For Struggling Russians, Fear of Return to Hardship of ’90s Fuels Support for Putin
LYUBERTSY, Russia — It takes little more than a half-hour train ride from Moscow and a few hours walking the muddy streets of this raw, working-class suburb to get a sense of why Vladimir V. Putinwill almost certainly win Russia’s presidential election on Sunday.
Interviewed here in recent days, few said they were doing well. But for many here in Lyubertsy and other hardscrabble towns across Russia, any desire to live better is outweighed by a persistent fear of living worse. And there is no guarantee that things will remain on track without Mr. Putin at the helm.
“We will stay in one place or return to the old, terrifying days of the 1990s,” Lyudmila Kisilyova, a 60-year-old pensioner, said when asked what would happen if Mr. Putin lost the election. “There is a huge difference today in comparison with those days. There was no work, there was nothing. The stores were empty, and it was a terrifying time to live.
“I can’t say that everything is great today: Pensions are small, and we’re scared about the future of our children,” she said. “But life is better than in the 1990s.”
It is a sentiment that these days sounds alien in Moscow, where Mr. Putin has faced a challenge from a boisterous, though largely isolated, movement of urban elites whose ambitions and self-regard have outgrown the rigid confines of his rule.
Those elites are not Mr. Putin’s constituents, and he has done little to court them. Rather, he seems keenly aware that his electoral success is linked less to a desire for progress than to a fear of backsliding.
Since announcing in September that he, not Russia’s current president, Dmitri A. Medvedev, would be running in Sunday’s election, he has repeatedly sought to remind Russians of the hardships they suffered in the years before he took power.
“Under the flag of democracy, in the 1990s we received not a modern government, but an opaque fight among clans and numerous semifeudal fiefdoms,” he wrote in an opinion article last month. “We received not a new quality of life, but huge social costs; not a just and free society, but the highhandedness of a self-appointed elite, who openly neglected the interests of simple people.”
In a televised appearance shortly after he announced his return last year, he warned that stability in Russia was hanging by a thread.
“It is enough to take two or three incorrect steps and all that came before could overcome us before we know it,” he said.
This sense of teetering on the edge is particularly acute here in Lyubertsy, a town with 172,000 people, a helicopter factory and the unfortunate distinction of being a birthplace of the Russian mob. In the waning days of the Soviet Union, criminal gangs of amateur bodybuilders called kachki held the city hostage, residents said. On their days off they would take the commuter train into Moscow and pummel the fashionable youth there for sport.
These days, the gangs have been mostly brought to heel, their leaders jailed, dead or, as some locals said, working in government. Stores are filled with affordable clothing, furniture and food, and there are several tidy parks and a modern basketball arena for the Lyubertsy Triumph, whose record this season is 30-14.
Most said they were aware of the recent protests in Moscow. But they had little good to say about them.
“A nuthouse” is how the manager of a women’s clothing store named Angelina described the protests.
Her colleague chimed in, “That’s for people who have free time and don’t have to work for a living.” Both had taken a smoking break and were standing under a large campaign billboard with Mr. Putin’s face and the slogan “A Great Country; a Strong Leader.”
Of about two dozen people interviewed over two days in Lyubertsy, only a handful expressed doubts about Mr. Putin, and most of those said they would vote for him anyway, citing a lack of other options. Most polls indicate that he will win with more than 50 percent of the vote.
That apparently has not prevented some of Mr. Putin’s more zealous supporters from trying to pad his lead. Last month, Olga Klubnichkina, the director of a technical school in Lyubertsy, was recorded threatening her staff with disciplinary measures if they failed to bring in 11 absentee ballots marked for Mr. Putin — their own and 10 from friends and family.
“I think that all understand that our future depends on this,” she said in a recording uploaded by one of the staff members to YouTube. “We need to submit to one commander in chief, like in the army. Someone commands, and like soldiers we follow.”
Several students confirmed that the voice on the recording was that of Ms. Klubnichkina. A woman at the school who bore a stark resemblance to her refused to identify herself or comment on the matter.
Independent election monitors have documented numerous complaints about pressure being placed on voters to cast ballots for Mr. Putin ahead of the election. But all those who spoke to a reporter in Lyubertsy said their votes would be their own.
“For the first time in our lives, the conditions have been created for us, for me, to run my own affairs, to become a different person and not be dependent on anyone,” said Larisa Kirilova, 59.
Ms. Kirilova, who has two Soviet-era college degrees, said she and her family barely had enough food before Mr. Putin came to power in 2000. She now makes a sufficient living selling environmentally safe cookware at a shopping center here — a modest job that she said nevertheless left her “inspired.”
“Why would we trade a robin in our hand for a crane in the sky?”
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