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See Putin Run: How the Prime Minister Is Relying on Russia’s Heartland

12 minute read
Simon Shuster / Kurgan

As usual, Vladimir Putin was late. Extremely late. Russia’s Prime Minister was due to arrive at 3 p.m. in the town of Kurgan, a sooty industrial outpost on the Trans-Siberian Railway, to meet a group of provincial voters. Outside School No. 7, in Neighborhood No. 3, about 100 of them had gathered to wait for him, in a scene of village mirth much like a Bruegel painting with snow. But by 4 p.m. the people started shivering: the temperature was -20 degrees C. By 5, the flasks in their pockets were running dry. By 6, they started to curse, and the elderly went home.

It was not a good way to start a campaign tour. On March 4, the Prime Minister, who has already served two terms as President, will stand for re-election to a third presidential term, and while he does not have any real competition — the playing field in Russia has been stomped flat since Putin rose to power 12 years ago — he is scrambling for popular support for the first time in his career. His ratings in Russia’s biggest cities have fallen to historic lows, and members of the middle class (or, as one of Putin’s deputies called them, “annoyed city folk”) have been rallying in Moscow by the tens of thousands to demand his resignation.

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His fallback, as ever, has been the working class in Russia’s industrial heartland, where Putin’s campaign narrative sells a lot better than it does in Moscow. Its logic goes roughly like this: I saved you all from the chaos and poverty that followed the Soviet collapse, I am the only one who can guarantee stability, and all those people protesting against me are part of an American plot to overthrow the government. In places like Kurgan, this message has worked like a charm. (One of Kurgan’s leading opposition lawmakers, whose national party has fielded a candidate against Putin, was so afraid of appearing to collude with Americans that he refused to meet with TIME in a public place. “I know it looks funny,” he said, sitting in his car in an alley with the engine running. “They’ve just pushed us into a corner with this anti-American thing.”)

But even in Kurgan, a factory town of about 300,000 people, Putin no longer has many diehard fans, as became clear when he finally walked into School No. 7 with his classic, slightly pugilistic stride. The point of the visit was a meeting in the cafeteria with the school’s parent-teacher association, which is chaired by a local factory manager named Sergei Usmanov. A few days before, officials from the Education Ministry had arrived to take some pictures of the wallpaper and linoleum floors. “They told us not to change anything,” Usmanov says. “They wanted the statistical average of the Russian school.” So Putin’s was to be a different kind of Potemkin village — with warts and all, to give the candidate an opportunity to address people’s problems. Apart from a computerized chalkboard that the officials installed in time for Putin’s arrival, he was shown a typically Russian school, complete with busted windows, leaking roofs and a numbing cold inside the classrooms.

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When Putin sat at the cafeteria table, the pent-up gripes over these kinds of problems spilled out. “For the past 12 years,” Usmanov told him, “as long as my child has been going to this school, we’ve been fixing up the classes out of our own pockets.” Under the glare of TV cameras, Putin winced as if eager to get the meeting over with. “I got it,” he said. “All right. Today I’ll talk to the governor.” Sitting on a cafeteria bench, chewing his fingernails, was Governor Oleg Bogomolov, who has run Kurgan for 16 years.

The following day, in his office at the local steel-beam factory, Usmanov became the unwitting point man for Putin. Every few minutes, his door would open to reveal another curious worker, usually carrying a hard hat. Their questions were all the same: Did Putin seem like one of us? Was he a regular guy? Has he soured? Some of the workers recalled Putin as he had been circa 2006, when his approval ratings were well over 70%. Back then, he still personified the Russian tough guy, the muzhik, who could fly a jet, harpoon a whale, flip Washington the bird and still switch easily into the scrappy banter of a roughneck. But the Putin who arrived in Kurgan was not the salt of the earth. He seemed detached from his own people if not yet afraid of them. So Usmanov had a difficult time answering the questions. “He’s O.K.,” he told them. “I guess he’s more or less a normal guy.”

When the door closed for the fourth or fifth time, Usmanov remembered an old Russian tradition — the khodoki, a term for the peasants who would go directly to the Czar to ask for help. “That was us yesterday,” he says. “We were the khodoki appealing to the Czar. I know you’re supposed call Putin the President or Prime Minister these days. But to us, he is the Czar. Not much has changed.”

In Moscow, it would be hard to find anyone younger than 60 who still thinks along those lines. The educated middle class makes up as much as half of the population in Moscow, and as their slogans showed during the recent wave of protests, they are demanding fair elections, accountable officials and parliamentary democracy. They do not want a Czar.

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But as the local saying goes, Moscow is not Russia, and Russia is not Moscow. “The old feudal order still exists in the countryside. It’s just put on a democratic coat,” says Elena Gabitova, a sociologist in Kurgan who conducts opinion polls throughout the region. “You can meet all kinds of people here who hate everything about the government. Their villages are dying out. But they still support only Putin. I don’t really understand it, but it’s true.”

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It starts to make sense when you look at the way life is structured in Kurgan. The factory where Usmanov works, Kurganstalmost, depends entirely on government contracts to pay the wages of about 3,000 workers. Nearly all live in the dreary cluster of apartment blocks called Neighborhood No. 1, which the factory built. The factory’s owner is a close family friend of the governor, who is appointed by the Kremlin, and another of the governor’s buddies controls the local TV channels. Most of these regional nomenklatura belong to Putin’s United Russia party, which fits them neatly into what Russians call “the vertical of power,” shorthand for Putin’s enormous chain of command.

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Take Alexander Iltyakov, a local pig farmer and sausage magnate who is a dead ringer for Robert De Niro in Raging Bull, complete with a boxer’s flattened nose. In June, he caught Putin’s eye during a speech he gave on life in his village, and a few months later, he was invited to run for parliament on the United Russia ticket. It was an easy win, and in exchange, he is adapting Putin’s campaign to the language of the provinces. “Serfdom is not slavery,” he likes to say. Over a meal of pork knuckle and sausage at a Kurgan pub, he explains how stable life was for the serfs of 18th century Russia. They were supported by their land baron and grateful to the Czar. So what remains of that culture today? Iltyakov smiles and slowly brings his forefinger to his temple. “Moses walked with the Jews in the desert for 40 years to free them of their slave mentality,” he says. “Putin has only been our leader for a decade.”

And then there is Dmitri Paryshev, the current head of Kurganstalmost, who inherited the factory from his father in 2008. Two years later, he was asked to run for United Russia on a local legislative ballot. When he lost to a communist, the voters paid the price. “They still come asking for help,” Paryshev says in his office, where a stuffed lynx stands in the corner with its ears pricked. “I tell them, Folks, when I needed you, you voted for the communists. So let the communists help you. Let them lay your sewer pipes, put in your fire extinguishers, patch the walls in your houses.” Ingratitude has its price in the vertical of power, even at the level of sewer pipes.

And that tends to make people think twice before protesting, either in the streets or at the ballot box, which helps explain why the revolutionary mood keeping Moscow restless this winter has not caught on in places like Kurgan. “Such things don’t reach our neck of the woods,” Paryshev says. “Small towns are great that way. You can control the whole process, and if somebody starts plotting a protest, it’s easy to shut them down.” Sure enough, recent protests in Kurgan, which were organized by the local opposition to coincide with the ones in Moscow, were prohibited by city officials. Nearly all of the few dozen people who showed up were arrested.

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The biggest rally Kurgan has seen during Russia’s winter of discontent was actually in support of Putin, on Feb. 4, when a few thousand people filled the town square chanting slogans for stability. About 300 of them were from Kurganstalmost. “It was voluntary-mandatory,” says Alexei Mosin, a foreman at the factory, with a smile. “We didn’t force anyone to go. We just suggested it was a good idea.”

If that were not enough, Putin’s campaign has provided ample encouragement. As the Prime Minister was heading to the airport to fly to Kurgan, newspapers published his announcement of a huge wage increase for teachers. It was the latest phase in a budget-bending effort to buy votes through social payouts, helping everyone from pensioners to college students but forcing the federal budget into its first deficit in a decade. (In February, these payouts will reach 12% of GDP, or more than $30 billion, compared with an average of 0.8% of GDP in previous months, according to analysts at Credit Suisse.)

The campaign’s other weapon has been fear. The day before Putin’s arrival in Kurgan, state TV aired a program arguing that the West is trying to overthrow the government through proxies. As proof, it showed footage of anti-Putin activists visiting the U.S. embassy in Moscow and quoted U.S. Senator John McCain’s Twitter jab at Putin on Dec. 5: “Dear Vlad, The Arab Spring is coming to a neighborhood near you.” The broadcast went on to explain that there are two forces in Russia today: “Those who want great upheaval, and those who want a great Russia.”

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Never before had Putin bristled at the U.S. as fiercely as he has during this campaign. On Dec. 8, he accused U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton of “giving the signal” that started the protests against his government, and a week later, while addressing the nation live on television, he clenched his hand into a fist and said, “People are tired of the dictates of one nation … America does not need allies — it needs vassals.” So any serious talk of a thaw in U.S.-Russian relations, which President Obama touted as a key goal of his foreign policy, has fallen by the wayside during Putin’s campaign. A new Putin term could be more hawkish than the previous two. “A weakened Putin will face the same problem governing that he faces now campaigning,” says Paul Saunders of the Center for the National Interest in Washington. “He will be tempted to appeal to Russian nationalists and may find it more difficult to pursue policies that would antagonize them.”

Vasily Kislitsin, the head of the Kurgan branch of the Communist Party, who wears a pin of Che Guevara on his lapel, says the “anti-American wave” has been a brilliant move for Putin. “It really works. The people are really afraid of a Russian Arab Spring,” he says. In December, his party won almost 20% of the vote in parliamentary elections, placing second after Putin’s United Russia. Its candidate for the presidency, Gennady Zyuganov, has the best chance of forcing Putin into a runoff vote. But Putin is still sure to win with the support of men like Usmanov.

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The factory manager has worked at Kurganstalmost since 1998 and still remembers how wages weren’t paid during that year’s financial crisis. “Putin pulled us out of that,” he says. Today Usmanov’s wife works as a factory clerk at the desk adjacent to his, and when his sons finish studying at School No. 7, he wants them to work at the factory too. “We should thank God for what we have,” he says. “Just look at education. The state does not need to teach our children, but it does. The quality might be bad. The schools might be in awful shape. But we have schools, and I think that’s a plus for Putin.” Such thinking is not the stuff of adoration or even of heartfelt support. But for Putin, going into these elections, it will have to do.
with reporting by Jay Newton-Small / Washington

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