A funny thing happened going back to Moscow

On a recent trip to Vladimir, I intended to look at the local elections - the first in which, in about 5 percent of the Soviet Union's voting districts, more than one candidate stood for each seat. Two flat tires, eight hours, and one police declaration later, a colleague and I felt we had had a couple of impromptu, fleeting glimpses into people's lives and feelings.

June 21 started off with a fast drive along a bumpy, often two-lane highway to Vladimir, 125 miles from Moscow. The road was packed, and Drivers flashed their headlights at each other to warn of police radar traps.

We visited two electoral districts outside Vladimir. The idea behind the electoral experiment appeared to have been to get the Soviet people more involved in politics.

In one district, Baraki, a lot of electors seemed to have difficulty grasping the novelty of multi-candidate elections. A number said they had not crossed any names off their ballot papers. ``All the candidates are worthy people,'' said one young woman.

``But if you don't knock any of them off, we'll have to hold new elections in two weeks,'' complained Viktor Chernov, the editor of the regional newspaper and our guide. The woman simply smiled.

In Sudogda, things were different. Several electors told us firmly that they had crossed most of the names off their ballots. They were not worthy, one pensioner remarked. ``I know all of them.''

Disaster struck just as my colleague and I were about to leave again for Moscow: Our Zhiguli, an elderly Fiat built under license in the Soviet Union, had a flat tire. About 95 miles later the spare blew on us, as we were fighting our way through the Sunday night traffic - people returning from their country cottages. We limped to within walking distance of a car repair station.

On arriving, I had to wait until a group of clerks finished talking. One was on the phone, explaining she could not yet go and vote. ``We've got too many cars here, I won't be free for another hour.''

``What do you want to vote for?'' grumbled a colleague. ``What do they do for us?''

I then told my pathetic story of two flat tires and was advised to appeal to a mechanic. ``They won't be able to help today, but ask anyway.''

A taciturn mechanic said he'd have a look at the tire.

I returned to the car and was just about set off with the tire when a police car arrived. Westerners travel most roads ouside Moscow only with permission (a limitation that our Soviet counterparts in the United States find as irritating as we do). Our movements are carefully noted. The police had taken less than half an hour to find us.

The officer seemed only partly convinced that two flat tires was a good reason to stop.

He was eager to see us on our way again, but insisted on filling out an official declaration. Then he grudgingly allowed us to lug the tire to the station.

The mechanic fixed the tire, mostly in silence, changed the valve, balanced the wheel, then handed it to me. He wished us a happy trip and hurried off to another office before we could thank, pay, or tip him. The cashiers refused to discuss payment.

The policeman was still waiting. Our jack broke. He commandeered one from a passing Zhiguli.

Then we decided to buy gas. A couple of people who were chatting at the gas station had witnessed most of our adventure.

``It would take us two days to get a tire done there,'' one remarked.

I suggested that the police presence may have speeded things up. The remarks that followed indicated that traffic police were not highly regarded.

As a colleague and I wrestled with the Zhiguli's gas cap (it broke), one of the people called out to us.

``Hey kids, do you think Gorbachev will be able to make it?'' I turned the question around.

``No, it won't work,'' came the answer.

``How can you change all this,'' the person said, gesturing all around. Life under Gorbachev was more interesting, the people at the gas station said, but it had not changed materially. ``But the people are nice, aren't they?''

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