2021-09-16 21:53:29 As Russians Vote, Resignation, Anger and Fear of a Post-Putin Unknown

As Russians Vote, Resignation, Anger and Fear of a Post-Putin Unknown

Many Russians are tired of corruption, stagnant wages, and rising prices. But, as one man put it, “if things start to change, there will be blood.”

Troianovski, Anton

Sergey Ponomarev’s photographs

She walked into the cafe wearing a face mask that read, “I’m not afraid, and neither should you be.” A man in a leather jacket followed her in, looked at her as she sat next to me, and then walked away. Another man, dressed in a vest and gray cap, stood outside.

As we walked out, he followed us.

Violetta Grudina, an activist in the Russian Arctic city of Murmansk who supports imprisoned opposition leader Aleksei A. Navalny, was the subject of my interview. She was still in the process of recovering from a hunger strike. She confessed to a creeping, numbing desperation now that she was under constant surveillance.

“We are all trapped — trapped by one tyrant,” Ms. Grudina explained. “This stupor that comes from giving everything you’ve got but nothing changes — it’s difficult.”

Russia is one of those countries where nothing changes until everything changes. President Vladimir V. Putin’s rule has reached a new apogee of authoritarianism, coated in a patina of comfortable stability, ahead of this weekend’s national parliamentary elections. Many regard Mr. Putin as a hero, particularly for his assertive foreign policy, while those who oppose him, as they put it, retreat into their own oases or parallel worlds.

From August 24 to September 7, the photographer Sergey Ponomarev and I traveled 3,000 miles from the Arctic to the Caucasus republic of Chechnya to investigate why Mr. Putin has been able to maintain his grip on a sprawling country after 20 years in power.

Five nights on sleeper trains took us along a campaign trail that was uniquely Russian, cutting a longitudinal swath through the country’s vastness. In Murmansk, the absurd measures apparently taken to keep Ms. Grudina from voting included forcing her to be hospitalized in a coronavirus ward. In Chechnya, the region’s strongman ruler’s challengers appeared to be attempting to garner as few votes as possible.

“People cannot say, ‘Let someone else take over,’” Artyom Kiryanov, a candidate for Vladimir Putin’s United Russia party, told me on the shores of Lake Valdai in central Russia. “There is no such thing as an alternative.”

This weekend, a United Russia victory appears assured, though a sizable protest vote is possible despite the election’s tightly stage-managed nature. People’s fear — of being punished for dissent, of losing what they had, of the ghosts of poverty and war — was a guiding emotion we encountered. We met many people who were fed up with official corruption, stagnant pay, low pensions, and rising prices, but far fewer who were willing to face the unknown post-Putin.

“I am afraid that if things start to change,” said Vitaly Tokarenko, an engineer in the southern city of Voronezh, “there will be blood.”

The trip also provided firsthand knowledge of Russia’s expanding surveillance state. The man in the vest and gray cap followed us across the street to our hotel doors in Murmansk. He did not accompany Ms. Grudina when she left for a photo shoot half an hour later.

She texted me, “He’s probably waiting for you.”

Solovki: Making a ‘Oasis’

We crossed the Arctic Circle by overnight train and ferry to the Solovetsky Archipelago in the White Sea. Its sublime, glacially formed hills are home to one of the Russian Orthodox Church’s most revered and expensively refurbished monasteries, a key source of support for Mr. Putin.

So it was surprising to meet Oleg Kodola, 52, a tourism agent based just outside the monastery who insisted that “any action that supports this government is very bad.” He stated that he would vote for the Communists because they were the best hope he saw for reducing United Russia’s sway.

Instead of waiting for the state to repair the road in front of his restaurant and remove the hulks of boats from the dock area he uses, he intends to do it himself. It was a vivid example of a widespread phenomenon: dissidents withdrawing into their own worlds.

“We intend to build an oasis here,” he explained, “to demonstrate that where there is no state, everything is fine.”

The guide, Olga Rusina, said nothing about the eerie peephole carved into the church door by the wardens, or the circle of rocks in the grass where the firing squad is said to have taken aim, at a hilltop church that had served as the camp’s most notorious prison.

“I won’t burden you with these tragic events,” she said to the group.

Her demeanor surprised me because she had previously stated that her great-grandfather, great-grandmother, and another relative had all died in the Solovetsky camp.

Then I discovered that she blamed her family’s tragedy on individuals rather than the state. It was the family’s envious villagers, not the Kremlin, who brought them here by denouncing them as rich peasants. The implication is that democracy is lethal.

Valdai: Privilege for the Privileged

The trees grow taller and the population density increases as you travel south. But, halfway between St. Petersburg and Moscow, on the pristine Lake Valdai’s lush green shore, perfect stillness can still be found.

The whirr of helicopters interrupts it from time to time. Mr. Putin enjoys visiting here, as do an increasing number of people close to him. Tatyana Makarova knows this because of the massive compounds that have sprouted up in and around her village of Yashcherovo, nearly cutting off the villagers’ access to the lake. The compounds have eagle and roaring bear sculptures at their gates, their own churches on their grounds, and imposing razor-wire-topped walls.

Ms. Makarova, 48, who owns a small cleaning business, has led the charge against the new building, pitting her and her neighbors against some of Russia’s most powerful men. Her story demonstrated how, rather than trying to bring down Mr. Putin, Russians are finding small ways to shape the system he governs.

“Our job entails constantly causing problems,” she explained. “At that point, they hear us.”

She and her neighbors have made YouTube videos, filed official complaints, and gone to the news media to demonstrate how the new mansions encroach on the lakeshore, ostensibly in violation of the lake’s status as a national park. She led us past the prickly shrubs she claimed were planted to keep villagers away from the lake and to a small beach she claimed her group’s activism had successfully liberated for public use.

Ms. Makarova insisted that she was not a revolutionary and that she simply wanted everyone to obey the law. The larger issue, she claims, is that most Russians are afraid to get involved in politics because of the country’s bloody history. As a result, she claims, those with access to power easily take advantage of those who don’t.

“Because of these massive cataclysms that occurred in their families, people realized that nothing depends on them, on little people,” Ms. Makarova explained. “If you don’t interfere, you’ll live.”

When we left Ms. Makarova’s house, I noticed a gray station wagon parked a few hundred feet away, which I had noticed the day before. It followed us out of Ms. Makarova’s village, came to a halt on the main road when we took a detour through another village, and then followed us to our hotel’s parking lot.

Voronezh: An Aesthetic of the Eco-hipster

Another reason Mr. Putin’s power has remained stable is that many Russians’ lives have genuinely improved. We drove past the bright lights of Moscow and awoke in Voronezh, a city of a million people that is frequently associated with provincial boredom in Russian popular culture.

“I used to think, ‘Go ahead and steal, but do something for us, too,’” Yulia Lisina, a 45-year-old teacher I met in Voronezh, said. “Because it seemed like all they did in the ’90s was steal.”

I approached a lone figure under an umbrella in the rain on Soviet Square, which was now adorned with swings, sleek benches, sloping paths, and intricate vegetation. Yuri Matveyev, 66, said he had just been released from prison after serving 15 years for assault.

He had no intention of voting in the election. He claimed that as an ultranationalist, he did not see his views represented on the ballot. He did admit, however, that parts of the city had changed beyond recognition.

“Our autobahns are no worse than those in Germany,” he claimed.

Orlyonok, a soon-to-reopen park, features a wood-paneled structure curving past the trees with a walkway on top, a food court inside, and space in the back for an outdoor movie screen. Political analysts see the renovations’ superficial eco-hipster aesthetic as a way to appease a young, Westward-looking middle class that would otherwise be ready to protest. Officials in Voronezh stated that they wished to replicate the feel of Western European cities in urban planning, but that politics was a separate issue.

“You have to learn democracy,” said Andrei Markov, a United Russia lawmaker running for re-election here. “We’ve only had 30 years to learn.”

‘Putin Is Everything,’ says Rostov.

However, some semblance of democracy remains in Russia, and the Kremlin requires votes. I got off the train 300 miles south of Voronezh and took a cab toward the Ukrainian border to meet United Russia’s most promising pool of new voters.

In the coal-mining town of Novoshakhtinsk, I found a small crowd of people waiting for a government office to open, near the air-hockey tables on the second floor of a shopping center. At least five of them were newly minted Russian citizens who lived in Kremlin-backed separatist territories on the Ukrainian side of the border.

They had come to set up online government-service accounts, which would allow them to vote in the election remotely, among other things.

“I support United Russia,” one of them, a 45-year-old woman who only gave her first name, Natalia, said. “For me, Putin is everything.”

Last year, Mr. Putin made it easier for people living on separatist territory in Ukraine to obtain Russian citizenship, and he essentially handed out hundreds of thousands of passports to tighten Russia’s grip. United Aleksandr Borodai, Russia’s best-known candidate in the area, is the first “prime minister” of the so-called Donetsk People’s Republic after the war broke out in 2014, and his job appears to be to fill out the party’s nationalist wing.

“We must expect war and prepare for it,” Mr. Borodai warned last week, predicting a conflict with the US.

Mr. Putin’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 skyrocketed his approval ratings. Domestic issues, such as raising the retirement age, have recently taken center stage, and Mr. Putin’s approval rating has dropped to around 60%. Some prominent Russians, however, want Mr. Putin to take an even tougher stance, both at home and abroad.

Mr. Borodai’s associate, Timur Okkert, agreed to meet with me despite the fact that he claimed I represented a “enemy publication.” He introduced me to another naturalized Russian citizen, Aleksandr Gaydey, a notorious former Ukrainian rebel commander who complained that Russia was not tough enough on domestic opposition.

If there is an anti-Kremlin uprising, Mr. Gaydey promised over a Coke, “I’ll be the first to come crush it.” I’m going to stomp on it hard.”

Money’s Influence in Chechnya

One more overnight train ride brought me to the perfectly manicured hedges of Putin Avenue in Grozny, the Chechen capital. There were shops with exposed brick walls and fake American license plates, as well as cafes with names like Soren and signs like “We Have Filter,” which means “we have coffee.” There were also massive portraits of Mr. Putin on government buildings, police officers at every major intersection, and a widespread fear of criticizing the government.

Could this be the future of Russia?

Mr. Kadyrov’s most well-known opponent in the election is Isa Khadzhimuradov, a former mayor of Grozny. He declined my invitation to meet with him. I looked up the address of his party’s Grozny chapter — one of the “systemic opposition” groups meant to keep a veneer of democracy — and went there.

Malika Balayeva, the regional party secretary, was at her office in her day job as an employee of the education workers’ union. Mr. Khadzhimuradov, her candidate, was described as “very positive, very humble” by her.

Who will she cast her vote for?

“Of course, I will vote for Kadyrov,” she stated. “One must be truthful and understand what is best for the people.”

Nonetheless, I heard murmurs of dissatisfaction and exhaustion, as well as speculation that Mr. Khadzhimuradov could garner a sizable chunk of support despite not campaigning.

Minkail Ezhiyev, one of the few human rights observers still operating in Chechnya, was one of the people I met. Mr. Ezhiyev explained that “given certain aspects of our reality,” he couldn’t say much. He did, however, mention Russia’s unpredictability. He speculated that a million-strong protest in Moscow could have far-reaching consequences across the country.

This reminded me of Lenin’s prediction in January 1917 that a decisive uprising could take decades — the Russian Revolution began a month later — and how, well into the 1980s, the Soviet Union felt as if it could last forever.

Mr. Ezhiyev told me, “We have our own historical path, and you will never understand us.” “You will never understand Russia because it is still unable to understand itself.”

Oleg Matsnev and Alina Lobzina contributed reporting.

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As Russians Vote, Resignation, Anger and Fear of a Post-Putin Unknown