Here in the heartland, Vladimir Putin’s revelation that he would take the presidency back from Dmitry Medvedev, essentially plucking the March election out of the hands of voters and installing himself as ruler for years to come, should have left the opposition more impotent than ever. Instead, its members have picked themselves up and gone into quiet rebellion, doing their best to pretend that imperious Moscow doesn’t exist.
Convinced that inevitably the center cannot hold, Leonid Volkov, a young city council member in Russia’s fourth-largest city, organizes residents to save parks or complain about foolish budget decisions, trying to keep them civically fit until their time comes, however far off that day might be.
“They need to be ready when change occurs,” he said. “There’s a big question whether they will be ready to act, or just watch as power goes to the next group of strong people. My job is to keep them awake.”
Yevgeny Roizman was headed toward election to the State Duma, or the lower house of Russia’s parliament, in December, until the Kremlin took a dislike to his party and engineered its collapse just days before Putin’s announcement. Never mind. His office here hums with the kind of constituent service that an American politician could only envy. By day, Roizman intervenes on behalf of villagers harassed by police; by night, he climbs on stage at a hip lounge to lead a youthful crowd in a political discussion with rock-star aplomb.
“Russia is such a huge country,” he said. “I live a parallel life.”
A small but determined core of supporters plot with the opposition to keep the motions of democracy alive here, about a thousand miles from Moscow in the foothills of the Ural Mountains. Konstantin Kiselyov, an academic, frequently moderates salon-style political evenings — last week a date-night crowd of about 70 gathered in a jazz club over pots of tea to discuss “Liberalism in Russia, the End or the Beginning?”
“We don’t have a liberal party,” Kiselyov said, “but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t vote.”
Volkov is sure that sooner or later, Putin and his ruling elite will lose control. “When this regime falls apart,” he said, “it won’t be because of us. Either they’ll fight among themselves or oil prices will fall.”
He works in an analogous universe, building what he calls the “horizontal of power,” a jab at Putin’s “vertical of power.” Putin runs Russia from the top down — he even made governors appointed instead of elected. Volkov stays local, reaching out to people across the city and province.
In spring 2010, when construction of a church threatened a much-loved park, he organized a protest that brought 6,000 marchers. Shocked city officials quickly changed their plans.
“It’s not even about saving parks,” he said. “It’s about showing people they can have an effect. I don’t have any illusions about anything greater. It would be too naive. But now when people say they are helpless, that it doesn’t do any good to go out to the streets, I say, ‘Look at the park.’ ”
Volkov, 30, made money as a shareholder and vice president of a software company. “I am lucky,” he said. “I made a successful exit and now I am investing in start-ups. I don’t have a business on the ground, so it’s senseless to try to pressure me, and I have some free time.”
Well known and full of ideas, Volkov is planning to run for the provincial Duma.
“There are small windows to achieve success on the local level,” he said. “It’s better than nothing.”
Roizman, an athletic 49-year-old, was recruited a few months ago to help billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov, owner of the New Jersey Nets, pep up a party called Right Cause. The Kremlin supported Prokhorov, apparently wanting a veneer of choice for voters tiring of Putin’s United Russia, which won 64 percent of the vote and 315 of the 450 seats in the 2007 State Duma election. But when Prokhorov became too attractive and too independent, the enterprise was torpedoed by a rump faction, which ousted Prokhorov and Roizman.
In Yekaterinburg, Roizman runs a foundation called City Without Drugs, which takes in heroin addicts — considered lazy or weak, not sick — confines them cold-turkey and gives them exercise and work until they are judged ready to leave. His staff enters drug reports from residents into a computer database and passes on information to police, who raid the reputed drug dens with foundation employees in tow.
When people don’t know where else to go, they come to Roizman. One recent morning, two frightened brothers from a village more than 100 miles away turned up.
Artyom Flutkov, 23, and his brother Vassily, 36, had taken a job clearing trees and were driving back to their village late at night when a car with no markings tried to cut them off. They kept going.
“When I stopped, a guy dragged me out of the car and started to beat me,” Artyom said. “My brother jumped out — look at my brother, he’s big — and he easily put him down.”
The assailants turned out to be police in an unmarked car and out of uniform. Worried that they would be arrested, the Flutkovs drove to the city to file a report with the Federal Security Service. “When we realized they were police,” Vassily said, “there was no other place to go.”
It was the middle of the night, and the agents said they should wait until morning. In the morning, they told the brothers to write a report and put it in a mailbox. The brothers went to Roizman.
The police apparently thought the men had stolen some logs, and the brothers had beaten them up pretty well. Roizman got on the phone, calling contacts across the city, trying to intervene before any charges were filed. “Poor guys,” he said. “They had no idea.”
But the brothers knew that once charged, they would be goners. “He wants to save us,” Vassily said. “Once we got here, all doors began to open.”
His Right Cause experience only reminded Roizman of today’s political reality: It’s impossible for a party to exist without the consent of the presidential administration. He has moved on.
“They can take everything away from you,” he said, “but no one will take away things that haven’t been done.”
So he’s expanding his anti-drug foundation, and trying to save the two brothers.
Here in Yekaterinburg, Kiselyov says, people don’t depend much on the newspapers, which are tightly controlled. Here, 45 percent of the population uses the Internet. “Yekaterinburg is a city of blogs and online news,” he said. “This is a city of Facebook.”
Kiselyov is using those avenues to throw small darts at United Russia. While opposition politicians in Moscow are talking about boycotting the next elections, or destroying their ballots, Kiselyov is organizing a vote-for-anyone-but-them campaign. He’s backing the liberal Volkov. In other races, he’s urging voters to look for a decent Communist party member, any honorable alternative to United Russia.