NIZHNY TAGIL, Russia — In far-off Moscow, the authorities are fond of suggesting that only a spoiled elite in the capital carp about eroding freedoms, controlled elections and a gloom they compare to the later days of the Soviet Union.
“There are people who think that the atmosphere in the country is suffocating,” Dmitry Peskov, spokesman for Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, told television interviewers last week, “while others want three percentage points off their taxes to get their farm going.”
Those others presumably toil in places such as Nizhny Tagil, an industrial city of about 360,000 on the eastern side of the Ural Mountains. Here, people have been rallying against high gas prices, not the political maneuvering in Moscow.
They are indeed practical, but they have their dreams.
Over the summer, a 24-year-old high-school dropout and former convict named Yegor Bychkov began living his.
In July, the billionaire owner of the New Jersey Nets, Mikhail Prokhorov, invited Bychkov to Moscow. They sat in an office near the helicopter pad where Prokhorov was about to whirl off, drinking coffee and talking politics.
With the Kremlin’s blessing, Prokhorov was attempting to build an inert party called Right Cause and provide a political home for disenchanted liberal voters. He quickly, however, ventured beyond the slogans and sound bites the Kremlin — which espouses managed democracy — had imagined by spending time sizing up local heroes such as Bychkov, who had run a detox center.
In August, Prokhorov asked the young man to run on his ticket for the State Duma, the lower house of parliament, in December. Bychkov was inspired. He saw a way for an ordinary person to start changing this huge country.
Prokhorov is “a patriot,” Bychkov said. “He lives in Russia and he wants to do something to make it better. There aren’t many oligarchs like him left.”
A month later, the political career that Prokhorov began in June was over, upended by Kremlin machinations. He went back to his business amid public observations that the episode was a powerful reminder of the authorities’ refusal to brook any political independence.
But Bychkov remains, now filled with new aspirations.
When he was 15, Bychkov dropped out of school and headed to the oil and gas city of Surgut, more than 500 miles away in Siberia. He worked at odd jobs there for two years. After returning home, he ended up running a branch of the City Without Drugs foundation established by Yevgeny Roizman, who became a Prokhorov political ally.
Last October, Bychkov was sentenced to 31 / 2 years in prison on charges of kidnapping drug addicts. The news provoked powerful — and rare — public outrage. At his bare-bones detox center, addicts were often restrained as they dried out, and treated with prayer and fasting. Maybe he was misguided, people said, but since when did the police care about heroin addicts? There had to be another reason.
President Dmitry Medvedev ordered an examination of the case. Even the nation’s tough drug czar, former KGB man Viktor Ivanov, sympathized. Bychkov’s sentence was soon suspended, and he emerged from prison a different person.
“I realized I had no future, no education, no car, no apartment,” he said, “only a criminal record and a $10,000 debt.”
A year after his release,he is close to getting his high school degree and wants to enter the university and study law. He has a job writing a column for an independent newspaper, the Tagil Variant. In politics, he said, he could get the government to do the work it should be doing, such as treating drug addicts.
Bychkov said his prison record wouldn’t hurt him, considering the constituency here. “We have more prisons here than theaters,” he said, “two movie theaters, two dramatic theaters — and six prisons.”
Like many Russian cities, Nizhny Tagil is trying to push toward the future while being pulled back by the past. Streams of yellow and gray smoke swirl over the city from Soviet-era metal factories, still the heart of the local economy.
It’s no Moscow, where, Peskov said, people sit in expensive restaurants, eating $35-a-plate Italian meals and fretting about the fate of the country.
On Newspaper Street, the staff of Tagil Variant tries to put out an unvarnished paper, tactfully. “The head of the press service of the city administration visited,” said Valery Klimtsev, the director, “and said, ‘Please, no surrealism. No freedom of speech.’ ”
Around the corner on Karl Marx Street, elderly women stand, selling fur hats and woolen mittens.
Outside town, Yelena Barabadze, 50, is walking to the store for bread. She’s dismayed by the way the authorities are controlling the election process.
Eventually things will change, she said, but probably not for her generation.
Bychkov can wait. The next State Duma elections are in five years. By then, he’ll have a college degree. And he’ll only be 29 years old.