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.