This is part one of SPIEGEL's story on the upcoming Russian presidential election. Part twocan be found here.
The man who wants to send Vladimir Putin into retirement enjoys changing roles. Sometimes he is Boris Akunin, Russia's top-selling author of crime fiction. When he wants to write from a woman's perspective, he calls himself Anna Borisova. Finally, when he wants to be perceived as a nationalist, he uses the pen name Anatoly Brusnikin.
Akunin has been the leader of the Russian opposition for several weeks now. But this no longer has anything to do with fiction. In fact, he takes his new role in politics very seriously indeed. And it's a role that could change Russia.
Akunin has been one of the main speakers at the Moscow demonstrations against fraud in Russia's recent parliamentary elections. And among the hundreds of thousands who have been calling for the resignation of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin for weeks now, no one is more popular than Akunin.
This Sunday, Akunin and his fellow Russians will go to the polls once again, but this time they will be voting for the much more important office of the president. Putin has set the course for his return to the Kremlin, where he intends to assume the presidency for the third time.
'He Should Hand Over the Reins'
But now the unthinkable has happened: A portion of the population, including Akunin, is no longer playing along. Akunin is now an ordinary citizen, Grigory Shalvovich Chkhartishvili, his real name. But everyone still calls him Akunin.
"Putin has lost his country," says Akunin. "I don't wish upon him the fate of (former Libyan dictator) Moammar Gadhafi, but he should hand over the reins to a successor. As an historian, I know that authoritarian systems fail when the divide between the rulers and the ruled becomes too large."
The classics of world literature are lined up on the bookshelf in Akunin's study, and the large windows of his country house offer a sweeping view of the snow-covered fir trees in the garden. It is a quiet place, but the silence seems almost unreal, given what is happening only 30 kilometers (20 miles) to the east in Moscow, and in the rest of the country.
The world out there has been turned upside down, with tens of thousands taking part in protests against Putin, who is sometimes referred to by his nickname, Vova. "Vova, you're fired" and "Russia -- that's us," the Kremlin opponents chant. Debates over a change of government are raging on the Internet. The Kremlin, determined to secure victory for the premier on Sunday in the first round of voting, mobilized 130,000 supporters last week.
Awakening from a Sleep
Has the spirit of the Arab rebellion reached Russia? Only three months ago, it seemed all but guaranteed that the 59-year-old Putin, who has served as either president or prime minister for the last 12 years, would move into the Kremlin for another 12 years. But now the end of an era is suddenly in sight.
It's almost as if the giant country was awakening from a deep sleep, the walls around the Kremlin were crumbling and the taboos of the Putin era were being shattered. Liberals, nationalists and communists are united in their hatred for the eternal Kremlin leader. There is talk of new elections, a coalition government and the release of political prisoners.
"If Putin doesn't come around and change things, it will end in the public squares of the cities," warns former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. And billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov, who is also running for president, says: "What is happening in Russia is a catastrophe."
When Putin announced his planned return to the Kremlin last fall, Akunin and his wife thought of emigrating. "We had lost hope that people would wake up from their apathy. No one expected this upheaval."
Fear of Turmoil
But now it is becoming clear that a rift runs through Russian society. The country is divided. On the one side are those who support Putin because they fear a new period of turmoil, like in the 1990s after Gorbachev's resignation, or in 1917, after the abdication of Czar Nicholas II. On the other are those who are now marching through Moscow's streets, shouting: "We are not the opposition, we are your employers. Putin, get out!" Neither of the two camps is pulling any punches.
Moscow is the "last bulwark against a new global empire of evil," pro-Kremlin speakers tell their audiences, as they accuse the Americans of trying to subjugate Russia after supposedly having done the same to Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya. The protesters, they say, are Washington's henchmen.
The respected film director Stanislav Govorukhin, Putin's campaign manager, compares current events to the days of the czars in terms of their dramatic impact: "They assassinated reformist Prime Minister (Pyotr) Stolypin in 1911, just as Russia was on the verge of becoming a leading industrial power." A similar scenario is repeating itself today, he claims.
There it is again, the fear of revolution and civil war, deliberately stoked by the Kremlin. At a recent rally, the editor-in-chief of the nationalist newspaper Zavtra likened the color of the Orange Revolution, which swept away the authoritarian regime in Ukraine seven years ago in the aftermath of a rigged election, to "the color of dog piss in the snow." If Putin were toppled and the protesters moved into the Kremlin, he added, the country could face a struggle pitting everyone against everyone, and orange would turn into the "red of blood."
"Putin is worse than Hitler," the liberals say in response. Alexey Navalny, an anti-corruption activist and nationalist, has said that he will "bite through the throats" of the people at the Kremlin.
Why is such a political virtuoso as Putin suddenly losing control of the country? What mistakes has he made? Is he serious about the promises he is now making on a daily basis, and will he emerge from the election as a reformer? Or is what Akunin says true, namely, that Putin "still doesn't understand what's going on"?
Assuming he does manage to get reelected on March 4, how legitimate is this election, and what fate can Russia expect: revolution or restoration? And how much support does Putin still have in the provinces? In December, voters also rebuffed the Kremlin in cities like Yekaterinburg, Yaroslavl, Orenburg and Volgograd.
In recent weeks, SPIEGEL journalists have been traveling around this enormous country in an effort to discover why the world of Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin is coming apart at the seams. They visited such far-flung places as the Pacific port city of Vladivostok, the Black Sea region surrounding Krasnodar, the Siberian capital Novosibirsk and the rural hinterlands of the Republic of Mordovia.
Atyashevo, Republic of Mordovia
The sun is dipping below the horizon past the snow-covered fields of Atyashevo, a village of 6,000 people. For Anna Baburova, 48, the early shift is just ending. It was a good day at the Atyashevsky meat factory, where they produced close to 70 tons of sausage today.
Baburova is standing at the cutter. The blades are mincing and combining pork and beef with back bacon, before the mixture is pressed into sausage casings and made into "Yevropeiskaya" or smoked "Braunschweigskaya."
"We used to go to Moscow to get our sausage, but now we bring it there," says Baburova. Therein lies the secret of Atyashevo.
The village of Atyashevo is in the Republic of Mordovia, which is a little smaller than Belgium. It can be reached on the night train from Moscow that travels to the Volga region. Of the population of about 800,000, one in three are members of the Mordvin people, who speak either the Erzya or Moksha language. In the past, the republic was only known to those who had been imprisoned in one of the many penal camps in the midst of the dense Mordvinian forests.
Over 90 Percent of the Vote
In recent years, Mordovia has attracted attention as the only republic outside the Caucasus in which the Kremlin can expect to capture more than 90 percent of the vote.
In December's parliamentary elections, Putin's United Russia party garnered 91.62 percent of the vote in Mordovia. The number was even higher in the Atyashevo administrative district, 80 kilometers (50 miles) from the provincial capital Saransk, where 16,998 votes, or 99.83 percent of the vote, were cast for United Russia. Twenty-five people voted for the communists, while none of the remaining five parties received a single vote.
It was an eerie event, at least by European standards. Is election fraud more efficient in Mordovia than elsewhere in Russia? Or are the numbers real? Is this possible in a republic where the average monthly income, despite the relative proximity to Moscow, is only about €300 ($402)?
"We are very practical people here," says Raissa Kusnezova, a 55-year-old woman with black hair who runs Atyashevo's village and district paper, Vperyod, or "Forward." There are historical reasons for the phenomenon, says Kusnezova.
A Man of Action
In the 1980s, the roads around Atyashevo were not even paved. The only way to get from the village where she was born to Atyashevo, 30 kilometers away, says Kusnezova, was on foot -- unless you got a ride on a tractor.
Chaos erupted in Mordovia after the demise of the Soviet Union. All industry in the region collapsed, with the exception of the light-bulb factory in Saransk, and the village only had power for several hours at a time. The local democrats with the party of then-President Boris Yeltsin were heavily involved in profiteering and battles for the control of local business, and a series of murders shocked the region. "Even the communists couldn't show us a way out of that shit," Kusnezova says bluntly.
But then Nikolay Merkushkin arrived. Merkushkin, a man of action, is in his fourth term as head of the republic -- the Putin of Mordovia, if you will.
He has jump-started local industry, brought natural gas to the villages and revived agriculture in the region. Farmers now have access to low-interest loans, thanks to the money the president has brought to the republic from Moscow. Putin has visited Mordovia five times already. In the past, senior government officials never visited the region.
Motivated by Gratitude
What is expected in return seems at first glance to be merely symbolic. The United Russia logo is featured prominently on 10 new indoor ice rinks that were built in the republic, almost as if the ruling party or Putin had paid for the rinks directly. An "ice palace" was also erected in Atyashevo, just in time for the election in December, at a cost of 178 million rubles (€4.5 million, or $6.1 million). President Merkushkin himself attended the dedication ceremony.
"Isn't it true," he asked the villagers, "that you wouldn't have dreamed of this 10 years ago?" And, he added, those who hoped for a continued stable life for their children and grandchildren, and those who wanted housing, roads and hospitals to be built, should think carefully when they cast their votes. Anyone interested in these benefits, he pointed out, couldn't possibly be rooting for the opposition, the people now demonstrating in Moscow, or for the communists, a party consisting only of "former criminals."
Raissa Kusnezova takes the president's words at face value. "Those people in Moscow have a screw loose," she says. Yes, she admits, the transfer of power from Medvedev to Putin was "unusual," but, she adds: "How would we benefit from a different candidate? We aren't voting blindly, but we do know whom we owe the progress here to. We believe Putin."
The voters of Atyashevo are motivated by gratitude. Local residents need only think of the natural gas that is now piped into their homes, or the stadium being built in Saransk for the 2018 World Cup, allegedly thanks to United Russia, when they decide which box to check on their election ballots.
Anna Baburova is also filled with gratitude. In 1998, the meat factory in Atyashevo was almost bankrupt, but today it has machines imported from Germany. And each of the 870 employees takes home roughly 20,000 rubles, or €500, a month. "I wouldn't have this job without Putin," says Baburova. "I've never been interested in politics. I have a house, 1,500 square meters of land and only one goal: to raise my two daughters."
Recipe for Success
Mordovia is what is left of the red empire, a miniature Soviet Union, say Muscovites. In truth, it is a province where the Putin system can be seen in its purest form: The state guarantees the basic needs of the people, as long as they don't meddle in politics. It works well in places where people are not very affluent.
For Putin, this has been a recipe for success. After the turmoil of perestroika and the Yeltsin era, he brought an economic upturn, subjugated the Chechens, freed the bankrupt state of its debts and increased incomes. There was only one problem with the success he was able to celebrate: It carried the seeds of renewed decline. Today, political scientist Nikolai Slobin describes Putin's second term as president, which began in 2004, as well as the years after that, as "lost years."
The democratic institutions Yeltsin established still exist, formally at least. But they have been hollowed out. Censorship, a rubber-stamp parliament, an arbitrary judiciary, the strict centralization of power and a disproportionate role for the intelligence services and the government bureaucracy -- all of this is the Putin system. The state, and not the citizens, remains the measure of all things.
How that system works only becomes apparent at second glance. The economic results don't seem half-bad, even today. The Russian economy grew by 4.3 percent last year. But it's a deceiving figure, given the country's continuing deindustrialization. The companies controlled by the government, from which politicians derive significant financial benefits, stifle entrepreneurial spirit and competition. Russia hasn't come up with a new car model or modern aircraft for mass production in decades. The country depends on the sale of oil and gas, says former Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin, who was let go in the fall. If the oil price collapsed, he adds, Russia would face the prospect of admitting complete failure.
It is also part of the reality in present-day Russia that funds of $84 billion were moved abroad last year, and that the overwhelming majority of the population has remained poor under Putin. And that the new urban middle class is now realizing it has no way of effectively participating in the political process -- and is protesting as a result. According to the Lewada polling firm, fully half of the members of this urban middle class are now moving their assets out of Russia.
Putin has no vision to change these things, and politics has become a sham under his leadership. "The Russia that exists in his mind no longer has anything to do with the real country," says Slobin.
The Village of Sennoy, on the Black Sea Coast
The residents of Sennoy were treated to a firsthand look at how Putin prefers to portray himself. Sennoy is on the shores of Tamansk Bay, where Anatoly Dominski is now standing. He is looking out at the Black Sea, with his back to a metal shed owned by a local fishery. "He performed his show on the beach over there," he says.
The show Dominski mentions marked the beginning of Putin's decline, on Aug. 10, 2011.
Dominski used to be a sailor. Today the 60-year-old runs a guesthouse in Sennoy, a vacation spot 300 kilometers northwest of Sochi, the host city of the 2014 Winter Olympics. Some of his guests are archeologists who are excavating an ancient Greek settlement in the area.
The Crimean Peninsula, in Ukraine, is visible on the opposite shore. Catherine the Great came to the Crimea 225 years ago, traveling in a splendid carriage and with a large entourage, to inspect the newly conquered region. According to legend, the commander-in-chief of her military had hollow facades of attractive villages built along the side of the road, hoping to impress the German woman on the czarist throne. His name was Count Potemkin.
Poking Fun at Putin
Putin used a similar approach last August, when he used the Black Sea coast as a backdrop for one of his appearances. Sennoy was in a state of high alert even before his arrival. Soldiers scoured courtyards with metal detectors and mowed the tall reeds along the shore, as Dominski recalls. The mayor ordered paint distributed to residents so that they could paint their fences, and the archeologists were sent on vacation.
Suddenly there were composting toilets and showers on the beach. When Putin arrived, dressed in diving gear, he promptly dove into the Black Sea. When he re-emerged, he had two amphoras in his hands, allegedly dating back to the 6th century. The government newspaper Rossiyskaya Gazeta celebrated the event as a "find of historical proportions."
The event was indeed historic, but not in the way Putin's PR advisers had envisioned. The Internet was suddenly filled with malicious comments, as the Russians poked fun at Putin's exceedingly clumsy show. Some referred to the two amphoras, supposedly 1,500 years old, as Ikea vases, because of the way they had glittered brightly in the sunlight, and were devoid of any patina or mussels, when Putin pulled them out of the sea. The hundreds of archeologists who have been searching the region since 1936 must have overlooked the treasures, which Putin had managed to extract from a depth of only 2 meters.
Even Putin's press spokesman later admitted sheepishly that the amphoras had nothing to do with antiquity. It fact, it was a subterfuge worthy of Count Potemkin.
'Sent by God'
Putin's penchant for portraying himself in a positive light in the media worked for years, as he managed to pull the wool over the eyes of most Russians with similar images: playing ice hockey, sitting at the piano or hunting a tiger in the Russian Far East. Vladislav Surkov, the Kremlin's former chief ideologue, once claimed that Putin was "sent by God," while acting legend Mikhail Boyarsky called him the "No. 1 man on Earth, the very basis for the solution of all the problems on our planet."
But Putin's diving expedition on the beach at Sennoy turned out to be too much of a good thing, and the public mood began to turn against him. For the Kremlin, it should have been a sign that the old strategies were no longer working. An authoritarian leader who becomes ridiculous loses both his appeal and his ability to intimidate. Russians began making fun of Putin.
Sennoy was only the beginning. The change of mood was amplified in September, when Putin admitted that he and Medvedev had agreed on his return to the Kremlin "a long time ago." At that point it became clear how this man thinks, and that he doesn't even notice that he is in fact distancing himself from the people.
The rigged parliamentary elections were the last straw.
Purge of the Party
All of Russia, the regime and the opposition alike, was surprised by the vehemence of the unrest that began in December. At first, the Kremlin had no unified, official response. Kremlin ideologue Surkov characterized the protesters as the "better part of society." In contrast, Prime Minister Putin called them "banderlogi," or lawless monkeys -- an expression taken from British author Rudyard Kipling's "The Jungle Book." The remark was cynical and not politically astute, and it only added fuel to the fire. Surkov was removed from the Kremlin, and then the sharper knives were brought out.
Prosecutor General Yury Chaika claimed that the demonstrations were being funded by "sources outside Russia's borders," and he complained that the Internet was spreading "extremist sentiments." Soon a cleansing of the government party began.
The governors of Vologda, Arkhangelsk and Volgograd resigned, as did the mayors of three major cities, Krasnoyarsk, Ulyanovsk and Pskov. Their counterparts in three other cities, Oryol, Bryansk and Omsk in Siberia were ejected from the party, and further dismissals are expected in seven other provinces.
The move was intended to make scapegoats of governors and mayors of regions and cities where the election results for Putin's party were as much as 20 percent lower than the -- already poor -- national average. In other words, the Kremlin did not use the debacle as an opportunity to enter into a dialogue with disaffected voters but, rather, to punish those who had failed to deliver the desired outcome.
If the Kremlin had seriously analyzed how the disastrous numbers came about, it would have had to dismiss completely different government officials -- such as the governor of Vladivostok, for example.
Part two of the story will be published on Friday.