BEYOND the worn slopes of the southern Ural mountains, the horizon of empty snow-covered Siberian lands is broken only by forests of smokestacks, belching grey smoke into the perpetual twilight. Here, close to the deposits of coal and iron ore and beyond the reach of invaders, Joseph Stalin built the sprawling steel mills and arms plants that were the bedrock of Soviet industrialization.
The pre-revolutionary settlement of 75,000 hardy souls in Chelyabinsk has grown into a city of 1.2 million, its broad avenues and stolid structures indistinguishable from the other products of assembly-line Soviet urbanism.
This land of tough workers in hard hats is the stronghold of Russian President Boris Yeltsin, who hails from the Urals city of Yekaterinburg (formerly Sverdlovsk) to the north. Among the 3.2 million-populated Chelyabinsk region, 3 out of 4 voters cast their ballots for Boris Nikolaievich last June. Yeltsin's support
Mr. Yeltsin won the vote of men like steelworker Viktor Terezov, a 24-year veteran of the giant Chelyabinsk Integrated Iron and Steel Works, or Mechel. But if the election were held today, he says, "I wouldn't vote at all," a view he claims is shared by a majority of his shopmates.
Vladimir Seleznov, Yeltsin's personal representative in the region, is a little more optimistic. Yeltsin will hold the trust of the populace until mid-summer, he says. "In the lines, people still go on only cursing [former Soviet President Mikhail] Gorbachev, not Yeltsin," he says. "But if Yeltsin doesn't implement his program, he won't last as long as Gorbachev did."
In the first weeks after Yeltsin began freeing most state-controlled prices, the most visible sentiment in this chunk of the Russian heartland is not anger but fear of chaos - and unemployment.
"People are at a loss," Vladimir Golyanov, a thoughtful shop foreman at another metal alloys plant, explains in a late-night talk in his crowded apartment. "Everybody is complaining about the lack of a clear policy. They don't believe in promises."
Across the city, factories are idle because of lack of spare parts and raw materials. Molten steel glows in only two of Mechel's 10 vacuum arc furnaces in its specialty steel division, while a handful of workers stack the stainless steel made for aircraft plants. Mechel director Rashat Maksutov appeared on Russian television last week to appeal for coking coal to be delivered according to contracts, particularly from nearby fields in Kazakhstan.
Mechel, like every plant in this town, depends on defense orders. The city still bears the nickname "Tankograd," earned during World War II when every second Soviet tank rolled from its assembly lines. But as of last year, officials say, not one tank was produced at the giant Chelyabinsk Tractor Works.
"Now people are not angry at Yeltsin," says Mr. Golyanov, who has worked in the same factory for 38 years. "They hope that as Mr. Yeltsin promised, there will finally be order. But they are worried that they don't see this order yet."
What they do see is inflation, the obsessive subject of almost all conversations. Meat which formerly was offered in state stores for 7 rubles a kilo now sells in farmers' markets for 50-70 rubles a kilo. The state-owned stores, which buy from nearby collective farms, set meat prices at 100-150 rubles a kilo. Dairy products are almost impossible to find or are priced out of reach - like butter at 204 rubles a kilo. Sugar has disappeared - even the cafeteria of the regional legislature offers only jam to sweeten the tea. Soaring prices
Nikolai Sudenkov, the official in charge of the retail supply network, prowls the central market checking price levels, hoping for signs of a drop. "It is the ... dream of the Soviet peasant during the entire period of Soviet power to have free prices on meat," he says with a shrug. "And now the prices have just soared."
The hardest hit are pensioners, about 10 percent of the population according to local officials. Until now, the more skilled workers have been relatively insulated by a rapid rise in wages - aimed at maintaining calm on the factory floor since the mass miners' strike last March and April. The average wage of the 32,000 workers at Mechel in December was 1,000 rubles a month, Mr. Maksutov says. (The average Soviet wage is about 400 rubles a month.) A further hike is planned in January, but with rising pric es for raw materials and the end to budget subsidies from Moscow, the plant will certainly not be able to match the inflation rate.
Sergei Podkorytov, who has been driving a train shuttling materials within the plant since 1976, has seen his salary jump from 600 rubles a month last fall to 1,500 rubles in December and an expected 2,000 this month. "There is still not enough money to last from wage to wage," he complains. The factory helps out with food, providing the main meal of the day in the cafeterias supplied by the factory's own farm or through barter deals.
Mr. Podkorytov lives with his wife and two children in a three-room apartment shared with others, their portion amounting to just 80 square feet. He is on the waiting list for his own apartment, but "at the current rate, I will get it when I retire."
He shares a view expressed by every younger worker surveyed at the plant - that reforms should go faster, not slower. It is a mistake to free prices without privatizing stores and factories, he argues. "I want all the reforms at once, to get through the transition so we can live a better life."
Officials admit that without privatization of the retail trade, prices may not drop. The city is largely serviced by just three farmers' markets which sell the produce from the private plots of collective farmers or fruit brought by traders from Central Asia and elsewhere. But most stalls are only half-full. Sluggish reform
The state-run stores, organized under the regional torg or trade system, have almost stopped working. "The system is paralyzed," says Mr. Sudenkov. Presidential representative Seleznov, worries the torg is trying to reorganize itself under a new name. "We're trying to privatize as quickly as possible," he says, but so far not a single store is in private hands.
"Nerves are tense," says foreman Golyanov. Yeltsin has "one to two months at the most."
For Andrei Belishko, deputy head of the Chelyabinsk regional administration, the key is food. This region has little agriculture of its own and supplies from other regions have dried up. "Now when every region thinks only about themselves, we are in a difficult situation," he says.
The main problem is a virtual absence of fodder to feed livestock, causing a drop in milk production and forcing farms to slaughter cows and pigs. Even flour for bread is short - instead of a usual two-to-three month reserve there is only enough for three weeks.
Still Mr. Belishko believes they can get through the winter without serious disorder. He predicts the most difficult point will be in March and April, when food supplies will be exhausted, and summer crops not yet available.
Standing at the trolley stop outside the plant gates, steelworker Mr. Terezov offers a dark vision of future events. "People are expecting a coup. They are tired of this poverty. Something has to happen." A coup by whom, he is asked. "It doesn't matter. We want something definite."