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<p>Photo by ALEXEY DRUZHININ/AFP/Getty Images</p>

Photo by ALEXEY DRUZHININ/AFP/Getty Images

Prime Minister Vladimir Putin

Russia: Hoping For Spring In The Dead Of Winter

Russia’s presidential election is on March 4 and Prime Minister Putin is expected to win. Beyond the big cities, Russians have mixed views on Putin and his main competitors — an oligarch, a communist and an ultra-nationalist.


In a Mexican restaurant in Novosibirsk, the unofficial capital of Siberia, the young are arguing with the old.

Two recently politicised young women, made bold by vodka and one too many mojitos, are railing against the presidential campaign of their country's prime minister, Vladimir Putin, who is widely expected to win the March 4 election and to return to his former office later this year.

The girls' parents, made cynical and conservative by experience, support the once and future president, to a person. To their children's claims of corruption and vote-rigging, they offer memories of former President Boris Yeltsin stumbling drunkenly through his time in office, the oligarchs whose willingness to buy influence undermined the country's democracy in its infancy, and of the chaotic 1990s in general, when the Soviet state suffered from cardiac arrest and millions were left languishing without social security in a brave new world of free markets and uncertainty.

The girls' buzzword is "change". Their parents' is "stability".

The situation on the ground is far more nuanced than necessarily suits a Western media narrative of ascendant liberalism and potential uprising.

It is said that Russia really begins at Moscow's outer limits. Since December 2011, however, when Prime Minister Putin's party, United Russia, won a parliamentary election that many considered to be rigged, a series of increasingly sizable anti-Putin protests has ensured that the world's attention remains trained firmly on the capital.

But travelling across the country on the Trans-Siberian Railway, visiting 10 cities and towns between Vladivostok and Moscow, serves as a useful corrective to the received wisdom of both the pro-opposition Western correspondents in the capital and the pro-Putin state media everywhere else.

The assumptions of the former group — that anti-Putinism transcends generation and class barriers and is the default position of the middle class; that the candidacy of billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov is a red herring unlikely to fool the regime's critics; that the opposition is more liberal in its world view than nationalistic; and that the country's infamous apathy is finally dead — have been proven mostly false.

The situation on the ground is far more nuanced than necessarily suits a Western media narrative of ascendant liberalism and potential uprising. But the assumptions of the latter group — that Putin's leadership standing is essentially healthy outside the capital — has been proven even more patently ludicrous.

If the support of the girls' well-to-do parents for the prime minister gives lie to the opposition's blanket claim on the middle class, then the girls' support for the billionaire playboy-turned-politician gives reason for pause as well. Ever since he announced his candidacy in December, quickly taking up the protesters' cause as his own, Mikhail Prokhorov has been derided by opposition insiders as a Kremlin stooge and his deeply reformist platform as a lure.

<p>Photo by Matthew Clayfield</p>

Photo by Matthew Clayfield

United Russia campaign poster outside Yekaterinburg's rebuilt Great Zlatoust Church: Great Country, Worthy Future.

Given the lengths to which the Kremlin has gone in the past to keep uppity oligarchs out of politics, it's not difficult to understand the cynicism. Prokhorov's platform might look good on paper, his opposition critics claim, but it has been designed with a single purpose in mind: to bring protesters in off the streets and into polling booths, at once both short-circuiting their impulse to protest and legitimising the election's eventual and inevitable result, a victory for Putin.

This narrative has been called into question throughout this campaign, especially as the billionaire's message has gained traction among the young. But it remains the dominant one. Earlier this month, opposition leader Boris Nemtsov told one reporter that "there is no doubt" that Prokhorov "is in cahoots with Putin in this election". Anti-corruption blogger and opposition leader Alexey Navalny, described by Time magazine as Russia's Erin Brokovich and by The New Yorker as its Julian Assange, is on the record describing Prokhorov's candidacy as "the Kremlin's Trojan project".

In Novosibirsk, the girls' support for the owner of the New Jersey Nets induces a rolling wave of fat-jiggling laughter among their elders. But the latter group distrusts the oligarch for entirely different reasons than the opposition in the capital: "Prokhorov's exactly the kind of crook that Putin's saved this country from!"

A birthday cake arrives and, tempers subsiding, everyone remembers why they came out for dinner in the first place. But even as they sing to their 50-something aunt, the 20-something girls continue to bristle. The off-hand dismissal of their concerns still rankles.

It would be wrong to suggest that anti-Putinism automatically translates into votes for Prokhorov. Anti-Putinism is a broad and not especially unified church.

It was this precisely this sort of dismissal that Putin himself perfected in December, when he went on national television and arguably threw away the best hand that he and his regime had to play: he chose to berate the protesters instead of placating them. After comparing them to The Jungle Book's Bandar-logmonkeys, and himself to Kaa, the giant python that constricts and devours them, Putin proceeded to suggest that the white ribbons the protesters had adopted as their symbol looked to him like condoms. "I thought it was an anti-AIDS campaign," he said.

In Krasnoyarsk, some 640 kilometres east of Novosibirsk, Tatiana says that this was the last straw. Heavily pregnant with her first child, Tatiana says that Putin's television appearance, far more than the fraudulent election results, was what brought her onto the streets.

"My mother went to vote and found that someone had already done so in her name," Tatiana says. "In some parts of Krasnoyarsk, dead people voted. But it wasn't until Putin went on television that I decided to protest. He could have avoided the whole thing by admitting that something illegal had occurred. Instead, he went on television and made jokes about condoms. How stupid can you be?"

Tatiana's husband, Dmitri, who operates an outdoor goods store, now plans to spend the day of the election, March 4, acting as an unofficial election monitor, calling officials on any irregularities and uploading news of any violations to the web.

<p>Photo by Matthew Clayfield</p>

Photo by Matthew Clayfield

”Great Country, Strong Leader“: a United Russia Party slogan on a billboard in Omsk, Siberia

"I just hope the baby doesn't choose to come that day," Tatiana says. "I hope the vote goes to a second round, but to make that happen we need as many people monitoring as possible."

Aside from a group of activists in Nizhny Novgorod, Russia's fifth largest city, handing out "Stop the Dictator" flyers and plugging a post-election protest, Tatiana and Dmitri are the most committed and connected oppositionists I encounter in my travels. They read Navalny's blog religiously, subscribe to the opposition line on Prokhorov (but they like him more than the alternatives and will vote for him anyway, and attend meetings about what they will do should this vote, too, prove fraudulent.

Where Tatiana and Dmitri differ from their Muscovite and St Petersburg counterparts is in their level of optimism. Where those in the capitals of European Russia tend to act, to some extent, as though the opposition already has won, people out here in the dead of winter have a better sense of just how long some things take to thaw.

Tatiana is particularly worried about the opposition's ability to hold people's interest. At Krasnoyarsk's first protest on December 10, "the only people involved were young people," Tatiana says. "At our second [December 24], a lot of older people came and took part, too. But when we protested after the holidays [on February 4], it was just young people again. Maybe the older people lost interest when the protest failed to change things immediately. I hope they will change their mind and come back."

“The smartest Russians I know have moved abroad. I will vote for Mikhail Prokhorov because I like what he has to say about fighting corruption. But it's too late for him to save Russia.... The smartest people have already left.”

Another Krasnoyarsk local, Natasha, doesn't think this likely. "Don't get me wrong," the 28-year-old says. "I hate Putin as much as anybody. My whole generation hates Putin. But when you grew up where I did" - in Zheleznogorsk, formerly Krasnoyarsk-26, a secret city created in the 1950s as a site for producing weapons-grade plutonium — "you have a pretty good sense of how uncommon views like that actually are." Almost everyone in her hometown, she continues, is likely to vote for the status quo. "And there are thousands of other cities just like it."

Which is why Natasha has decided to throw in the towel and head to Western Europe. "The smartest Russians I know aren't protesting the election," she says. "The smartest Russians I know have moved abroad. I will vote for Mikhail Prokhorov because I like what he has to say about fighting corruption. But it's too late for him to save Russia or anything. The smartest people have already left."

Still, it would be wrong to suggest that anti-Putinism automatically translates into votes for Prokhorov. Anti-Putinism is a broad and not especially unified church. Navalny, for one, describes himself as a "democratic nationalist" and, indeed, until the events of December, most commentators had wondered aloud about whether or not the nationalist movement, with its unpalatable ultra-nationalist fringe, was the only one capable of forming a viable opposition party.

Such musings have been largely forgotten in the tumult of the past three months. But it's worth remembering that it was the public display of dissent at a mixed martial arts event last November, where Putin was booed by a crowd consisting primarily of those he considers his base, that first suggested his return to the presidency might not go quite as smoothly as planned.

Settling down for the night in their railway carriage somewhere between Novosibirsk and Omsk, Anna and Mikhail belong to this strain of anti-Putinism. The couple are returning from their honeymoon in the Russian Far East to their home in the Northern Caucasus, where she hopes to find work as a civil lawyer and he is an agent with the state security service, the FSB, in one of the region's most troubled republics.

Some of their concerns are, they admit, eccentric. Anna is worried about China taking over areas of the Far East "that our grandfathers fought for". And the idea of voting for a billionaire elitist like Prokhorov is anathema to both of them. But the idea of another six or even 12 years of Putinism is even worse.

"We will vote for [Communist Party candidate Gennady] Zyuganov," Mikhail says in between showing off his wedding photos and mobile phone videos of him and his comrades using huge amounts of plastic explosive to take out the side of a mountain. "Prokhorov is an oligarch. Putin wants to be a tsar. And [Liberal Democratic Party candidate Vladimir] Zhirinovsky will start another war — not just in the Caucasus, but in Europe, the United States, everywhere." (An extreme nationalist who has been a fixture of the Russian political scene for more than 15 years, Zhironovsky is the point on which everybody interviewed for this article agrees. "He's — how do you say? — a clown," Tatiana says.)

Recent polling suggests that more people think like Anna and Mikhail than like Tatiana, Natasha or the girls in the restaurant. Polling organisation VTsIOM has the Communists' Zyuganov in second place, with 14.8 per cent of the vote, and Prokhorov in second to last, with 8.7 per cent. (Perhaps tellingly, Prokhorov replaces Zyuganov as the second most popular candidate only in Moscow and St Petersburg.)

<p>Photo by Matthew Clayfield</p>

Photo by Matthew Clayfield

United Russia posters stuck to a lamp post in Omsk, Siberia.

Of course, there are plenty of reasons to question the accuracy of a polling organisation that is under state control. But the likelihood remains that the Communist, not the liberal democrat, will be the one to face off against Putin should the election go to a second round. Even though such a run-off would give the election a degree of legitimacy that an outright victory surely won't, the Kremlin won't be keen on such an outcome. Current polling suggests that it needn't worry: not only VTsIOM, but independent pollsters, too, are all predicting that Putin is likely to pull off a first-round victory in a rout. Such a victory, Anna and Mikhail are certain, is guaranteed to result in more protests.

What is not guaranteed is what will happen after that. Mikhail estimates that the rank and file of the security establishment, whose numbers he belongs to, is evenly split between pro- and anti-Putin sympathies. He may not be smiling in his wedding photos, but it's hard to imagine the 26-year-old firing on unarmed protesters.

"It's hard not to be angry," Anna says. "People are suddenly beginning to realise what's going on. Everyone in Russia is angry."

Or almost everyone. Some — the aforementioned VTsIOM poll put it at 44 per cent — don't care either way and claim not to be following the election at all. In Irkutsk, the so-called Paris of Siberia, where a number of the anti-tsarist Decemberists were exiled in the 1830s, 34-year-old Anton is taking a stand on behalf of the country's much-eulogised apathy.

“I don’t know a single person who is interested in the election or who thinks it will impact their life in any way. Nothing will change. It almost never does.”

Like the elderly peasant in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, the Russian tradition of not giving a damn isn't quite dead yet.

"Moscow is a different country to rest of Russia," Anton says. "What happens there doesn't matter here. I don't know a single person who is interested in the election or who thinks it will impact their life in any way. Nothing will change. It almost never does."

Anton is also sceptical about paying too much attention to the protests. "I saw them on television," he says. "Ten thousand people? Fifty thousand?" (The numbers vary wildly depending on whether you read police accounts or those of the opposition and its cheerleaders.)

"That's a fraction of Moscow's population and an even smaller one of Russia's," he says.

The Bolsheviks were even fewer in number, I point out, and they managed to take over the country in 1917. "These protesters are not Bolsheviks," Anton says. "They'll all go home before they become Bolsheviks."

Is he going to vote? "Of course not."

Perhaps he should. Navalny's occasionally troubling rhetoric aside — “We will cut their throats!” he told protesters on December 5, before attempting the march on Moscow's FSB headquarters that saw him imprisoned for 15 days — the absence of any real revolutionary impulse among the vast majority of protesters means that change must still come about through electoral means. There's a reason historical analogists recently stopped comparing events in Russia to the Arab Spring and started comparing them, albeit no less problematically, to the US civil rights movement instead.

One hundred thousand Muscovites may have captured the world's attention, but the onus remains on the country's 100 million voters to actually change the place. That's why Siberia — and, indeed, the rest of the country outside the capital - matters more than is occasionally supposed. The vast majority of votes are out here in the cold.

The names of the interviewees in this article have been changed

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