A woman walks her child along the promenade of a reservoir in Voronezh, a city often regarded as the epitome of provincial boredom in Russian popular culture, Sept. 2, 2021. In reality, Voronezh is a testament to the Kremlin’s ambitious urban renewal program, which is refashioning drab cities with fresh parks, modern playgrounds, bike lanes and walkable streets.M
Image: Sergey Ponomarev/The New York Times
URMANSK, Russia — She walked into the cafe wearing a face mask that read, “I’m not afraid, and don’t you be afraid.” A man in a leather jacket followed her in, looked at her as she sat down next to me, then disappeared. Another man, in a vest and gray cap, waited outside.
He trailed us as we walked out.
I was interviewing Violetta Grudina, an activist in the Russian Arctic city of Murmansk who is allied with imprisoned opposition leader Alexei Navalny. She was still recovering from a hunger strike. Now under relentless surveillance, she confessed to a creeping, numbing desperation.
“We are all in a trap — trapped by one tyrant,” Grudina said. “This stupor that comes from giving everything you possibly can, but nothing changes — it is hard.”
Russia is a country in which nothing changes until everything changes. Ahead of the national parliamentary elections this weekend, President Vladimir Putin’s rule has reached a new apogee of authoritarianism, coated in a patina of comfortable stability. To many, Putin remains a hero, especially for his assertive foreign policy, while those who oppose him are retreating, as they put it, into their own oases or parallel worlds.
From Aug. 24 to Sept. 7, photographer Sergey Ponomarev and I crossed Russia from north to south — traveling 3,000 miles from the Arctic to the Caucasus republic of Chechnya — to explore why Putin, after 20 years in power, has been able to maintain his grip on a sprawling country.
Five nights on sleeper trains took us along a uniquely Russian campaign trail, cutting a longitudinal slice through the country’s vastness. In Murmansk, the absurd lengths apparently meant to keep Grudina off the ballot included forced hospitalization in a coronavirus ward. In Chechnya, the challengers to the region’s strongman ruler seemed to be trying to get as few votes as possible.
“People can’t say, ‘Let someone else take over,’” Artyom Kiryanov, a candidate for Putin’s United Russia party, told me on the shores of Lake Valdai in central Russia. “There is no such alternative, at all.”
This weekend, a victory for United Russia looks assured, though a sizable protest vote is a possibility despite the tightly stage-managed nature of the election. A guiding emotion we encountered was people’s fear — of being punished for dissent, of losing what they had, of the ghosts of poverty and war. We met many people fed up with official corruption, stagnant pay, low pensions and rising prices, but far fewer who were prepared to face a post-Putin unknown.
“I fear that if things start to change,” an engineer in the southern city of Voronezh, Vitaly Tokarenko, said, “there will be blood.”
The trip also turned into a firsthand experience with the expanding Russian surveillance state. In Murmansk, the man in the vest and gray cap followed us across the street and to the doors of our hotel. When Grudina left half an hour later after a photo shoot, he did not follow.
“He’s probably waiting for you,” she texted me.
Solovki: creating an ‘oasis’
An overnight train south and a ferry took us across the Arctic Circle, to the Solovetsky archipelago in the White Sea. Its sublime, glacially formed hills are home to one of the most revered and most expensively refurbished monasteries of the Russian Orthodox Church, a central pillar of support for Putin.
So it was remarkable to meet Oleg Kodola, 52, a tourism agent based just outside the monastery who insisted that “taking any action that supports this government is very bad.” He said he would vote for the Communists, the best hope he saw of reducing United Russia’s sway.
Rather than wait for the state to fix the road in front of his restaurant and remove the hulks of boats from the dock area he uses, he plans to do it himself. It was a vivid instance of a nationwide phenomenon — dissidents retreating into their own worlds.
“We plan to create an oasis here,” he said, “to show that where there is no state, everything is fine.”
A sinister side of the Solovetsky Islands, or Solovki, shows where political repression can lead. The recent reconstruction of the islands mainly focuses on their spiritual past. But the early Soviets built a sprawling prison camp here, a forerunner of what became the Gulag.
On a tour for pilgrims, the guide said little about that history.
Valdai: Power to the privileged
Further south, the trees get taller, the population denser. But halfway between St. Petersburg and Moscow, on pristine Lake Valdai’s lush green shore, it is still possible to encounter perfect stillness.
It is occasionally interrupted by the whir of helicopters. Putin likes to come here, as do more and more people close to him. Tatyana Makarova can tell because of the enormous compounds that have gone up in and around her village, Yashcherovo, nearly cutting off the villagers’ access to the lake. The compounds have sculptures of eagles and roaring bears at their gates, their own churches on their grounds and imposing walls topped with razor wire.
Makarova, who is 48 and owns a small cleaning company, has led the charge against the new construction, pitting her and her neighbors against some of Russia’s most powerful men. Her story showed how Russians, rather than trying to bring down Putin, are finding small ways to shape the system he helms.
“Our work consists of causing problems all the time,” she said. “Then they hear us.”
She and her neighbors have recorded YouTube videos, filed official complaints and gone to the news media to show how the new mansions encroach upon the lakeshore, in apparent violation of its status as a national park. Past the prickly shrubs that she said had been planted to keep villagers away from the lake, she took us to a small beach that she said her group’s activism had successfully liberated for public use.
Voronezh: An eco-hipster aesthetic
Another reason Putin’s power has held up is that the lives of many Russians have genuinely improved. We passed Moscow’s bright lights and woke up in Voronezh, a city of 1 million people that often evokes provincial boredom in Russian popular culture.
In reality, Voronezh is a testament to the Kremlin’s ambitious urban renewal program. It is refashioning drab cities with fresh parks, modern playgrounds, bike lanes and walkable streets. Government officials are still seen as corrupt. So it is notable that at least some of the country’s wealth is trickling down.
“I always thought, ‘Go ahead and steal, but just do something for us, too,’” said Yulia Lisina, a 45-year-old teacher I met in Voronezh. “Because in the ’90s, it felt like all they did was steal.”
A soon-to-be-reopened park, Orlyonok, features a wood-paneled structure curving past the trees with a walkway on top, a food court inside and space for an outdoor movie screen in the back. Political analysts see the superficial eco-hipster aesthetic of these renovations as a way to placate a young, Westward-looking middle class that otherwise could be primed to protest. Voronezh officials said that they wanted to replicate the feel of Western European cities in urban planning — but that politics was a separate matter.
“Democracy is something you need to learn,” said Andrei Markov, a United Russia lawmaker running for reelection here. “We’ve only been learning for 30 years.”
Rostov: ‘Putin is everything’
But some semblance of democracy still exists in Russia, and the Kremlin needs votes. To meet United Russia’s most promising pool of new voters, I got off the train 300 miles south of Voronezh and took a cab toward the border with Ukraine.
In the coal-mining town of Novoshakhtinsk, by the air-hockey tables on the second floor of a shopping center, I found a small crowd of people waiting for a government office to open. At least five of them were residents of the Kremlin-backed separatist territories on the Ukrainian side of the border, and they were newly minted Russian citizens.
They were here to set up online government-service accounts that would, among other things, allow them to vote remotely in the election.
“I’m for United Russia,” one of them said, a 45-year-old woman who gave only her first name, Natalia. “Putin is everything to me.”
Putin last year simplified access to Russian citizenship for people living on separatist territory in Ukraine, and has essentially handed out hundreds of thousands of passports to tighten Russia’s hold. United Russia’s best-known candidate in the area is Alexander Borodai — the first “prime minister” of the so-called Donetsk People’s Republic after war broke out in 2014 — whose job seems to be to fill out the party’s nationalist wing.
“We must expect war and prepare for it,” Borodai said last week, warning of looming conflict with the United States.
It was Putin’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 that sent his approval ratings skyrocketing. Recently, domestic concerns like an increased retirement age have taken center stage, and Putin’s ratings have fallen to about 60%. But some prominent Russians say they want to see Putin take an even harder line, at home and abroad.
An associate of Borodai, Timur Okkert, agreed to meet even though he said I represented an “enemy publication.” He introduced me to another naturalized Russian citizen: Alexander Gaydey, a notorious former rebel commander in Ukraine who complained that Russia was not tough enough on its domestic opposition.
If an anti-Kremlin uprising starts, Gaydey pledged over a Coke, “I’ll be the first to come crush it. I will crush it hard.”
Chechnya: The power of money
One last overnight train ride brought me to the perfectly trimmed hedges of Putin Avenue in the Chechen capital, Grozny. There were shops with exposed brick walls and faux American license plates, and cafes with names like Soren and signs like “We Have Filter,” which is to say, coffee. There were also huge portraits of Putin on government buildings, police officers at every significant intersection and a pervasive fear of criticizing the government.
Could this be Russia’s future?
Chechnya is a testament to the power of money and of memory in priming people to accept strongman rule. Less than two decades ago, Grozny was in ruins, devastated by the most destructive bombing campaign in Europe since World War II. Chechnya’s Kremlin-funded ruler, Ramzan Kadyrov, is up for reelection this year. Last time around, he got 98% of the vote with 95% turnout. That is similar to the results that Chechnya regularly delivers for Putin and United Russia.
Kadyrov’s best-known opponent in the election is a former mayor of Grozny, Isa Khadzhimuradov. He declined to meet with me. I looked up the address of the Grozny chapter of his party — one of the “systemic opposition” groups meant to maintain a veneer of democracy — and dropped by.
I found the regional party secretary, Malika Balayeva, who is 75, at her office in her day job as an employee of the education workers union. She described her candidate, Khadzhimuradov, as “very positive, very humble.”
Who will she vote for?
“I will vote for Kadyrov, of course,” she said. “One must be honest and know what is best for the people.”
Still, I heard whispers of discontent and fatigue, even speculation that Khadzhimuradov could draw a sizable chunk of support despite not campaigning.
I met one of the few human rights observers still operating in Chechnya, Minkail Ezhiyev. There was much he could not say, Ezhiyev said, “given certain aspects of our reality.” But he noted that Russia was endlessly unpredictable. A sudden protest of 1 million strong in Moscow, he ventured, could have consequences that would be felt across the country.
This reminded me that I had heard repeatedly in recent weeks about Lenin’s prediction in January 1917 that a decisive uprising could still be decades away — the Russian Revolution began a month later — and how, well into the 1980s, the Soviet Union felt as if it could last forever.
“We have our own historical path, and you will never understand us,” Ezhiyev told me. “You will never understand Russia, because it still doesn’t understand itself.”
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