SERGEI BYSTROV pulls a black-and-white poster from his briefcase with the campaign slogan ``Land, Bread, Russia'' emblazoned on the top. Underneath the words, a hand is drawn clutching a sheaf of wheat. Grain silos perched on an immaculately plowed field are visible on the horizon.
``These are fresh off the press. I made 10,000 copies,'' says Mr. Bystrov, an agronomist who heads the Agrarian Party in this southern city and is a local candidate to Russia's new parliament. He spreads open the poster and smiles. ``There are seven candidates in the region, but I'm the only agricultural worker,'' he says. ``So I'm counting on success.''
If preliminary indicators are to be believed, success could come easily to the antireform Agrarian Party, which gained 500,000 signatures to field candidates for the Dec. 12 elections to the State Duma, or parliament's lower house - twice as many as any of the other 12 registered election blocs.
The new party, consisting mainly of collective farm directors and other agricultural functionaries, condemns private land ownership and advocates collective farming along with strict government control over agriculture. It has rapidly gained popularity in Russia, where an estimated 34 million people work in the agricultural sector.
In a poll conducted in urban and rural areas earlier this month by the Moscow-based International Center of Sociological Studies, the Agrarians came in second with 20 percent of the vote, ahead of the popular pro-reform Russia's Choice and second to the conservative Democratic Party of Russia. Other polls conducted mainly in cities put the Agrarians further behind.
In any case, the Agrarian Party, whose manifesto states that it opposes ``the mechanical, mindless application of market doctrines'' and that the free sale of land ``will bring tragedy for the majority of the peasantry, who do not have the means to acquire it,'' could become an influential presence in Russia's first noncommunist parliament since Czarist times.
``After 70-odd years, the Russian people have developed a collective psychology. If we had 1 million private farmers today, six months from now half would go bankrupt,'' says Bystrov, whose electoral district of Stavropol, 750 miles south of Moscow in the Northern Caucasus region, is roughly one-third rural.
One of the Agrarians' chief concerns is private land ownership, abolished in 1929 when Joseph Stalin collectivized the peasantry. The free sale of land was legalized last month in a decree issued by President Boris Yeltsin, and is included in his new draft constitution, which will be put to a nationwide referendum the same day as elections.
Private land could kill off the sovkhoz and kolkhoz, the Soviet-era state and collective farms still predominant throughout Russia. In theory the Soviet system gave workers collective ownership, but in practice they were unprofitable, existing on government subsidies. But to people like Bystrov, the new decree puts land into the hands of mafia-type land speculators.
``Our farmers and peasants didn't ask for this decree. It was dictated to us by a narrow circle of people with fat wallets who have their feet planted firmly on city asphalt,'' says Bystrov, whose campaign photograph portrays him as an urban politician in a dark suit and tie. ``Land should only be sold to the people who are going to work on it.''
THIS type of talk has captured the imagination of many agricultural workers. ``People are already used to collective labor. To them, private property is something supernatural,'' says Anatoly Fyodorov, deputy head of the agricultural department in the Stavropol regional government.
But some election observers say the party is a front for the new Communist Party of Russia. They say the two parties are planning to form a powerful antireform bloc in the new parliament.
National Agrarian Party spokesman Ivan Rybkin denies the charge. ``The biggest Communist functionaries in the country are the ones currently running the country,'' he says. Later Mr. Rybkin mentions one of the party's founders, former Agrarian Union chairman Vasily Starodubtsev, part of the eight-man emergency committee that toppled Mikhail Gorbachev in the failed 1991 coup that led to the Soviet collapse. The party list also includes Alexander Zaveryukha, the conservative deputy premier responsible for agriculture.
A look at Bystrov's campaign poster reveals a background that is typical of many Agrarian Party candidates. The poster lists Bystrov as a former Communist Party People's Deputy who won several government awards for his work on the collective farm, including the dubious ``Soviet Economic Achievement'' medal. A ``caring husband and attentive father,'' he enjoys growing flowers in his spare time and has traveled widely, including to Libya and the United States.
On the sprawling Uchkhoz Collective Farm on the outskirts of Stavropol, director Viktor Selivanikov has been campaigning actively in favor of Bystrov and the Agrarian Party, which he estimates about 60 percent of his farmers support.
``Of course we need reforms,'' says Mr. Selivanikov, who mingles in the fields with his workers. ``But the government's authority should be preserved. We need a market, but a market that is regulated by the government.''
Tractor driver Aleksei Shapovalenko still longs for the good old days under Leonid Brezhnev. ``I don't want Yeltsin telling us what to do with our land,'' he says, standing in a rickety machinery shed. ``I want to stay part of the collective. We have enough tractors here, but what if I had my own land and suddenly needed a new one? Where would I get the money?''
But dairy man Alexander Korolyov says he is sick of working on the collective farm, where the milk yield is even lower than the salaries. He welcomes the land decree because it would help him fulfill his dream of owning a small dairy. But he refuses to support any political party.
``I don't want my children to become farmers if things stay the way they are,'' Korolyov says. ``I want land reform. If an owner works his own land, you'll see profits. No owner, no profits.''