Inside the biggest factory in Volgograd, the headquarters of the Communist Party's "agitation group" is hidden behind a door with an innocent-looking sign.
According to the sign, this is merely a reception office for Volgograd's city councillors. But the room is filled with portraits of Lenin, stacks of Communist newspapers, red Soviet banners and volumes of the collected works of Lenin.Party activists are bustling in and out of the room, picking up armfuls of Communist literature to bring to the factory workers on their shifts. Each member of the "agitation group" - the shock troops of the Communist election campaign - has a different political assignment, depending on experience and education.
In the final days of Russia's presidential election, this is how the Communists are spreading their message to the 11,000 workers of the Volgograd Tractor Factory. Their grass-roots campaign is nourished by similar cells of volunteer workers at thousands of other factories across Russia.
The Communist network of campaign activists is the best in the country, and they have organizational skills that no other party can match. Their volunteers are fuelled by an almost fanatical desire to defeat President Boris Yeltsin and roll back the economic reforms of the past five years.
After a decree by Yeltsin in 1992, the vast network of Communist cells in Russian factories was supposed to be dissolved. But the party has found ways to keep its network alive.
In local elections in Volgograd last year, the Communists swept 21 of the 24 seats on the city council. So, when the council opened an office at the tractor factory, it was quickly transformed into a Communist headquarters.
Anatoly Sokirkin, 54, is one of the 200 party members at the factory. Every day, during the lunch breaks and before the start of his own afternoon shift, he distributes Communist literature to his friends from the assembly lines. Local party officials describe him as "one of our best organizers."
Sokirkin approaches his work with a grim seriousness. "It is not a question of whether I like it or not," he says. "It's the fate of my children and grandchildren."
After working at the factory for 37 years, his connections here are invaluable to the party. He knows how to reach the hearts and minds of the workers.
"I don't insist," he says. "I just say, `If you live poorly, then vote for Zyuganov. If you live well, choose one of the other candidates.' But the majority of people don't live well."
Activists from the Yeltsin campaign are rarely seen at the tractor factory. "They are simply afraid to come here," Sokirkin says. "To campaign for Yeltsin, while the factory canteens are closed because people can't even afford to eat there ... it would be dangerous."
Before the collapse of the Soviet Union, the tractor factory had 35,000 workers who produced up to 300 tractors a day. Now it has only 11,000 employees, producing 25 tractors a day, and their wages are often unpaid for months at a time.
"Real life is the best propaganda for us," says Igor Sobolevsky, a local Communist leader and an engineer at the tractor factory.
The strength of the Communist grass-roots campaign is one of the main reasons for the continuing nervousness in Yeltsin's election team. Despite a barrage of opinion polls suggesting that Yeltsin has built a strong lead over Communist candidate Gennady Zyuganov, most observers believe the election race is still too close to call.
The polls may be overestimating Yeltsin's support by 10 percentage points or more, analysts say. Communist support in villages and rural regions is usually underestimated. Opposition supporters often are reluctant to disclose their true beliefs to pollsters. Moreover, the number of undecided voters is still very high.
And the Yeltsin supporters are less zealous than the Communist backers, so they may be less likely to troop to the polling stations on election day Sunday.
In recent elections in the former Soviet Union, opinion polls have consistently underestimated the strength of the anti-incumbent mood. The presidents of Ukraine and Belarus were defeated in unexpected election upsets in 1994. Earlier this month, the mayor of Russia's second-largest city, St. Petersburg, was defeated by a little-known challenger, despite polls predicting he would win.
Some analysts believe that the most accurate Russian opinion poll is the parliamentary election of last December, when the Communists emerged as the most successful political party in the country. More than 50 percent of votes in December went to the left-wing and nationalist opposition parties, while only 30 percent went to pro-government and reformist parties.
Ultimately, the presidential election will be decided by the large mass of undecided and centrist voters who have no fixed ideological views.
Michael McFaul, a political analyst at the Moscow Carnegie Center, estimates that Yeltsin needs to capture three-quarters of these voters in order to win, while Zyuganov needs only a quarter of them.
The Communist calculation is similar. They believe they need 32 million-35 million votes to win the election. They got about 25 million votes in December.
In their latest exhortation to voters in Volgograd, the Communists urge each supporter to recruit one more person. "Agitate, explain, convince!" the Communists instruct their activists.
(Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service.)