The Putin System How Russia's Eternal President Has Changed His Country

Russians will be going to the polls on March 18, but it is already clear who will emerge victorious. Vladimir Putin has been at the helm for almost 20 years -- both dramatically changing his country and subjugating it at the same time.



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. Deception and violence are its tools.


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 percent of the vote, with turnout almost just as high. In the 2016 parliamentary elections, 87 percent of eligible voters turned out to cast their ballots. In Moscow, turnout was merely 35 percent that year, as it was in the neighboring oblast of Novosibirsk.

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As such, regions such as Kemerovo are indispensable to the Kremlin. The votes it accumulates there compensate for a loss in popularity in large cities like Moscow and St. Petersburg, where there is less room for manipulating the results. Indeed, the vote business is similar to the coal business: The finished product is exported to where it is needed. The coal goes to China and the votes go to Moscow, where they find their way into the national statistics.

Valentina Trubitsyna and Nina Nilova walk briskly along Spring Street, energetically extending their walking poles as far as their age allows. Nordic Walking is a popular sport among pensioners in Kemerovo, thanks to the local governor, Aman Tuleyev, who distributed the poles to Veterans of Labor. Tuleyev enjoys giving things away. He has handed out children's bicycles and rubber boots, and at some point, all of the city's streetcars bore a sign reading: "Gift from Governor Aman Tuleyev."

When Valentina Trubitsyna turned 80, Tuleyev significantly increased her pension and she now receives 260 euros per month. Trubitsyna says they cried when they heard last year that Tuleyev had to have an operation. But now, she says, she once again hears his honking escort as the governor heads to work in the morning. "Then we know: Papa is coming."

'Us Grandmothers Only Vote for Putin'

Tuleyev is a miniature version of the role Putin seeks to play on the national stage: the father of the nation who rescued his people from the misery of the 1990s. He pacified the Kuzbass, which had been beset by mining strikes and mafia wars. He is now 73 years old and his greatest deeds lie in the past, but as long as Tuleyev ensures tranquility and delivers the votes to Moscow, the Kremlin is satisfied. Trubitsyna and Nilova also plan to vote on March 18. Might they opt for the candidate for the Communist Party, which has traditionally been seen as a pensioner's movement?

"No, Putin. Only Putin. Us grandmothers only vote for Putin!" they say, talking over each other. Although, Nilova relates, she does know a few women who support Ksenia Sobchak, the liberal candidate, because they know her from TV shows. "But then we threatened them with these sticks here," says Trubitsyna, raising her hand energetically.


"Authoritarianism from below," is how some people refer to the model in an effort to justify it. In fact, the authoritarianism does come from above. But this is only felt by those who push the envelope, something that hardly anyone here does. Even the Kremlin-loyal opposition is weak. The Communists didn't even make it into the regional parliament, despite the many working class voters in this mining region.

So, Kemerovo residents were very surprised when politics suddenly reared its head in the city in 2017. The occasion was a visit by opposition politician Alexei Navalny. He was the only one to make an appearance, just as he has been the only one in Russia to lead an election campaign worthy of the name. Navalny is a novelty in Russian politics: He refuses to bow to the Kremlin's unwritten rules.

In November, Navalny spoke at a rally that was -- to the astonishment of the Kemerovo populace -- attended by hundreds of people. City officials had only issued a permit for the rally to be held at the edge of the city and then closed down the bus lines heading to the site. "How did you even get here?" was the first thing Navalny said. The crowd laughed in the protective darkness.

It was a typical Navalny appearance: less of a speech than a dialogue. He asked a series of questions: How much do you earn? How much do you have to pay for heating and water? Where does all the money from Kuzbass end up? Is that what you want? Navalny is a charismatic populist. He can get a crowd behind him quicker than anyone else in Russia. And he is a quick study. He now links his favorite issue -- the corruption of Putin's elite -- with the growing economic misery in the country.

But then, Navalny returned to distant Moscow and his supporters in Kemerovo had to continue without him. His team is housed in an office building in the city center, with young people constantly dropping by to pick up fliers.

Cheerful Rage

Ksenia Pakhomova heads up Navalny's team in the city. She was a law student when the opposition leader's YouTube video about the numerous villas belonging to Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev caused such a ruckus. "It was as if something had clicked in my head," she says. She saw Navalny for herself when he opened the Kemerovo office in March 2017, and, by August, she was leading it. It became a turning point in her life and in the lives of those close to her. Ksenia's mother lost her job and even her grandmother received a visit from the police. Ksenia herself has been arrested several times and her living quarters searched. She talks about the repression with a kind of cheerful rage.

It was more difficult for her mother. She had spent 26 years working in a state art school, but now makes due as a sales assistant. Natalia Pakhomova tells her story while sitting next to her daughter and she sounds as though she still couldn't believe what has happened to her. It is the story of an awakening.

The year 2017 began with Natalia giving her daughter a Putin calendar, not realizing that Ksenia was on the verge of working for Navalny. Indeed, she didn't even know who Navalny was. She was a typical teacher, a "part of the system," as she says today. For elections, she and her students would organize "concert brigades" in order to "create atmosphere," as it was called. But she didn't have the feeling that she was being denied freedom.

In hindsight, she sees things differently. "Politics forced its way into the school," she says. She was told to force her daughter to come to her senses. Then she was fired as school director. In tears, colleagues sought to justify themselves for having remained silent while others severed all contact. Her best friend didn't abandon her, but she began taking the battery out of her mobile phone whenever she met with Natalia. Of course, Natalia always knew that the opposition was suppressed, she says. "But I didn't care. I was for Putin. I was so ... amorphous," she says.

"You were apolitical," Ksenia corrects her severely. "A perfect citizen of this country."

Now, though, both of them have become politically active, even if they disagree on some issues.

"Putin is an aging man who missed the opportunity to resign in dignity. I'm sorry," says Natalia.

"Putin is an octopus who has gripped Russia tightly in his tentacles. We have to tear him off," says Ksenia.


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