The Kremlin’s confrontation with the West is increasingly affecting ordinary Russians. But few blame President Vladimir Putin for their woes.
Even fewer are, for now, prepared to brave the risks of trying to do anything about it.
A bumpy two-hour drive from the aluminum factory, on a road through a birch forest, leads to a cemetery with two freshly dug graves. The fighters buried beneath the wreaths of colorful artificial flowers died in a February clash with U.S. forces in Syria that Russian state media have said next to nothing about. Just over a week after U.S. secretary-of-state nominee Mike Pompeo revealed that “a couple hundred Russians” were killed in that incident, all is quiet in the town of Asbest.
“There will be no protest against Syria or against Moscow,” said Katya, a shopkeeper who knew one of the killed military contractors and voted against Putin in the election last month. She gave only her first name. “There’s just no point. . . . We have our own problems, our own cares.”
As Putin continues to roll back democracy and Russia heads toward a new Cold War, the country’s industrial heartland, the Urals region, is feeling the consequences — and they could intensify.
At least a half-dozen factories here belong to aluminum magnate Oleg Deripaska, a Putin ally newly hit with sanctions. An entire town makes a living off titanium sales to Boeing. The mayor of the biggest city, Yekaterinburg, says the area depends on the economic relationship with the United States — but that many of his constituents are in a state of denial.
“A huge problem is that not everyone can understand cause and effect,” Mayor Yevgeny Roizman said in an interview. “These most basic things — foreign policy and the quality of life today — very few people connect them.”
Roizman said that a business executive recently complained to him that trade and demand were down. The only bright spot, the executive added, was Putin’s foreign policy, “because we’ve finally shown everyone.”
Even as both sides speak of a new Iron Curtain descending between Russia and the West, life goes on. The Kremlin has deployed Russia’s financial reserves to cushion the blow on regular people, and rising oil prices are helping. Russian officials have said they are prepared to step in to aid companies hurt by the latest U.S. sanctions.
And the region’s most prominent critical voice will soon lose his bully pulpit. Roizman, Russia’s best-known elected official who criticizes Putin, will leave his post in September because regional pro-Putin politicians recently canceled mayoral elections in the city.
“People’s ability to get used to things, to adapt, is extremely high,” said Konstantin Kiselyev, a political scientist and local lawmaker who is critical of Putin. “There is little pushing people into the streets.”
Just 6 percent of Russians told independent pollster the Levada Center last month that they would participate in political protests if they took place — the lowest level since at least 2010. To the extent protests happen, they are about calling on the authorities to fix specific problems, such as smelly landfills. In the former Soviet republic of Armenia, by contrast, street protests toppled the prime minister Monday.
“I wouldn’t exclude the possibility of any protests,” Levada’s Denis Volkov said. “But they will be around local problems.”
Some local protests have shown results, such as an outpouring of public anger over a mall fire that killed 60 in March in the city of Kemerovo and brought about the regional governor’s resignation. But in those local protests, Putin is often seen as someone who can help people solve their problems rather than someone who causes them.
Meanwhile, on the foreign policy issues that more frequently make headlines in the West — from geopolitics to Kremlin interference abroad — Russians are largely on Putin’s side. Even though critical news websites are freely accessible in Russia and Internet access is penetrating the country’s most remote reaches, state-controlled television is just about as influential now as it was five years ago. In a poll last month, 85 percent of Russians told Levada that TV was one of their main news sources, compared with 27 percent who mentioned the Internet — little changed from 2013.
Many Russians dismiss accusations against their president as false pretexts for fresh sanctions. News broadcasts describe the poisoning of former Russian double agent Sergei Skripal in England as a crude ploy to harm Russia concocted by Western intelligence services. Only 9 percent of Russians told Levada that they thought their country was behind the poisoning.
Western officials may think sanctions send a clear message, but to Russians, they are “translated for everyone as: They want to capture our riches. They want to make us get on our knees,” Roizman said. “This is a conversation in different languages.”
The fallout from Putin’s foreign adventures hit home here in February when reports surfaced on social media that Russian military contractors had participated in a Syrian regime assault and then died in a clash with U.S. forces. Yekaterinburg-based news websites confirmed that two of the dead hailed from the nearby town of Asbest. The Washington Post reported that U.S. officials believed that a mercenary force run by business executive Yevgeniy Prigozhin was behind the assault and that he apparently coordinated it with the Kremlin.
The state media said little about the incident. Dmitry Kolezev, deputy editor of the news website Znak, which reported on the deaths, said the story drew nationwide reader interest but little local outcry. He explained the relative silence by pointing to the dominance of the state media and said that, four years after the start of the Ukraine crisis, “people have gotten used to war.”
“Now one war has simply, slowly, been replaced by another,” Kolezev said. “Of course there are some liberal journalists like ourselves who count up how much all of this costs . . . but ours is a very quiet voice in the context of the graveyard silence of the state media and the glorification of all these military actions.”
Another Yekaterinburg journalist who reported on the Syria deaths, Maxim Borodin, died this month after falling from his balcony. U.S. State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert described it on Twitter as “the fate of #Russia’s journalists who question the Kremlin.” Roizman said he believed Borodin’s death had nothing to do with his work as a journalist. Polina Rumyantseva, editor in chief of Borodin’s outlet, Novy Den, said the publication had conducted its own investigation and did not find evidence of a crime. A representative of the regional Investigative Committee said the official investigation is continuing.
In Kamensk-Uralsky, where residents are bracing for U.S. sanctions to hit the city’s aluminum plant, 24-year-old Communist Party secretary Boris Idiatulin said he only had success getting pensioners — those with the least to lose — out to protests. Conditions would have to deteriorate to the point that “people truly have no money” for a broader swath of the population to seek political change, said Idiatulin, who works at a cultural center.
Idiatulin’s co-worker Mikhail Achimov said he blamed Putin’s foreign policy for sanctions against Russia, which he says have led to higher prices. Beyond boycotting last month’s presidential election, however, the 35-year-old Achimov said he had no interest in trying to make his voice heard.
“There are people in government to whom we gave power,” Achimov said. “I think they will bring themselves to reason.”