TVER, Russia — Just two years ago, the sprawling Tver Carriage Works was close to a standstill, producing few train cars, bleeding hundreds of millions of rubles a year, cutting workdays to prevent widespread layoffs and bracing itself for worker protests.
"Let Putin come again," dejected workers told a reporter for a Russian news site then, aching for the kind of bailout that Russian President Vladimir Putin had become known for since the economic crisis of 2008. The factory was indicative of Russia's larger economic woes, heading into two years of recession, of Western-imposed financial sanctions and Russian food embargoes, and with the ruble devalued to half against the dollar.
For most incumbents, that would signal at an uphill battle for reelection. But on Wednesday, Putin arrived in Tver, on the main rail line between Moscow and St. Petersburg, to the welcome of a small cadre of workers as he hit the campaign trail, although it was tough to distinguish the event from the normal meet-and-greets he has held for his last 18 years in power, 14 of them as president. In fact, the only thing that set Wednesday apart was the appearance of a dozen or so members of the foreign press, rarely invited to join the Kremlin pool, ahead of a March vote just over two months away.
Twice now Putin has intervened to save the Carriage Works, the first time by peeling off tens of millions of dollars of government money in 2009 to pay for orders, and then last year by instituting huge tax breaks on the purchase of long-distance rolling stock, bringing in hundreds more orders for railway cars for the factory.
Putin is hoping to persuade workers that the economy is back to normal, which experts say is reflected in growing economic activity but not in stagnant wages. And while the winner of the election is a foregone conclusion, the results of the get-out-the-vote effort are not.
"It's true, you've had a tough period since the end of 2014," Putin told a group of workers standing by some of the tram cars the factory of more than 35,000 employees produces. "But since last year, growth has returned."
In many ways it sounds like 2012, when Putin elevated the voices of conservative Russians, particularly from the country's rust belt, over the voices of pro-democracy protesters in large cities like Moscow and St. Petersburg. Despite a raucous 2017 political season and the emergence of a youth protest movement, Putin's message, so far, has changed little, with an accent on visits to heavy factories hit hard by the recent crisis.
"There's a lot of talk about youth and of course that's important, but it's still a small, passive part of the electorate," said Valery Fyodorov, head of the state-owned Russian Public Opinion Research Center, in a recent interview. "But the core of Putin's electorate is still the older generation, and he wants to associate not just with the future, but also with those topics popular with the elderly today: sovereignty, import substitution, and the growth of one's own economy."
And that makes wage stagnation a central concern.
"Incomes aren't going up," Fyodorov said. "Inflation is down and that's good. But incomes are flat. After two years of crisis and another year of who-knows-what, people want to buy clothing, automobiles, apartments. A new consumer boom. You need money for that. And there's no money."
The factory here is a prime example. There are no longer concerns over a three-day workweek, said Anton Zhdanov, a factory engineer and head of one of the factory unions, reached by telephone before the visit. But wages have stayed flat.
During Putin's visit, the director of the factory said he'd like to represent the president as a surrogate during the campaign. But asked earlier if the factory would throw its weight behind Putin, he demurred.
The Carriage Works is not under pressure to allow its resources to be used by the Putin campaign, said the director, Andrei Solovei. "Our elections are free and every person will make his or her own choice. But as for me — I am Putin's supporter and I have always supported him. So I am going to vote for Vladimir Vladimirovich," he said, following the Russian practice of referring to a person — Putin, in this case — by his given name and patronymic.