DOWN a linoleum hallway at the studios of St. Petersburg Television lies the lair of the original bad boy of Russian journalism, Alexander Nevzorov. His crew lounges in an outer office, all clad in the favorite apparel of their leader, black leather jackets, as they await the call to action. Trophies of battle adorn the walls - a Lithuanian customs sign, police truncheons, a Cossack whip.
Mr. Nevzorov gained fame in late glasnost years as an innovative investigative television journalist, exposing minor mafiosi and political malfeasance on all sides. But he moved beyond that into political propaganda, using his popular ``600 Seconds'' news program to promote an abrasive vision of the restoration of the Russian Empire.
The darling of what the liberals call the ``Red-Brown'' alliance of Communists and Russian neo-fascists, Nevzorov has been a thorn in the side of the powers-that-be for several years. Four times his program has been taken off the air, most recently after the October storming of the Russian parliament, whose defenders Nevzorov embraces as loyalists to the ``motherland.''
Now Nevzorov is about to become the representative to the State Duma, the lower house of the new Russian parliament, from election District 210, encompassing the center of this great city. It is a prospect that delights him and horrifies at least some of his reformist opponents.
``With the means I have now, it is difficult for me to hinder reforms,'' says Nevzovrov, wearing his characteristic stubble and boyish grin. ``But I'll make enough noise there,'' he says of the parliament, which he freely admits he has no plans to attend regularly.
``It'll be a shame that the center of St. Petersburg will be represented in parliament by such an odious figure,'' laments Yuri Vdovin, the human rights activist who is his main opponent. ``If Nevzorov is elected, it will demonstrate the unacceptance by the people of St. Petersburg of the trend of democratic reforms in society.''
For the democrats, the pain of this election is about more than simply having an extremist in the halls of the new parliament - it is the fact that the divisions within their own ranks are largely responsible for giving him that opportunity.
Indeed, the battle in the central election district of St. Petersburg is only the most dramatic example of a phenomenon that is occurring widely across Russia in the parliament elections set to take place on Sunday. While pro-reform parties appear to have the support of the majority of the electorate, the often bitter rivalry among them is making it possible for extremists of all stripes, from Communists to outright fascists, to win seats.
There are seven candidates in the central district - divided between three open extremists including Nevzorov and four men loosely identified here as ``democrats,'' referring to representatives of various pro-reform parties. According to two different polls, Nevzorov is firmly in the lead, garnering anywhere from a fifth to a third of the vote. Another neo-fascist, the representative of Vladimir Zhirinovsky's Liberal Democratic Party, is also running strongly.
But the extremists could be beaten easily if the reformist vote were united around a single candidate. Instead they are splintered, with the two strongest reform choices - Mr. Vdovin, the candidate of Russia's Choice, led by Vice Premier Yegor Gaidar, and Yuri Nesterov, the nominee of the bloc led by reform economist Grigory Yavlinsky - virtually neck and neck.
``I think I should be the one to stay on the list,'' Vdovin says, ``but my task is to do everything possible to stop Nevzorov.'' Last week the four reformers met and agreed in principle that they would withdraw in favor of the strongest candidate. But translating that into reality proved impossible.
Mr. Nesterov, like Vdovin a member of the city council, rejected a poll taken earlier that showed his reform rival as a bigger vote-getter. He insisted on his own poll and the formation of a jointly formed nine-man commission of sociologists and others to analyze the results. Predictably, his poll was far from conclusive and the commission could reach no consensus. Only one candidate, independent Andrei Chernov, withdrew in favor of Vdovin.
But Nesterov, a short, angry man with a trim, black mustache, made it abundantly clear even before the results were in that he had little desire to yield to his fellow ``democrat.'' With unconcealed bitterness, he denounces Russia's Choice as ``neo-Bolshevists,'' as former Communists parading as democrats.
``There will be more harm in Russia's Choice being elected to parliament than Nevzorov,'' Nestorov opines. ``Nevzorov will not work in parliament. He will only create scandals there.
``The stronger the opposition is in the Russian parliament today, the better for Russia,'' he ration- alizes, arguing that it will slow the negative effects of Gaidar's ``shock therapy'' economic reforms, which if they continue will only expand the threat of fascism. ``Russia's Choice tries to solve problems by removing people from their jobs,'' Nesterov says with a snarl.
All this is music to Nevzorov's ears. ``There's no one for me to compete with,'' he says. He claims that campaigning is anyway a waste of time for him.
In a half-hour long ramble, Nevzorov moves from praise of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, with whom he has an open door, to accusations that the CIA has engineered the disintegration of the Soviet Union. He vows to regain every inch of lost territory, from Lithuania to the Caucasus. His economic policy amounts to selling weapons for ``Iraqi gold.''
In a dimly lit butcher shop on Herzen Street, a block away from the bright lights of Nevsky Prospekt, where the nouveau riche shop in Western-style supermarkets stocked with imported foods, Nevzorov is a hero to the new poor.
``At least he shows reality - not only those supermarkets but hungry people,'' Vera Kozlova says angrily. ``Workers receive wages at the level of the 1950s,'' says Ms. Kozlova, who in October lost her job in the Arsenal factory, one of the biggest defense plants in a city heavily dependent on military production.
Ivan Danielov, a retired military officer who proudly recalls his role in the 1945 capture of Vienna, is one of those in the older generation attracted by Nevzorov's unabashed Russian super-pat- riotism.
``He's a hooligan, but he's our hooligan,'' Mr. Danielov says, ``he's a Russian muzhik,'' a real Russian man.
There is fertile ground for Nevzorov in central St. Petersburg.
Amid the Czarist palaces, luxury hotels, and picturesque canals, it is heavily populated by pensioners and the inhabitants of communal apartments, where numerous families share quarters carved by the Bolsheviks from the villas of the old ruling class.
``This category of citizens has found itself in a very difficult situation as result of reforms,'' says Vdovin, who himself lives in a communal apartment shared by seven families.
Vdovin is a tall, gray-haired crusader for human rights who admits, with no sense of regret, that he defended Nevzorov several times when his television show was taken off the air. Now, ``it'll be my fault if Nevzorov wins,'' he says with sadness. ``Until the end of my life, I'll be depressed by this shame.''