How Putin Has Changed His Country
What might Russia look like if someone other than Vladimir Putin was the country’s president? A video making the rounds on Russian social networks recently provided an answer to that question. It’s an advertisement encouraging people to take part in the upcoming presidential election on March 18.
The clip shows a man climbing into bed on the eve of the election and telling his wife that he’s not planning to vote. When he wakes up, Russia has completely changed. At the door is a black soldier who is part of an army unit seeking to conscript the man into the military. The man’s son is wearing a pioneer kerchief of the kind children wore during Soviet times. And in the kitchen is a gay man the state has sent to the family for accommodation.
The whole thing, of course, is a nightmare from which the protagonist awakens with sufficient time to rush to the ballot box after all. He has understood that Russia could fall into dangerous hands if he doesn’t act.
It has now been 18 years since Vladimir Putin was first elected president of Russia. But of all the elections in which he has been a candidate, the one scheduled for March 18 is perhaps the most absurd -- something that the video clearly illustrates. It implies that the coming vote is vital for the fate of the country, essentially making a mockery of itself. A Russia without Putin, the director of the video seems to be suggesting, can only be imagined as a joke: with blacks at the door and gay men at the kitchen table. Voters are being called on to prevent a scenario that isn’t even possible in the first place.
In hindsight, the election six years ago seems so different. A wave of protest was crashing over Moscow and St. Petersburg at the time. “Putin is a thief!” the masses chanted at large rallies.
Today, it’s hard to imagine a Russia without Putin at the helm. In the last 18 years, he has become synonymous with his country; he has become just as omnipresent and pervasive to Russians as the country’s flag. Essentially, holding an election is unnecessary, a viewpoint that Putin himself would no doubt agree with. Thus far, he has chosen to forgo anything resembling a campaign. And as if to prove that he no longer sees a difference between himself and the office he holds, he presented his campaign platform last Thursday during his annual address to the two houses of Russian parliament.
There was something in it for everyone. Putin pledged to slash poverty in half, but also promised new miracle weapons for the army, including long-range nuclear missiles that can “reach anywhere in the world.” An animated clip projected on giant screens showed the new weapons destroying their targets, presumably located in America. There was ample applause.
Vladimir Putin has been in power for almost two decades, longer even than Leonid Brezhnev, the Soviet general secretary whose tenure seemed eternal. An entire generation of Russians has grown up knowing nothing other than Putin’s Russia. And the country has changed under his guidance, both for better and for worse. It has become richer and more powerful, but also more rigid and more isolated. Russia has flexed its muscles in eastern Ukraine and Syria, but individual Russian citizens once again feel weak and vulnerable.
How has this man managed to stay in power for so long? What is it about the Putin system that makes it so enduring? And will it continue once he is no longer president? Because one thing is clear: According to the Russian constitution, he can no longer run for president in 2024.
The search for answers to such questions leads to the Russian hinterlands, where the Putin years have manifested themselves differently than in the capital and where most of the population lives. Here, it is easier to understand how Putin’s Russia works. Put simply, it’s a trade-off: The state disenfranchises its citizens, but in exchange, they are given a feeling of stability and reclaimed national pride. Don’t get in the way, says the Kremlin, give us a free hand and we will protect you from economic need and ensure that you are respected in a hostile world. Stability and national greatness: Those are the promises made by Putin’s Russia.
Kemerovo in western Siberia is a good place to begin exploring Putin’s Russia. The industrial city -- with its chessboard layout, gray snow and Stalinist architecture -- is located in Kuzbass, Russia’s largest coal-mining region. The open-pit mines begin just beyond the outskirts of the city. When explosives are detonated in the mines, tea slops out of cups inside people’s apartments nearby. High above the frozen Tom River, the city’s landmark glows red, the monument known as “The Heart of the Miner.”
But in addition to coal, there is a second resource that is exploited in Kemerovo: Votes. The region is known for its bizarre election results. In 2015, they re-elected their governor with 97 per cent of the vote, with turnout almost just as high. In the 2016 parliamentary elections, 87 per cent of eligible voters turned out to cast their ballots. In Moscow, turnout was merely 35 per cent that year, as it was in the neighbouring oblast of Novosibirsk.