Many in Russia say they are fed up with corruption, stagnant wages and rising prices. But they worry, as one man put it, that “if things start to change, there will be blood.”
She walked into the cafe wearing a face mask that read, “I’m not afraid, and don’t be afraid.” A man in a leather jacket followed her, looked at her as she sat next to me, then disappeared. Another man, in a vest and gray hat, waited outside.
He trapped us as we came out.
I was interviewing Violetta Grudina, an activist in the Russian Arctic city of Murmansk, who was in charge of imprisoned opposition leader Alexei A. Affiliated with Navalny. She was still recovering from the hunger strike. Now under constant surveillance, he crawled, admitting to stunned desperation.
“We are all in a trap – trapped by a tyrant,” said Ms. Grudina. “This stupidity comes from giving everything you can, but nothing changes – it’s hard.”
Russia is a country in which nothing changes until everything changes. Ahead of national parliamentary elections later this week, the regime of President Vladimir V. Putin has reached a new peak of authoritarianism, wrapped in a layer of comfortable stability. For many, Mr. Putin remains a hero, especially for his outspoken foreign policy, while those who oppose him are retreating, as they say, from their own hails or parallel worlds. In.
From August 24 to September 7, photographer Sergei Ponomarev and I traversed Russia from north to south – a 3,000-mile journey from the Arctic to the Caucasus republic of Chechnya – to find out why Mr. Putin has been in power for 20 years in a vast country. able to maintain his grip.
Five nights in sleeper trains took us on a typical Russian expedition path, cutting a longitudinal slice through the vastness of the country. In Murmansk, absurd lengths apparently meant to keep Ms Grudina off the ballot, which included forced hospitalization in a coronavirus ward. In Chechnya, those challenging the mighty ruler of the region were trying to get as few votes as possible.
“People can’t say, ‘Let someone else take it,'” Artyom Kiryanov, candidate of Mr. Putin’s United Russia party, told me on the shores of Lake Valdai in central Russia. “There is absolutely no such option.”
This weekend, a victory for United Russia looks certain, although a major protest vote remains a possibility, despite the tightly phase-managed nature of the election. One guiding emotion we encountered was the fear of people—of being punished for disagreement, of losing what they had, of poverty and the ghosts of war. We met many people fed up with official corruption, stagnant wages, low pensions and rising prices, but very few who were prepared to face the unknown after Putin.
“I’m afraid that if things start to change,” said Vitaly Tokrenko, an engineer in the southern city of Voronezh, “there will be blood.”
The visit also turned into a firsthand experience with the expanding Russian surveillance state. In Murmansk, a man in a vest and gray hat followed us across the street and to the doors of our hotel. When Ms. Grudina left after half an hour of a photo shoot, she did not follow.
“He’s probably waiting for you,” he texted me.
Solovki: Creating an ‘Oasis’
Overnight a train south and a ferry took us across the Arctic Circle, to the Solovetsky Archipelago in the White Sea. Its lofty, glacially-formed hills are one of the most prestigious and most expensively renovated monasteries of the Russian Orthodox Church, a central pillar of support for Mr. Putin.
So it was remarkable to meet 52-year-old Oleg Kodola, a tourism agent based outside the monastery, who insisted that “it is too bad to take any action that supports this government.” He said he would vote for the communists, the best hope he saw was to reduce the influence of United Russia.
Instead of waiting for the state to fix the road in front of his restaurant and removing the boatloads from the dock area he uses, he plans to do it himself. It was a vivid example of a nationwide phenomenon – dissidents retreating into their own world.
“We are planning to build an oasis here,” he said, “to show that where there is no state, everything is fine.”
A sinister side of the Solovetsky Islands, or Solovki, shows where political repression can lead.
The recent reconstruction of the islands has focused mainly on their spiritual past.
But the early Soviets built a huge prison camp here, which became the Gulag.
On the Pilgrims’ Tour, the guide said little about that history.
In a hilltop church that served as the camp’s most infamous prison, the guide, Olga Rusina, volunteered anything about the eerie peephole carved into the church door by the warden, or the circle of rocks in the grass. The target is placed where the firing squad is called.
“I will not burden you too much with these tragic events,” she told the group.
Her attitude surprised me, because she said that her great-grandfather, great-grandmother and another relative had been killed in the Solovetsky camp.
Then I learned that he blamed individuals, rather than the state, primarily for his family’s tragedy. It was the family’s jealous fellow villagers – not the Kremlin – who sent them here posing as wealthy farmers. Implication: Democracy is fatal.
Valdai: Privileged power
Further south, the trees grow taller, the population becomes denser. But on the lush shores of the ancient Lake Valdai, between St. Petersburg and Moscow, it is still possible to encounter absolute peace.
This is sometimes interrupted by the rotation of helicopters. Mr. Putin loves to come here, as do more and more people close to him. Tatyana Makarova can tell that the huge compounds that have gone up in and around her village Yashcherovo are almost cutting off villagers’ access to the lake. The compounds have sculptures of eagles and roaring bears at their gates, their own churches on their grounds and walls lined with razor wire.
Ms Makarova, who is 48 and owns a small cleaning company, has led the charge against the construction, pitting her and her neighbors against some of Russia’s most powerful men. His story showed how the Russians, instead of trying to demean Mr. Putin, are finding small ways to shape the system they run.
“Our job involves creating problems all the time,” she said. “Then they listen…