The protest movement that erupted so vigorously in Moscow and St. Petersburg over the winter has had difficulty taking hold in provincial cities such as Ulyanovsk, where the constraints of daily life make dissent a dangerous and lonely affair.
People have plenty to protest here — the steady decline of manufacturing and loss of jobs, low pay, lack of political freedom — but most grumble quietly at home. Few risk gathering in a square to demonstrate their discontent. The politically aroused who can afford it travel to Moscow to join major rallies.
Unlike in international Moscow, demonstrators here are more susceptible to reprisals because more work for government-dependent agencies.
Konstantin Troshin suffered more than a beating when he was attacked as he waited at a bus stop on his way to a demonstration — he had already lost his job as a history and science teacher, and his teacher parents had been punished, too. When Vyacheslav Yemelyanov, a 21-year-old student, helped plan a protest, police picked him up at home well before it began. He fears he’ll be kicked out of college.
Protests in 12 million-strong Moscow draw tens of thousands of demonstrators in a city with 10 administrative districts, each of them bigger than Ulyanovsk and half of them about twice as large.
But much of Russia’s population of 142 million resides in medium-sized cities not so different from Ulyanovsk, where about 600,000 people live on the high banks above the Volga River, the Mississippi of Russia. Here, the largest protest in December attracted 1,500 people, and a more common turnout is 30 to 50.
“Russia is different than Greece or France where people know what they want and express it,” said Gennady Antontsev, a city council member. “Here, even if people go out, they don’t know what to say.”
Still, the politically aware say change is inevitable, even if very slow in coming across the vast expanse of Russia.
“Nothing has changed,” said Antontsev, who belongs to A Just Russia, a social democratic party, “but the wind is different.”
Troshin, a 30-year-old Pepsi-drinking nationalist, helped found The Other Russia in Ulyanovsk, part of a national coalition of groups opposed to President Vladimir Putin, in 2006. One day, a police officer from the organized-crime unit visited his school, complained of his political activities — here in Lenin’s home town he had dared to join a Bolshevik party — and insisted on his dismissal. He has been unable to get a teaching job since.
In 2007 his father, an education professor, lost his university job. He works as a low-paid high school history teacher. His mother, a physics teacher, was demoted and now makes only $125 a month.
“We cannot say we have mass support,” Troshin said. “People have other problems than fighting for freedom and human rights. They are fighting to survive.”
On Dec. 10, he helped plan a rally for fair elections, along with a variety of civic and political groups, that brought out as many as 1,500 people. While waiting at a bus stop that morning, a young man jumped him and beat him up. Nearby traffic police watched without interfering, he said. When he complained to police, he said, they refused to investigate but asked him what kind of leaflets he was carrying. He did not make it to the protest.
So far this year he has been found guilty of three offenses connected to organizing illegal protests, serving nine days in jail and fined $30.
“Now I can’t organize any more events this year,” he said. “This is how they restrict the rights of people they want to silence.”
His mother despairs for him. “Why do you want to die?” she asked him recently.
Ulyanovsk is a Detroit-like city, with a faltering auto industry — the UAZ jeep is made here — and a once-thriving aviation industry that has been overwhelmed by competition. But Ulyanovsk has no abandoned houses and lies in the Communist-sympathizing Red Belt instead of the Rust Belt.
Yemelyanov, a blond, green-eyed child of a working family, is the local leader of the youth wing of the liberal Yabloko party, which formed a coalition in March with Troshkin’s nationalists, Communists and civic activists to keep anti-Putin protests alive here.
Now they are trying to find ways to harness economic fears — the average job pays about $500 a month here — so they can eventually make political demands.
Antontsev, who has a radio show, said his listeners don’t respond when he has programs about laws cracking down on protest, but the phones light up when he talks about bad roads.
“They don’t see the direct link between elections and the condition of the roads,” he said. “People will become dangerous when they see the reason for their misfortune.”
Alexander Kruglikov, a longtime Communist, said the authorities are making a big mistake in suppressing dissent. “I have to say that the Soviet Union fell apart because there was no real opposition in the country,” he said with a wry smile. “No one was listening to individual voices.”
There are many potential issues. Health care is considered inadequate. Utility prices are rising beyond the means of many, especially pensioners. College costs are going up, while the number of scholarships is being cut. “We feel they want to make idiots of us,” Yemelyanov said.
Yemelyanov has one more year until graduation from the State Academy of Government Management, but he knows that even if he makes it that far his political activity will prevent him from getting a government job, as he once hoped. United Russia, which is associated with Putin, holds the power, and those who support the party get the jobs.
“I hope I will graduate,” he said. “I will hardly find a job, but I really wish I could find a way to change something at the local level.”
Nikolai Vasin, a political scientist here, calls Ulyanovsk a classic provincial town, where new ideas take a long time to arrive from Moscow. Its people fondly describe it as old-fashioned. It’s a place where an attempt to leave a tip sends a waitress running out on the street after a customer, thinking the change has been forgotten.
But new ideas will make their way here eventually, Vasin said, and they will find receptive ears and eager minds in Yemelyanov’s generation, who grew up after the Soviet Union fell apart.
“These young people do not yet have enough political experience,” he said. “Now, our governor has no competitors. There is no one with his authority or political experience. But we are observing the birth of a new political generation, and it is showing itself more and more.”
Only those born after 1990 will be able to change the country, agreed Yemelyanov.
“We’ll need five to seven years,” he said, smiling with the confidence of the young.