Russia election: Staged poll could give Putin another term

  • By Steve Rosenberg
  • Russia Teacher, Borovsk

image caption,

Vladimir Ovshinnikov's street art adorns Borovsky's walls — except when it gets too political.

As I walked around Borovsk, two things struck me about this town 60 miles (100 km) from Moscow.

First, there is no sign of a presidential election coming up this weekend.

I see some election banners or billboards and political pamphlets being distributed.

No wonder, really. The lack of election preparations reflects the lack of drama surrounding a stage-managed event that could hand Vladimir Putin a fifth term in the Kremlin.

Another thing you can't overlook in Borovsk is the street art. It's everywhere.

Much of it was created by street artist Vladimir Ovsinikov. His work looks down from walls and buildings across the city.

Most of his paintings are controversial. Like a giant globe describing the history of the city. Or a picture of a famous football player.

However, when Vladimir paints a picture of today's Russia, it becomes much darker.

“I call it the height of ambition,” the 86-year-old artist tells me. A painting he shows me at home shows a man in a martial arts uniform walking a tightrope over human skulls.

“This is what the ambition of one in power leads to.”

More dramatically, his image of two meat grinders dismembering people – one titled 1937 (Stalin's Year of the Great Terror); Another special military operation (Russia's war in Ukraine).

“We haven't learned any lessons,” Vladimir concludes.

After the artist graffitied similar meat grinders on a wall, he was fined for “insulting” the Russian military. His street art, which shows missiles falling on a woman dressed in the blue and yellow colors of Ukraine, has the same effect.

Vladimir uses his art not only to comment on the present, but also to shine a light on Russia's dark past – the repressions of the Stalin era. The authorities did not like his graffiti criticizing the war in Ukraine. It is painted fast.

“My paintings make people think: are we right or wrong in this conflict?” Vladimir tells me. “I believe this is an offense against the territorial integrity of a neighboring state. If I remain silent I will forgive it.”

“Many remain silent because they fear repression, losing their jobs and being criticized by others.”

After opposition leader Alexei Navalny died in prison, Vladimir painted Mr Navalny's portrait on a local memorial stone honoring victims of political repression.

“Someone wiped it out that same day,” Vladimir tells me. “But at home I drew a rough draft on cardboard. Then I took this and put it on the monument.”

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Vladimir says his paintings make people think about the conflict in Ukraine

How does Vladimir see the future of Russia?

“Some people are still predicting repression, and we're headed for totalitarianism and totalitarianism,” he says.

A picture of the President

Vladimir Ovchinnikov tells me he doesn't watch television.

If he does, he will see a very different picture of Russia on state television.

Version of Vladimir Putin.

No human skulls. No meat grinder. Not to mention Alexei Navalny.

It is Russia's aggression abroad and not oppression at home. This is Russia with a glorious past and an equally glorious future. A Russia of knights and patriots rallying around the flag to defend the motherland from outside aggression.

It is a Russia that loves its current leader.

image source, Good pictures

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Vladimir Putin is set to win the election for the fifth time

A few days ago Russia Channel 1's evening news bulletin seemed to worship Putin fans greeting the president like a pop star.

“Take care of yourself,” cried a woman, before kissing him.

“Long live!” A man shouted.

If you only rely on Channel 1 for news, you might conclude that Vladimir Putin has no chance of winning a landslide victory in the presidential election.

But context is just as important as paintings.

And the context here is important.

The Kremlin not only controls television in Russia, but also controls the entire political system, including elections.

As President Putin seeks a fifth term in office, he faces no serious challenge. His most vocal critics have been exiled or imprisoned at home. His bitter rival, Mr Navalny, is dead.

But the Kremlin likes to boast that Russia has the “best democracy” in the world. So, Mr Putin is on the ballot with three officially recognized contenders from Russia's Kremlin-friendly parliament.

I met one of them recently. It was a different experience.

“Why do you think you would be a better president than Putin?” I asked Communist Party candidate Nikolai Kharidonov.

“It is not for me to say,” replied Mr. Kharidonov. “That wouldn't be right.”

image caption,

Presidential candidate Nikolai Kharidonov (left) believes he cannot say whether he would make a better president than Putin.

“But you think your election manifesto is better than Putin's?” I continued.

“That's up to the voters to decide.”

“It doesn't matter what I think. That's what the voters want.”

Instead of talking about himself, Mr Kharidonov praised the incumbent.

“Today Vladimir Putin is trying to solve many of the problems of the 1990s that dragged Russia into wild capitalism,” Mr Kharidonov said. “He is trying to unify the nation for victory in all areas. This will happen!”

Something tells me Nikolai Kharidonov's heart isn't in this match.

One politician who tried unsuccessfully to get on the ballot was anti-war politician Boris Nadeshtin.

“It is absolutely impossible to say that our presidential elections are fair and free,” Mr Nadeshtin tells me. He claims he was banned from competing because his anti-war message was becoming so popular.

“Polls show that about 30-35 percent of people in Russia want to vote for a candidate who talks about peace like me. This is an absolutely impossible decision for our government.”

Picture on the street

Back in Borovsk I enjoy the view from the bridge over the Brotva River.

From here the city looks like a painting: I could imagine a picture of Russia hanging in the Hermitage. There is a beautiful church on a hill, with snow-covered houses below. Bundled up in warm coats, people are walking carefully along icy paths.

I, too, tread carefully when visiting town to gauge the mood. On the streets of Borovsk, what do people think about the war, the election and their president?

“No matter how you vote, everything is predetermined,” a young woman named Svetlana tells me. “There's no point in me participating.”

But many here, especially older Russians, tell me they will vote. When I talk to people, it's clear that the Russia they see on TV has many supporters.

image caption,

Russia wants its citizens and the world to believe it has everything figured out

“I hope that Vladimir Putin will win the election and that will end the war,” Lyudmila tells me. “Many young people have been killed. Many countries will finally understand that Russia cannot be defeated when there is peace.”

“Why do you want Mr Putin to win?” I am asking. “After all, he was the one who initiated the special military operation.”

“There are many opinions,” Lyudmila admits. “Some say the war should never have been started. Some say he is right. I won't judge him now. We don't know all the political nuances.”

“Mr Putin has been in power for almost a quarter of a century,” I point out. “In a country of 145 million people, is there no one else to do his job?”

“Damn, we have many capable leaders who, in an emergency, can run the country,” Lyudmila replied.

Nikolai will vote for the current president, apparently unfazed by Putin's two and a half decades in power.

“So what? We had long-reigning tsars,” says Nikolai. “There were good czars and bad ones. We had Stalin and Brezhnev. You can change a leader, but it makes little difference in our lives.”

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