"A strong president means a strong Russia!". (c) Andrey Pronin/Zuma Press/PA Images. All rights reserved.In Syktyvkar, the capital of Komi in northwestern Russia, there is a junction where October Avenue crosses Pecherskaya Street. It’s a busy spot: the locals drive 14km along this, the longest avenue in Europe, to the outlying district of Ezhva and their jobs at one of Russia’s largest timber processing complexes. Here, there’s a large billboard at the junction, from which a portrait of Vladimir Putin observes the comings and goings of the city’s residents and visitors. The message on it reads: “A strong president means a strong Russia”. Putin’s face radiates confidence and calm. A police car sits next to the hoarding, alternating from time to time with an ordinary car and driver in plain clothes.
Putin’s image has been under police protection since the beginning of February. The first person to comment on it was Tatyana Ivanova, a local blogger and civil society activist, who pointed out that the president was especially privileged: billboards showing other presidential candidates attracted no such official attention. This situation was confirmed by Nikolay Bratenkov, a member of Komi’s oldest environmental organisation, the Committee to Save the Pechora River. In fact, anyone driving or walking past Putin’s picture can see the car and its occupant. One police officer even admitted to the bloggers that he was parked at the junction specially to guard the hoarding.
What were the people who ordered the guard afraid of?
The most famous incident connected with the defacing of a billboard took place in Syktyvkar in 2010, when civil rights activists Ernest Mesak and Igor Sazhin threw tomato ketchup at a portrait of Joseph Stalin. Putin, of course, isn’t Stalin (although the veneration of both is in full swing in Russia), and this incident happened eight years ago. But Mesak and Sazhin are still around, still engaged in campaigning for civil rights and possibly messing with people’s heads, while ketchup is still available in the shops.
Every city has its seamy side, its industrial estates and back streets, and there you can read all sorts of things about Putin
But perhaps it’s not just those two who could cause trouble. Every city has its rough side, its back streets and industrial estates, and you can read all sorts of things about Putin there. On October Avenue itself, for example, graffiti on a concrete fence around a railway siding and market area reads “But Putin’s dead” for anyone walking or driving into the city centre to see. And if you live in the housing estate on Morozov Street and take a short cut, along a short road flanked by garages, to your nearest shopping centre on the highway, you can read a lot of interesting stuff. There is, for example, an inscription reading: “Lame duck Putin, limp off into the sunset. It’s Putin’s last summer!” Or another: “Putin loves the Chechens and Yanks and hates the Russian people”. Or, even blunter: “Putin does everything to harm the Russian people”.
For the moment, the scrawls are confined to garage walls, but tomorrow they might migrate to the billboard. No one knows what the people who decided to guard Putin’s image were afraid of – that the local sorcerers might put a spell on the president by defacing his portrait? Or, more likely, that a blob of ketchup on his smooth presidential face might spoil his saintly image?
“Putin, lame duck, limp into retirement. The last summer of Putin”. Photo courtesy of the author.In other words, things are hotting up in the city. Even an ordinary taxi driver might turn out to be an anti-government agitator. If you ask him, for example, about the protest about boycotting the presidential election, he’ll tell you that protesting is useless: “There’s no point in voting: Putin will be elected anyway. And who else is there to vote for? Apart from Sergey Baburin, perhaps.”
The taxi driver knows that Boris Yeltsin was a stooge of the USA and handed power over to Putin also at the behest of the Americans. But if Alexey Navalny should ever become president, the US will still win out because he’s their stooge as well.
It seems as though the closer we get to the spring, the deeper the paranoia behind the pre-election apathy goes. You’d have thought that passions should be running high in the battle for votes, but nobody seems to give a damn. Milk cartons have election reminders printed on them. The section leaders at one of the local university hostels have promised their students that the section with most votes cast will get a pack of detergent as a reward. Buses are plastered with exhortations to come and vote (“Otherwise, they’ll do it for you”).
There is no risk that Putin will lose the election, however low the turnout. But there is a risk that the symbolic majority is going to lose faith in the president
A few years ago, the opposition used a similar slogan, implying possible machinations with unused ballot papers going to the current leader or party in power. Now, when it’s part of an official election campaign, it’s unclear who might want to fiddle the vote, and in whose favour. You might just imagine that, while honest folk are sitting at home in front of their TV, hordes of their fellow citizens, recruited by the US State Department, will be flocking to the polling stations to vote …for whom? For Ksenia Sobchak, Grigory Yavlinsky or, heaven help us, Sergey Baburin? And then the country will wake up the next morning and a new president will pack off anyone under pension age off into military service and send gays to share the flats of simple Orthodox families, as a viral video clip claims.26 February: this video shows a police officer writing "Putin" on the side of a fence in Syktyvkar, Komi.
But where are the ordinary voters who seriously believe that if they don’t vote, someone with crazy ideas will seize power? The video may have gone viral but is there any guarantee that it will have any effect on voting numbers? It’s so crude that it reeks of desperation.
Even these media flurries don’t change the fact that, in general, we’re talking about a presidential election campaign that is extremely depressing and lacking in inspiration. The reason is simple: the people who are charged with getting the voters to the polling stations are also ordinary citizens affected by the same pre-election apathy. The presidential election is being promoted as the event of the year, but the media and the public have been more interested in a story about yachts and a billionaire, a politician and “girls with a reduced level of social responsibility”.
Of course, voter turnout will have no effect on the Russian president’s legitimacy – it can’t go any lower. But public sector workers (who usually vote for whoever is in power already) will still be obligatorily bussed to polling stations. In other words, there is no risk that Putin will lose the election, however low the turnout. But there is a risk that the symbolic majority is going to lose faith in the president, and if the time comes when there is a need to relieve the president of his legitimacy, his election campaign will be a good place to start looking for evidence. But this is unlikely to have anything to do with the turnout: according to the Sobesednik newspaper, the cost of the billboards themselves went way over the legal limits on election expenses.