Dispatch

Heroes of Their Time

In Russia’s hinterlands, a small group of disgruntled villagers are staging an odd protest against the government -- but not quite against Putin.

LERMONTOV, Russia  In a quiet corner of Russia, far, far from the iPad-savvy throngs who have formed the backbone of growing protests in Moscow in recent weeks, a very different protest is going on. Lermontov is a small town of around 20,000 inhabitants, located near the foothills of the Caucasus mountains. The chemical factory on the outskirts of town is the only major employer, and while the mountain air is pleasant, the scruffy two-story buildings that line the streets are mostly in a sorry state of disrepair. The average local salary is 11,000 rubles (about $380) per month, and like many provincial Russian towns, the main goal for young people with even a modicum of ambition is to get out. There is a general understanding, as in hundreds of towns across Russia, that the local authorities and the people in charge are feckless and corrupt, and there is not much that ordinary citizens can do about it.

Now, inspired in part by news of mass protests in distant Moscow, unrest has been bubbling over here too. But in Lermontov, named for the iconic Russian poet who was killed in a nearby duel, the scene is a lot more Gogolian than sweeping Russian romanticism.

When the 15-person town council, elected a little over a year ago, was disbanded in December -- apparently under pressure from the regional governor -- new elections were set for this coming Sunday, March 4, the same day as the presidential elections that will almost certainly return Vladimir Putin to the Kremlin. The previous councilors were banned from standing in the new vote by the town's court on absurd technicalities. The councilors say it is because the regional governor wants to append Lermontov to the neighboring city of Pyatigorsk, giving him access to plots of municipal land still to be sold off in Lermontov.

It is the sort of thing that happens all the time in Russia, where political power means access to juicy financial opportunities, and all manner of dirty tricks are used to ensure that the right people are in the right positions. But the reaction among Lermontov's former councilors has been unusual: Instead of taking it lying down (or, in the manner of 1990s Russia, hiring some contract killers), they decided to go on hunger strike.

Eight of them, all former councilors, set up mattresses right in the foyer of the local administration building, rather grandly referred to as the "White House," and said they would not eat a thing until they were put onto the ballot or the elections were postponed. The police were told to remove them but refused to carry out the order, which led Russian media to start talking about a "mini revolution" in Lermontov.

When I visited on Feb. 24, it was day five of the hunger strike, and the protesters had agreed to move to another building, although they insisted they had no intention of giving up the fight. "This is not about Putin," said Valery Belousov, a 57-year old former councilor. "This is about us trying to do something good for our town and being pushed out by corrupt regional authorities. On the whole we support Putin. We don't want to ruin the presidential elections, we only want our local ones to be fair and honest."

By its peak, on the morning of March 1, the number of hunger strikers had risen to nearly 40, while three members of the initial contingent have been hospitalized. The Kremlin's regional representative has told them they are heading down a "cul-de-sac," but Belousov said they were still resolved to continue the struggle.

On the day I was there, the local prosecutor paid a visit. Afterward he announced to the local media that he suspected the hunger strikers were secretly snacking while nobody was looking. (Although they reacted with outrage, a reporter who visited on day four of the hunger strike caught one of the candidates being slipped a chocolate bar. When confronted, the sheepish donor claimed it was "medicine.")                  

Confusion and posturing was the order of the day. A harried woman came rushing in one afternoon to complain that local television had falsely broadcast that four of the strikers had given up, and chaos broke out when news came that a demonstration in support of the strikers, planned for Feb. 26, had been canceled by local authorities. (It went ahead anyway, drawing a crowd of up to 2,000 locals backing the strikers.)

Perhaps the most surprising episode of all was when Alexander Demyanov, who represents Putin's United Russia party, showed up. A 61-year-old former lieutenant in the Soviet Army, he arrived in full military uniform, fresh from the courtroom where he too had been told his candidacy for the elections was invalid, after he had backed his colleagues from the former council. Mopping rivulets of sweat from his face with a handkerchief, he announced he was going home to get changed and would be joining the hunger strike. "When the Soviet Union was betrayed by its leadership and fell, I promised I would never believe in anything again," he said. "But I believed in Putin, and I joined United Russia. I still believe in Putin. But the behavior of officials on the local level is disgusting."

The intrigues of the political wrangling in Lermontov are complex and bewildering, with various accusations flying over unsigned documents, underhand deals, and subversion of regulations. There were all sorts of rumors in town that the hunger strikers had been manipulated by the former mayor, who was just as corrupt as those trying to unseat him, but at least some of the townspeople believed that the council that had been ousted had made a genuine difference.

Anatoly Zavorotynsky, a 61-year-old engineer, said the reason the council had been disbanded was because its members had actually tried to do some good for the local people rather than simply skimming a cream of cash off city coffers for themselves. "These people were trying to do something," he said. "Things changed. I'm sorry, but before, under the previous regime, it was impossible to get into the White House." The older administration, he said, was completely inaccessible, whereas the new council had been responsive, addressing residents' complaints and holding citizen advice meetings in Lermontov's White House. "I'm sorry, but these people were more accessible," said Zavorotynsky. A number of other people mentioned that the recent council had reopened a nearby lake to the public; previously, they said, it had been illicitly rented out for private use.

On the whole, the discontent in Lermontov remains on a local level and is confined to issues such as lake access and petty corruption. Zavorotynsky, for one, said that he still plans to vote for Putin in Sunday's election. "If Putin knew what was happening here, I'm sorry, but he would have sent someone to sort it out."

Anyone can stand for election to the town council -- all you need is to obtain the signatures of 29 local people supporting your candidacy. Most of those on hunger strike were bumped from the list by court decisions stating that signatures collected in support of their candidatures had been falsified. Collecting signatures is the bane of the opposition in Russia: The liberal politician Grigory Yavlinsky, who had hoped to stand against Putin in Sunday's presidential elections, was struck off the ballot after the Electoral Commission found that some of the 2 million signatures he was required to submit were forged. He insisted the decision was "totally political."

It's a lot easier to detect foul play from the authorities when the matter at stake is 29 signatures, not 2 million. "I know 80 percent of the people in this town. I've lived here for half a century. Why on Earth would I need to falsify signatures?" asked Viktor Kapustin, a 75-year-old Communist who is one of the strikers.

In one particularly surreal episode, the candidates said a handwriting specialist told the court that certain signatures had been forged, even as the candidates presented the signatories themselves -- who were more than willing to testify to the court that they were genuine. "We had 29 people outside the court, saying they were ready to swear on God's holy name that they were backing our candidates," Belousov said. "But the court was ruling them out because some graphologist said the forms were completed in the same hand."

Such absurdities are straight from the pages of a short story by Nikolai Gogol, and even the names in this provincial saga are exquisitely Gogolian. Among the members of the former council are a Mr. Kapustin (which translates as something like Mr. Cabbageman in English), a Mr. Belousov (Mr. Whitemustache), and a certain Vladimir Tyutyunikov (which means nothing but sounds frankly absurd). The last of these is currently the acting head of the town council, until new elections are held.

"People just decided that they didn't want to be treated like cattle any more," said Tyutyunikov, emphasizing that underneath the often amusing peculiarities and the provincial pettiness of the situation, there is a more serious point. "They've always been told that everything will be decided for them, and now they want to take hold of their own destiny."

While the protest mood in the town has intensified, many are keen to stress that they are still backing Putin. But when quizzed, their support seems mostly due to a fear of the other options rather than a positive belief in the frontrunner. While there is a good deal of support for the hunger strikers, many people are so disillusioned that they assume all sides are crooked. Still, the number of people getting politically engaged is growing.

Even the police in Lermontov seem eager for change, or at least for some excitement. "If only you could take us back to Moscow with you. I really want to go to the protests there," one of the officers guarding the hunger strikers' building said to me, unexpectedly. I asked if he meant to take part in them or to crush them. "I dunno, I haven't decided yet," he replied. "It would just be so much fun to see all those people together in one place. Nobody ever does anything like that here."

"Of course in Lermontov, people's concerns are much more based around local issues," said Ilya Ponomaryov, a Russian Duma deputy who visited the strikers. "But the basic reason why people are coming out to protest is the same as it is in Moscow. Nobody there wants a revolution, they just want to have control of the way they live."

Although the protesters in Moscow may chant grand slogans of democratic dreams, it is the minutiae of governmental inference that has done much to leave a feeling of anger across Russia, especially with authorities on a more local level. It's the cracks in the road not repaired, the complaints about untidy flower beds unanswered. "The attitude of the regional government is to say, ‘You're trash and your opinions don't matter. We'll decide everything for ourselves,'" Tyutyunikov said.

Late in the evening on March 1, the strikers called off their vigil after a visit from Stanislav Govorukhin, the chief of Putin's electoral campaign, who told them the prime minister had taken an interest in the situation. "We've been promised that the petition from Lermontov citizens is now under the personal control of Vladimir Putin, and in the near future a decision will be taken that complies with the law," the strikers said in a statement calling off the hunger strike. Sure enough, on Mar. 2, the news came that Lermontov's court had satisfied the strikers' main demand and postponed the local election until May, allowing time for the strikers to prove the court had acted illegally in kicking them off the ballot. 

For now, Putin is still able to play the "good Tsar, bad nobles" card and step in as savior. But even in Lermontov there are some who are beginning to believe the regional injustices occur because of -- and not in spite of -- the system Putin has developed. "Of course, given my position as an acting official, I wouldn't want to make any comment on that," Tyutyunikov said with a knowing smile. "But they do say that a fish rots from the head downwards."

NATALIA KOLESNIKOVA/AFP/Getty Images

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