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In the provinces, Putin's a pillar

Voters outside Moscow credit the Kremlin leader with bringing stability, but they reject his party.

February 03, 2012|Sergei L. Loiko
  • Workers take a smoking break at the Yaroslavl Engine Plant, where most are planning to vote for Vladimir Putin in the March presidential election. Many plant employees credit him with saving the factory.
Workers take a smoking break at the Yaroslavl Engine Plant, where most are… (Sergei L. Loiko / Los Angeles…)

YAROSLAVL, RUSSIA — With his stocky frame, broad face, blue overalls and red helmet, Andrei Smirnov looks as though he just stepped from a Soviet-style postcard of the ideal working-class figure.

The 45-year-old factory worker came to the Yaroslavl Engine Plant as a young man, getting a job at the same foundry where his father and mother worked, and where he and his younger sister continue the family tradition today. There was a time when the four of them worked together and he was happy, as he is happy now.

But that has not always been the case. With a shudder, Smirnov remembers the deprivation of the early post-Soviet years in his industrial home town 150 miles northeast of Moscow, and he credits one man with changing the country's course in those dark days: Russian leader Vladimir Putin.

Anti-Putin protests in Moscow may be grabbing international headlines, with another planned for Saturday, but the quiet workaday routines of Russia's provinces tell a far different story. Even as they abandon his ruling party, many outside the capital cling to Putin as the one who brought them stability, and that's good news for Russia's once and possibly future president a month before national elections.

"We understand that Putin is not a saint and that corruption in the country is horrible, but we don't want revolutions," said Smirnov's wife, Yelena Smirnova. "All we want is stability, and Putin gives us that stability every day."

As they have their evening tea with chocolates and pastries in their nicely remodeled kitchen in a comfortable family apartment with paintings of flowers on the walls and elegantly arranged lace curtains on the windows, the couple recall a horrible New Year's Eve in the early '90s. They realized that they didn't have a penny except for their privatization vouchers, which every Russian citizen received from Boris Yeltsin's government as part of the much-criticized national wealth redistribution program.

They sold their vouchers that day to buy one thing: a family New Year's dinner.

"We sat there looking at the festively laid table and didn't know whether we should enjoy and have fun or cry our eyes out over our stinging poverty," said Smirnova, now a kindergarten manager but then a nursery school instructor. "My wages were miserable and my husband went months without getting his paycheck ... when one day Putin appeared on television and our lives soon radically changed.

"We couldn't even dream of decent furniture, a nice television, but the worst thing was that we couldn't afford another baby, so poor we were," Smirnov said with a sigh. "I bought my first car [a Russian-manufactured Lada sedan] only in 2001, when Putin was already in power and life was fast changing for the better."

Since then, the family has traded in the auto for a Japanese make and vacationed three times at the seaside in Turkey and Egypt, trips they couldn't have dreamed of before.

Smirnov and his wife attribute all their life successes to Putin, who they believe personally saved the Yaroslavl Engine Plant amid the 2008 global economic crisis. They remember how he visited the facility during a trip to Yaroslavl and ordered a major state bank to unleash a $190-million loan program to keep the plant afloat and even build a top-notch production line for engines for trucks, buses, tractors and armored personnel carriers.

That move stopped a wave of layoffs at the plant, whose workforce had fast shrunk from 18,000 to about 7,000, and helped reverse a catastrophic fall in production.

By 7 a.m., in a routine little changed throughout the last 26 years, Smirnov is hurrying to work along the snow-covered streets. He doesn't turn his face away from the chilling wind but eagerly breathes in the icy air, because he knows that for the next eight hours he will be taming liquid metal that flows like streams of fire, to be subdued and molded into carcasses of new diesel engines, a shower of blindingly bright sparks saluting his every move.

Most of the workers at the plant said they are going to support the Russian leader in the presidential vote, citing reasons such as: "He raised the country from its knees;" "he drowned terrorists in the toilet as promised;" "he knows two foreign languages;" "he is fit and charismatic;" "he is a real man;" "he taught the West to respect Russia again as a superpower;" and "horses are not changed midstream."

"I am going to vote for Putin with both hands," said Nikolay Belyakov, a 56-year-old machine operator.

"I love everything about him, especially the way he can speak for hours on end without reading from a paper," said Yekaterina Veryugina, a 53-year-old lathe operator, referring to Putin's once- or twice-yearly call-in TV shows, the most recent of which lasted more than 41/2 hours.

The workers condemned the recent mass protests in Moscow and expressed suspicion that those rallies could have been organized from abroad.

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