From Pride To Protest: How Russians Feel About Their Presidential Election

Mar 16, 2018
Originally published on March 19, 2018 1:14 pm

Russians head to the polls Sunday to vote in their presidential election. Vladimir Putin is expected to win handily. He has been in power now for 18 years — 14 as president and four as prime minister — and even he seems a little bored with his candidacy. A campaign speech he gave this week lasted just two minutes, and he didn't even say the word "election."

The good news for Putin is that none of his seven presidential challengers are polling higher than single digits. And the majority of voters in Russia seem happy with the status quo.

But Russia is an enormous country that spans 11 time zones. More than 140 million people live in Russia, and their opinions on politics, politicians and policy run the gamut.

So we spent time with three Russians living in Moscow and asked them who they plan to vote for or why they don't plan to vote at all.

Viktoria Ivleva, 62, lives with her dog, a Thai Ridgeback named Lionya, in a flat in central Moscow. Her apartment is quiet and cozy, a refuge from the busy city streets, which likely comes in handy after she gets back from an assignment photographing conflict in the Donbas region of Ukraine.

Ivleva is an exacting person; she speaks intentionally and economically in perfect English. And she votes intentionally as well.

"I think it's very important for a ruler to be kind," she says of the man she'll vote for on Sunday, Grigory Yavlinsky. He's against armed conflict and was trained as an economist.

And even though she knows Yavlinsky has no shot at winning the election, she says it's important to vote anyway.

"There's always a point to struggle. I don't think we're in a sort of Buddha position to sit and watch. Lots of people have been sitting and watching for several years with no result," she says.

"In most situations in life it's better to do something than not to do anything. And you never know in Russia. It's a country without floor and without ceiling. It's a country where everything is allowed and nothing is allowed. So you figure it out."

The offices of Project Network occupy a sleek, three-story loft in an industrial sector of Moscow. The exposed brick walls, wood floors and open floor plan would be at home in Brooklyn or San Francisco. But Project Network is definitely Russian. It's a pro-Putin youth group, filled with hipster millennials who believe Putin is the way forward for the country.

Makar Vikhliyantsev is one of those millennials. He's 33, and dresses like a Silicon Valley software engineer.

He says that he's old enough to remember a time before Putin. There were lines for food when he was a small child and barely anyone he knew had a car.

"I felt ashamed for my country and for my president. And when Putin came, this sense of shame vanished. I gained this sense of pride. So you know, this is very cool."

He says when he bought his first car, there were only two or three other cars in his apartment's lot. Now you can barely find a parking spot. "Life has improved," he says.

And Vikhliyantsev says that Putin appeals to him for another reason. "In Sex and the City, they present typical situations that women find themselves in. And it can be used as a kind of girl's guide to behavior. Something very similar happens with Putin — when you watch him on TV, you see an example of how you should conduct yourself in life. I grew up without a father, so when I was a senior in high school, I had no idea of how to behave in this or that situation. But I would observe the way he responds, the way he addresses challenging questions. I found this very informative."

Family therapist Viacheslav Moskvichov, 48, works in a tiny office near the center of Moscow. There are paints and coloring books in a plastic box on the floor — entertainment for some of his younger clients.

He wears jeans, a gray cardigan and a gray T-shirt. He has a friendly, open face and is quick to laugh at himself and with others.

Moskvichov says he will stay at home on Sunday, cook breakfast for his kids and maybe watch a movie with his family.

"I used to play my part in the spectacle, but now I just don't think my vote matters," he says.

He says that politics isn't reality. Real life is talking to your neighbors, having a conversation with the guy who sits down next to you on the train.

He chooses the reality of human interaction over the spectacle of holding elections that he feels don't matter. He says it's all theater.

"Putin is the lead character," Moskvichov says. "He did not participate in [any presidential] debates because only supporting actors participate in debates. And the way I see things is that the only option is for me not to participate in this theater."

Freelance journalist Anna Shpakova contributed to this report.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

And I'm Mary Louise Kelly in Moscow, where the polls are set to open at 8 sharp Sunday morning. Russia is holding a presidential election or coronation, as some here call it. Vladimir Putin is running for president again. Here's the challenge for the Putin campaign. Even Putin seems a little bored by it. His final campaign speech this week lasted a whopping two minutes. He never actually mentioned the election.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT VLADIMIR PUTIN: (Speaking Russian).

(CHEERING)

PUTIN: (Speaking Russian).

KELLY: Cheers there from a crowd in Sevastopol in Crimea, home to Russia's Black Sea Fleet. This morning, the Kremlin followed up with a new video. In it, Putin makes a direct appeal to Russians. Please come out to vote.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PUTIN: (Speaking Russian).

KELLY: The good news for Putin is that the seven candidates challenging him for the presidency are all polling in single digits, which means Putin, who's been in power either as president or prime minister for 18 years, is likely to stay in power.

So Russia, a country of more than 140 million people, 11 time zones - impossible to capture what everybody who's going to turn out and vote on Sunday might be thinking about this. But we've picked three voices who will give a little sampling of the range of views in this vast country. And we're about to pay a call on one of them. We're just headed up to her apartment.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Hi, buddy.

KELLY: Actually, the first creature to greet us is Lionya, Viktoria Ivleva's dog. Ivleva is 62 years old. She'll vote on Sunday for one of the opposition candidates, Grigory Yavlinsky.

VIKTORIA IVLEVA: I'm voting for Grigory Yavlinsky...

KELLY: Yavlinsky - why?

IVLEVA: ...Because I think he's smart. He's kind, and I think it's very important for a ruler to be kind. I trust him.

KELLY: What do you say to people who say, why bother to vote on Sunday; this election is rigged; we already know the outcome; there's no point?

IVLEVA: I think there's always a point to struggle. I don't think we're in this sort of Buddha position to sit and watch. A lot of people have been sitting and watching for so many years with no result. And I think it's probably the last chance to do something and to say something because if Vladimir Putin is going to be in power for the next six years - and I'm afraid he is going to be in power - we don't know what will be his next step. But I'm afraid he is his own prisoner in the prison of his own mind and of his own actions. There's no way for him to change or to start any democratic changes.

KELLY: Do you think the vote on Sunday is rigged? Is there any chance that somebody besides Putin will win?

IVLEVA: I don't think so, but the elections are not decided because you have to go and vote.

KELLY: But explain to me what you hope to achieve by going and voting for a different candidate, for Yavlinsky, on Sunday.

IVLEVA: First of all, I will do what I think I should do. And I would stay a truthful person. And when in future many years from now, my great-grandchildren would ask me, what did you do living in those times, I will say, I voted for a president whom I trusted and who I think would - could help Russia to get out of this turmoil.

KELLY: The argument that one of the opposition leaders who is not being allowed to run, Alexei Navalny, makes is, don't vote; that's the best way to oppose the system - is, don't participate in it.

IVLEVA: I would agree if you know that the result will be 90 percent of boycotters.

KELLY: You mean if everybody listened...

IVLEVA: Yeah, yeah, boycott is...

KELLY: ...And just didn't come out and vote.

IVLEVA: Boycott is great when it is a true boycott. When it's just 10 percent of population or 3 percent of population, who would care? No one would care. The other thing is, I think it's - in most situations in life, it's better to do something than not to do anything. You never know living in Russia. You know, it's a country without floor and without ceiling.

KELLY: What does that mean?

IVLEVA: It's a country where everything is allowed. And at the same time, nothing is allowed. And you figure out somehow.

KELLY: Viktoria Ivleva hopes to live to see another president of Russia. Our next voter is not so eager for change. We meet Makar Vilhiliantsev at his office, a Brooklyn-style loft that shares an alley with an old bread factory. Vilhiliantsev is 33. He helps run Project Network, a pro-Putin youth group. I start with a question I'm pretty sure we know the answer to.

Who will you vote for?

MAKAR VILHILIANTSEV: For Putin.

KELLY: Why?

VILHILIANTSEV: (Through interpreter) I have lived with Putin in power for a long time, but I also remember life under Yeltsin and life under Gorbachev, who was worse than Yeltsin. And what I remember from those times, there were long lines in stores and food stamps to purchase food. I was ashamed of my country. I was ashamed of my president. When Putin came to power, my shame vanished. I gained a sense of pride. It was so cool.

KELLY: You're saying Putin has made you proud...

VILHILIANTSEV: Yep.

KELLY: ...To be a Russian.

VILHILIANTSEV: Yep.

KELLY: What about your actual daily life? Is it good under Putin? Is it getting better every year?

VILHILIANTSEV: It's getting better.

KELLY: How?

VILHILIANTSEV: (Through interpreter) Here's an example from my own life. I bought my first car for $300. The neighborhood I used to live in - it was a very large apartment building on the outskirts. I was only the third person to own a car in that entire apartment building. Today we are running out of space for people to park. Life has improved for people. Now they can afford to purchase cars. They can get loans. I can see this with my own eyes.

KELLY: To someone coming in who's not Russian, everyone seems to know who will win. There's no suspense. His main opponent is not being allowed to run. President Putin controls the media. Is it a real election, and does it matter to you if it's a real election?

VILHILIANTSEV: (Through interpreter) I do think this is a real election. When it comes to mass media control, as you can see, there is no KGB agent sitting outside making sure I don't say something out of line. I can surf the Internet without restrictions. I can open any webpage. There is even a whole radio station that broadcasts anti-Putin programming around the clock. If other candidates struggle to attract voters, whose problem is this? They have budgets. They have teams. If they are not capable, should this be Putin's problem? Why should he be asked to help them? I don't get it.

KELLY: You're saying Putin will win on Sunday because he's the best candidate...

VILHILIANTSEV: Yep.

KELLY: ...Not because there's something wrong with the system.

VILHILIANTSEV: Yep.

KELLY: All right. Do you find him - is he exciting? As a leader, is he inspiring?

VILHILIANTSEV: (Through interpreter) To give you context, we have to go back to the year 2000 when he first came to power. I remember Russia at the time. There was a war in the Caucasus. In Tatarstan, they introduced their own passports. Yakutia adopted its own constitution. Rich people talked about packing their bags and leaving. And here comes Putin. He pulled Russia out of the swamp. He heard our voices. Something started to change.

KELLY: We went a few rounds on the question of what he thinks of Putin as a person, as a man. Then Vilhiliantsev said the last thing on Earth I expected him to say.

VILHILIANTSEV: Does she know "Sex And The City"? Do you know? Do you know?

KELLY: "Sex And The City" - I do.

VILHILIANTSEV: (Through interpreter) In "Sex And The City," they present typical situations that women find themselves in, and it can be used as a kind of girl's guide to behavior. Something very similar happens with Putin. When you watch him on TV, you see an example of how you should conduct yourself in life.

I grew up without a father. When I was a senior in high school, I had no idea of how to behave in this or that situation, but I would observe the way Putin responds, the way he addresses challenging questions. I found this very informative.

KELLY: And now finally we're headed to the office of Viacheslav Moskvichov. He's made his decision about the election on Sunday, and it is to not make a decision. He's not planning to vote for any candidate on Sunday. That's a popular choice here in Moscow. So let's head up and meet him.

Nice to meet you.

VIACHESLAV MOSKVICHOV: (Unintelligible).

KELLY: Moskvichov greets us in the office where he sees patients. He's a psychotherapist. He works with families and couples, and he loves this work. He feels he can make a real difference in people's lives. In other words, he has a life outside politics. So do a lot of other Russians, he says. Moskvichov describes it this way.

MOSKVICHOV: A parallel reality.

KELLY: A parallel reality.

MOSKVICHOV: It seems to me that - other state. And we can take part in that state.

KELLY: The state of who's...

MOSKVICHOV: Yes, yes.

KELLY: ...Running the Kremlin is not so relevant to your life.

MOSKVICHOV: Yes, and I think that its state - more bigger. Half of our population or maybe more don't play in that (laughter) spectacle.

KELLY: The spectacle that is Russian politics. Moskvichov says reality is talking to your neighbors. It's talking to people who sit down across from you on the train. Then he switches to Russian to make one final point - that this election is theater. It's a play.

MOSKVICHOV: (Through interpreter) Putin has the lead role. He's the main character. He did not participate in the debates because only supporting actors do the debates. The way I see it, my only option is to not be part of this play.

KELLY: Who's the director if Putin is the star?

MOSKVICHOV: (Laughter).

KELLY: That's the...

MOSKVICHOV: Interesting.

(LAUGHTER)

MOSKVICHOV: I think - it's good metaphor.

(LAUGHTER)

MOSKVICHOV: I think - I'm sure that we have some directors, too.

(LAUGHTER)

KELLY: Viacheslav Moskvichov on who's really pulling the strings. We also heard from Makar Vilhiliantsev and Viktoria Ivleva - three Russians, three views on who to vote for, whether to vote at all, how to make their voices heard in today's Russia. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.