Vladimir Putin sees himself in an epic struggle for Russia’s future. Before 100,000 supporters in the country’s biggest stadium on Thursday, Putin evoked the Battle of Borodino, a turning point in Napoleon’s ill-fated invasion of Russia 200 years ago this summer. At his first – and probably last – campaign rally before the March 4 presidential election, Putin called on Russians to resist the traitors in their midst: “The fight for Russia continues, and victory will be ours!”
He wasn’t referring to the four other candidates, who have no prospect of winning and are running purely for the appearance of a contest. Putin meant the “non-system opposition,” which has organized the largest anti-government demonstrations of his 12-year rule and promises to continue protesting after election day.
Putin seemed moved by the turn-out on Thursday. But if the flag-waving masses that packed Moscow’s Luzhniki Stadium are his base, then Putin has a big problem. The people who showed up aren’t members of an active citizenry voicing a political preference; they are part of Russia’s apathetic majority that with enough carrot or stick will attend just about any event. Will they come out on the street of their own volition if things get tough for Putin?
A Soviet-era joke captured the essence of the communist command economy: “They pretend to pay us, and we pretend to work.” Today that witticism need only be slightly tweaked to describe Putin’s grip on power: “They pretend to rule us, and we pretend to support them.” Thursday’s fake rally wasn’t a sign of Putin’s strength but of his weakness. The question isn’t whether he will win the election – it’s how he survives afterwards.
Originally the plan was for the pro-Putin rally to take place in central Moscow on a national holiday, Fatherland Defender’s Day. Because of concerns that a downtown demonstration would inconvenience (and enrage) motorists, the venue was moved to Luzhniki Stadium, located on a tongue of land where the Moskva River makes a “U” bend.
I exited Frunzenskaya metro station at 11:00 a.m., half an hour before the start of a planned procession up the embankment to the stadium. The side streets leading to the river were blocked off by metal barriers and burly policemen. I ran into other journalists looking for the way to the march. The cops gave us contradictory directions, and we ended up walking to the stadium and missing the march.
The sidewalks of Komsomolsky Prospekt were filled with people, some rushing to join the procession, others walking in the opposite direction toward Luzhniki. I passed an old woman holding a red heart-shaped balloon with the words “For Putin” printed on it. Many people wore scarves in the white, blue and red colors of the Russian flag.
What distinguished them from the protesters who attended the last big anti-government rally at Bolotnaya Square? Just visually, it was clearly a different demographic. Young men with black wool caps pulled down over their eyes, hands shoved into jacket pockets. Middle-aged matrons in dowdy winter coats and plastic shopping bags.
Nobody here was documenting the proceedings on their iPad. There were no homemade signs with ironic texts. People walked in groups, not as individuals. This wasn’t the grassroots protest by internet-savvy urbanites fed up with their political disenfranchisement; it was a Soviet-style mobilization of workers’ collectives on a public holiday.
I walked up Khamovnichesky Val, which once demarcated the southwestern border of Moscow. School buses and charter coaches lined the road. A dirty SUV backed into the street. It had a picture of jailed billionaire Mikhail Khodorkovsky in a side window and a sign that said “We’ll vote down Putin!”
On Komsomolsky Prospekt, I’d passed some activists handing out copies of a corruption exposé written by opposition politicians Boris Nemtsov and Vladimir Milov. State-run Channel One later reported that several people had been arrested for distributing leaflets.
I passed a company of Interior Ministry troops, huddled in their black greatcoats, felt boots and gray faux-fur caps. The temperature was around freezing, but a brisk wind and wet snow made it feel much colder.
A fellow wearing a blue visored Cossack cap passed me as I approached the Luzhniki gates. I went through one of the metal detectors and stepped onto the square leading up to the stadium. Party animators dressed as animals or village maidens coasted aimlessly over the film of brown slush that covered the pavement.
Mrs. Fox and Mr. Crocodile had no children to entertain. Everybody was going somewhere. Even though the rally in the stadium was just getting started, a surprising number of people were heading for the exit. Perhaps they’d clocked their time by showing up for the procession and now were going home?
I pressed on toward the stadium. The square was lined with tents selling hot drinks, bliny (pancakes) and pirogi (filled pies). Not only did today’s rally coincide with Fatherland Defender Day – formerly Red Army Day – but with Maslenitsa, Russian Orthodox Christians’ week of feasting before the Lenten fast. Putin’s campaign managers had co-opted both a Soviet-era holiday and a religious one.
In any country it takes a lot to get an ordinary citizen to take to the street: hunger or anger, celebration or adulation. None of those feelings were present at Luzhniki – except maybe the first. The food stands were practically empty, but a long line of men had formed in front of army field kitchens distributing free soup. I smelled papirosy, the pungent filterless cigarettes of another era.
Musicians tried their best to raise spirits dampened by the leaden sky. An old man played an accordion while elderly ladies in traditional flowered shawls swirled around him. A couple of blacksmiths were pounding out good-luck horseshoes.
Until a group of young people walked by carrying hand-painted signs reading “Putin is our president,” very little suggested that this gathering had anything to do with politics.
A huge statue of Vladimir Lenin, the founder of the Soviet Union, still watches over the approach to the stadium. Behind him hung a giant blue banner with the words: “Our vote is for Putin.” At Lenin’s feet was a stage where a Russian folk music band played.
Only when I started walking around the stadium did I appreciate the full scale of the rally. There were more food stands, and the smell of shashlyk (meat on a skewer) filled the air. Another stage had been set up for rock bands on the parking lot in front of the Dinamo ice hockey arena. A blue banner on the side of the stadium proclaimed: “We will defend our country!”
The participants in the procession along the embankment were beginning to trickle into the stadium area. They rallied under the banners of their various organizations: the illustrious Energiya rocket-construction company, the Russian Machine-Building Union or the Tula Region Association of Large Families.
A group of men walked by holding blue balloons with the words “Our vote is for Putin” on them. One of them held a hand-made sign that said “On the way with Putin.” A mournful-looking man and a young woman brought up the rear with a red banner with the words “We Vote for Putin” on it in English.
There were lots of pre-printed signs with simple statements like “Russia for Putin,” “We know Putin” and “Honestly for Putin.” Suddenly I found myself standing in a sea of flags with a photograph of Putin’s head printed next to the words “Our Candidate is Putin.” The banners flapped in the wind, twisting his face into grotesque grimaces. No organization was mentioned on the banner; there was just a black fist choking an orange viper, an unambiguous reference to Ukraine’s 2004 pro-Western Orange Revolution.
The creativity and humor of the placards displayed at the opposition’s last rally were completely absent. The Luzhniki demonstrators came with no position of their own; it had been pressed into their hands. The only sign I saw that didn’t seem mass-produced showed a picture of opposition hero Alexei Navalny wearing a red clown’s nose. The harmless text, which rhymes in Russian, could be loosely translated as “With Blogger Navalny, the Demo is a Carnival.”
The spontaneity of the opposition street protests – sparked by charges of massive vote-rigging in December’s parliamentary elections – upset the predictability of Putin’s political machine. Ever since, Putin and his spin-doctors have been on the defensive.
Moscow’s liberal opposition pulled off three unprecedented protests; the Putin campaign scraped together demonstrations of their own, with the police inevitably counting more participants at the pro-government rallies. After opposition supporters decorated their cars and drove around the Garden Ring road in a mobile protest, a previously unknown group called the Supporters of Vladimir Putin organized its own informal parade. Even the organization’s symbol – two overlapping V’s for Vladimir Vladimirovich – is a rip-off of the “V” for victory symbol used by anti-government protesters. That “W” has already been taken by a former American president must have escaped the Putin fans.
At the big opposition rally on Christmas Eve, protesters handed out white roses to participants. At Luzhniki, even the flowers were fake. A group of middle-aged women walked into the stadium clutching plastic sunflowers.
After circling the stadium, I went inside myself. As I tried to record a panoramic video of the vast arena on my camera, a policeman barked at me to clear the aisle. I sat down in the last free seat and found myself in a section occupied by workers from the GAZ car factory in Nizhny Novgorod, 400 kilometers east of Moscow.
The stadium was almost completely full and the field, which had been covered by a plywood stage, was packed with people. Only two days earlier, Moscow’s CSKA soccer club had drawn Real Madrid 1:1 on this very same ground.
Big screens showed videos of celebrities giving testimonials for Putin. Conductor Valery Gergiev was saying that Putin couldn’t leave power until he’d solved the problem of corruption.
Shortly before 1 p.m., the Russian national anthem – actually the old Soviet anthem reinstated by Putin – was played. The show could start.
First came Sergei Trofimov, a singer who in 2009 won the arts and literature award of the FSB, Russia’s secret police. He sang two songs, accompanying himself on guitar. “Long live Russia!” he called. He was wearing a green baseball cap with “Scotland” emblazoned on it.
I tried to start a conversation with the man sitting next to me, a middle-aged autoworker with a brown moustache and a matching brown fur cap. I asked if he’d come from Nizhny Novgorod that morning. Yes. A big delegation? Yes. How many buses? He smiled: “That’s a secret.”
Of course he was curious about the American scribbler who had plopped down out of nowhere. I introduced myself and told him about my blog. He wanted to know my opinion of Putin. I told him that as a journalist I enjoyed covering Putin because he was an intriguing politician. But personally I believed it was dangerous for one person – any person – to rule a country for more than ten years.
The GAZ worker begged to differ. Only Putin offers the stability that Russia needs, he insisted. And anyway, there’s no realistic alternative to him. The independent candidate, billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov, is a fresh face, I ventured. My companion wrinkled his nose. “It’s not clear who he is,” he said.
The GAZ delegation, dressed in blue company parkas, was not an expressive bunch. When the MCs – a Putin regional representative named Olga Batalina and sports announcer Dmitry Guberniyev – tried to rouse the crowd into cheers, the GAZ men stared ahead in silence. The audience response was hardly overwhelming. If soccer club Spartak scores a goal during a home match, the cheers can be heard on the other side of the Moskva River.
Singer Grigory Leps, wearing his trademark sunglasses, took the stage for two songs. He was followed by conservative TV commentator Mikhail Leontyev. Fatherland Defender Day is the most appropriate day for this demonstration, he said, recalling Putin’s rise to power amid war and economic decline. “If he hadn’t done what he did, we wouldn’t have a homeland to defend,” Leontyev said. “Our opponents are hoping for collective amnesia. They want to send us back to the time of national suicide.”
Ivan Mokhnachuk, head of the Independent Coal Miners Union, made a plea for stability. “We won’t let anybody boss us around in our own house,” he said. A global war for resources is on. Only Putin can defend Russia’s sovereignty. Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin, a Kremlin appointee who replaced Yury Luzhkov in 2010, repeated more of the same.
“We don’t want to swerve from left to right,” said test pilot Magomed Tolboyev. “We want to go straight ahead for our children.” Next came Igor Kholmanskikh, a worker at the Uralvagonzavod tank factory who told Putin on a national call-in show in December that he and his co-workers would come to Moscow if the police couldn’t handle the anti-government demonstrators. Kholmanskikh, finally in the capital, mocked the opposition as “do-nothings who are unhappy with everything in the world.”
It was 1:30. Cheers went up around the stadium as Putin arrived. Even standing up I couldn’t see him and had to rely entirely on the video screens to see what was going on below. He was wearing a black parka and paced the stage as he spoke.
Putin greeted the crowd as “friends.”
“It’s symbolic that we’ve gathered here today, on February 23, on Fatherland Defender Day, because these days we are truly the defenders of our fatherland,” he said. “We came her today to say that we love Russia and to say it in such a way that the whole country hears us.”
“Do we love Russia?” he asked.
“Da!” the stadium answered. It was an easy question.
“People like us, who share are our views, don’t number in the tens of thousands but in the tens of millions!” Putin said. “We won’t allow anybody to meddle in our internal affairs. We won’t allow anybody to impose their will on us because we have our own will!”
“We’re a people of victors. It’s in our genetic code,” he continued.
There are still many problems, he said: injustice, bribery, haughty officials, poverty and inequality.
“But I dream that every person in our country – from the big boss down to the ordinary citizen – will live by truth and conscience. That will make us a lot stronger.”
Putin called for “everyone who considers Russia their homeland” to unite and not betray Russia.
He was speaking freely and for a split second he seemed unsure what to say next.
“I ask you again, do we love Russia?” he asked. He really meant: “Do you love me?”
“I can’t embrace each of you and shake everybody’s hand, but I see everything and thank you for your support, your moral support, and each and every vote.”
The speech was over in 10 minutes. The participants headed straight for the exits, even as Batalina said the demonstration would continue and tried to lead a chant of “Putin! Putin!” It went nowhere.
Later, when I watched the evening news coverage on Channel One, I wondered whether Putin really thought he had been surrounded by die-hard supporters.
After Putin crossed Siberia in a canary-yellow Lada car in 2010, a video appeared on the internet showing that he was accompanied by a long convoy of foreign-made support vehicles, including a trailer carrying a spare Lada. His own spokesman admitted that the ancient vases Putin supposedly found while diving in the Black Sea last summer had been especially placed there. The rally in Luzhniki was hardly any different in its level of authenticity.
As I got up to leave, I asked the GAZ worker for his name. He refused. “Suddenly it’ll turn up in a newspaper,” he said wearily. At the opposition rallies, participants proudly gave their names.
There was a jam at our exit. While I waited, I talked to two young women standing next to along line of cops. They were Irina Seliverstova, 30, and her work colleague, Yevgeniya Sysoyeva, 29, both from Moscow.
I asked Seliverstova what the best thing was about Putin. She took a very long pause before finally saying “reliability.” She’d already voted for him 12 years ago when he first ran, Seliverstova said. Besides, the other candidates aren’t really against him, are they?
I asked about the corruption that appears when there isn’t a change in power for a long time. “Where isn’t there corruption?” Seliverstova asked. “I don’t see any other alternative.”
Sysoyeva volunteered that she liked Prokhorov and would consider voting for him in the next election once she’d seen him in action. I asked Seliverstova if that meant she was for an “eternal Putin.”
She laughed. “We’ll see,” she said.
The young women said they’d come on their own will, but their answers hardly sounded convincing. They were vague about where they worked and were accompanied by a middle-aged woman who hovered in the distance. Sysoyeva wore a white cap and white scarf over her black Puma jacket. When I told her that white was the color of the anti-government protests, she expressed surprised.
At the opposition protests, people lingered long past the end to savor the positive energy. Here they were rushing to get to their buses and start the long journey home.
One last time, Batalina tried to start a chant of “Russia! Russia!” The red and orange seats of the upper galleries were already visible, and the plywood stage was close to empty.
She shouted into the emptiness. There was no echo.