AT the confluence of the Pskov and Velikaya rivers, at the dawn of Russian history in 903 A.D., the city-state of Pskov was born. The limestone walls of the fortress known as the Pskov Kremlin stretch along the river banks, bearing mute testimony to the 26 sieges mounted by invaders from the Swedes to the Poles.
Here Prince Alexander Nevsky was acclaimed by a grateful people in 1242 after leading his troops to victory over the invading German Teutonic Knights in the famous "ice battle" on the frozen waters of nearby Lake Chudskoye.
"This is the heart of Russia," proudly proclaims Viktor Lvovich Kokoshkin, an engineer working on the restoration of dozens of ancient churches whose white-washed walls dot this provincial Russian city. Whenever Russia was in danger, Pskov, along with the allied feudal republic of Novgorod, was there, he says.
Once again a battle for Russia is being fought in this heartland and elsewhere across this vast Eurasian landmass. This time the clash takes place not on ice floes, but in cloth-draped booths where Russian citizens will vote in an April 25 referendum. The four questions on the ballot amount to a choice between Russian President Boris Yeltsin and the opponents of his reforms in the conservative, communist-dominated parliament.
This neatly kept city of around 200,000 in northwest Russia seemed to be a fitting place to search for the pulse of Rus, the ancient land from which modern Russia is derived. In workplaces, stores, the lobby of a cinema hall, and churches, a visitor found every kind of opinion heartily felt and often thoughtfully articulated. Surprisingly strong support was voiced for the beleaguered president, though not always for the economic chaos that has accompanied his reforms. And sharp cries were heard from thos e whose lives have been left without a mooring in the new Russia.
The men of the Pskov Tourist Bus Company stand amid the orange and white buses, seeking shelter from an early spring flurry. Across the street on the river bank stands the Church of the Assumption and its wide, free-standing belfry, a classic of the Pskov architectural style, built in 1443. The church is locked and boarded, used as a storeroom. A slogan is scrawled in chalk on a door - "Return Shrines to the Church." Hard times for tourism
Business is bad, the bus drivers complain, because people no longer have the time or the money to visit the churches of Pskov or the nearby burial place of the poet Alexander Pushkin. Instead they live by taking people to Poland where they sell cheap Russian products and buy Western consumer goods to sell here. How then will the workers here vote on the first question: Do you have confidence in the president of the Russian Federation?
"All this comes from all these brawls and squabbles among the leadership," declares driver Igor Sorotin, the mustachioed leader of the company's trade union, referring to their hard times. "We don't gain from any of it. We see only one leader - Yeltsin. He still is trusted. It looks like he is being hampered in his work. We are going to give him one more chance."
Do you approve of the reforms of the Russian government, the second question on the ballot asks.
"Look at the shops before the reforms," snaps Mr. Sorotin to the nod of his comrades. "All the delicacies were only for the privileged. Now everyone can buy them, although they are expensive. The only thing we lack now is money and profits."
Natasha Aksyutik, the 26-year old wife of an Army pilot stationed outside Moscow, sees through a darker glass. After graduating from university as a historian, she could only find work leading a Pioneer group, the counterpart to Scouts in the West, in a local elementary school. While she gets a pittance, her less accomplished classmates are making big money in the ranks of the street traders who have proliferated in recent times, Ms. Aksyutik bitterly complains.
"We are always promised something will change, but I don't see any change," Aksyutik holds forth, standing in the first floor of Pskov's main department store, her curly red hair neatly pinned beneath a jaunty purple beret. "I was a good student in school. If I can't sell vodka for three times the price I bought it, why should I live worse than others?" she asks rhetorically.
"The Russian people are still not ready for Western-style democracy," the young historian pronounces, voicing a desire to return to the tradition of a strong state.
That deeply Russian faith in a paternal state also works for Mr. Yeltsin. From the czars to Joseph Stalin, Russians preferred to believe that their leaders must have been unaware of the evils committed in their name.
"We could have pinned blame on the president if we were sure he is well-informed and aware of everything," says Tamara Arkhipova, a bouncy member of the soviet, or council, in a nearby village. "We hope he will take into account all his mistakes and lead us in a new way," she says, stopping to talk in a childrens' store. Corruption charges rang bells
Do you favor an early election for the presidency, the third question asks.
"We have an old Russian saying," responds fellow shopper Svetlana, well-dressed in a brown wool coat and white fur hat, "You can't change horses in the middle of a crossing."
But if Yeltsin falters, even his supporters seem to favor Vice President Alexander Rutskoi, the Afghan war hero who has lately emerged at the head of the anti-Yeltsin opposition. Mr. Rutskoi's accusations of corruption in high places, delivered a week ago in a speech to parliament, rang bells here in Pskov.
"It was like a bombshell," says Arkhipova, wrapped in a cheap, blue nylon parka. "We didn't know that such corruption is going on in the country."
When it comes to question four - do you favor early elections for the parliament - there is almost no dissent. While feelings about Yeltsin are mixed, the parliament and its leader are widely disdained, denounced by some as "old time communists" or by most as self-interested do-nothings. "Not everything is right in what the president is doing, but they are just involved in struggle among themselves," says Galina Vasilyeva, a 53-year old engineer in a electronic factory. "They are not for us."
Nina Simonova, emerging from lighting candles in the massive Trinity Cathedral in the Pskov Kremlin, backs the parliament. Layoffs have come to her dairy since it was privatized two months ago, she says. "Before, there were some guarantees and protection. Now you have to take care of yourself," she complains.
The smallest voice, though not the softest, comes from a handful who will not vote at all. "We need a military dictatorship, like Pinochet in Chile," barks a dark, mustachioed man in a leather jacket at the door of the October movie hall. "Oh come on," his wife cajoles, "let's go home."