of basic needs,'' as in the old Soviet days, and ''those who want to realize their full human potential, even at the cost of sacrificing their calm.''
For the time being, the scales are tipped in favor of the first group, Mr. Gapeyenkov says.
''Even when there is greater prosperity,'' he argues, ''it is connected in people's minds with the need to double or triple their efforts.
''Neither Gaidar nor Yavlinsky, nor anybody else, is going to win a lot of votes by demanding that people work harder.''