By Lidia Gregg, MA student, Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS), Johns Hopkins University
On 18 March, Vladimir Putin will secure a fresh six-year term as Russian president. The election result is not in doubt; the Levada Center, one of Russia’s largest and most trusted polling organisations, put Putin’s approval rating at 81%.
I belong to the first post-Soviet generation of Russians. Born in 1992, my first 13 years of life were spent in an orphanage in a small village called Peshnigort, on the western side of the Ural Mountains. My memories of childhood are pleasant. Winters were spent skiing and building snowmen, spring playing in the puddles and streams of melted snow rushing to the lake, summers berry-picking; in autumn, we foraged for mushrooms and collected the harvest.
I remember, fondly, my first ride in a Lada. Anna Ivanovna, one of the orphanage’s carers, drove me and my friends to the lake in the second-hand, lime-green Lada that she and her husband had just bought. This was a prized possession. In Soviet times, it usually took a year after purchase to receive delivery of a car. I was nine years old, and thrilled; a Lada was the car to be seen in.
On 14 March 2004, Anna Ivanovna took me and my friends to the local municipal building to educate us on the procedures of voting in Russia. This was another way of saying that she needed to cast her vote and the polling station would be closed by the time she finished work. Since she couldn’t leave us by ourselves, we went with her. I remember the orphanage staff discussing the election. Putin was their favourite. Their reasoning was simple: their lives had improved over the past four years. They had jobs, food on the table and their kids were being educated. What else could they need?
The polling place was packed when we arrived. The orphanage and school were the village’s largest employers, so I saw my school teachers and other orphanage staff standing in line, chatting about the state of the country. Posters of Putin were hanging on every wall; a pamphlet with all the candidates’ details was doing the rounds. There were six candidates for president – including Putin, the only one I recognised, although I was intrigued to see that one was a woman. If I could have voted, I knew who it would have been for. Like my carers, I was for Putin.
I am American now, adopted by Texan parents. I moved to Dallas in 2005, attended public school, became a cheerleader, played drums in the high-school band. My father gave me traces of liberal thought and a love for the Dallas Cowboys. At university, I began to study my native country; now, as a graduate student, I have a better understanding of why my Russian parents had given me to the state.
The collapse of the Soviet Union affected everyone, including my birth parents. With the failure of Yegor Gaidar’s economic reforms, the country suffered economic trauma in the transition from socialism to capitalism. Identities changed along with political structures; the government became dysfunctional; the Soviet welfare state collapsed. The chaos had severe effects on the population, including, as Svetlana Alexievich writes in her book Secondhand Time: The Last of the Soviets, alcoholism, brutality and suicide. This legacy helps explain why my parents decided to give me up to the orphanage and why my caretakers supported Putin. Russians living in rural areas wanted a state that worked, and they wanted a stable life. A vote for Putin promised them that.
This faith in Putin was not entirely organic. In our remote area of the country, there were only three television channels, all of which were stated-owned. By law, each candidate was entitled to up to an hour of coverage per day, but Putin enjoyed most of the spotlight. Last week I asked my Russian friend Natasha, also a Texan transplant from my orphanage, whom she would vote for. Putin has been Russia’s president for most of her life. He would get her vote because, ‘for the most part’, she likes the way he runs the country.
I understand Natasha’s reasoning, but my point of view has changed. Putin’s management of the opposition plays a large role in influencing public opinion. All the candidates standing in this election – as well as those who thought about standing – have been subject to it. Ksenia Sobchak, running on a ‘none of the above’ ticket, has been portrayed as unfit by the Russian media. Alexei Navalny, the government’s most significant opponent, fighting government corruption, cronyism and state theft, has been barred from standing.
On 18 March, Putin will not get my vote. Major changes in government come through generational change. Even Dmitri Medvedev warned that a lack of real political competition in Russia would lead to ‘political stagnation’. During Putin’s time in office, the people of Russia have changed. Putin may have met the basic needs of the carers in my orphanage, but people are no longer solely concerned about the survival of their families. They are beginning to care more about issues such as the environment, gender equality, freedom of expression and political participation. Putin represents a generation to which I cannot relate.
With Alexei Navalny barred, however, there is no other candidate that can lead Russia. Other candidates are equally unsatisfactory – nominally active in government since the fall of the Soviet Union without ever presenting a credible alternative to Putin – and are either outdated, inexperienced or both. That leaves a single option. Vladimir Putin wants a high turnout rate to show the world he has majority support. The clearest way for Russians to prove him wrong is to abstain.