An election snapshot aboard Russian Railways Train 109 as passengers speak of frustration as leader seems set to stay in power.
Vladimir Putin is off the rails, say train passengers
ABOARD RUSSIAN RAILWAYS TRAIN 109 // From the comfortable cabins of first class to the crowded and smelly third-class bunks, passengers travelling to Moscow from a remote Arctic boomtown reveal why Vladimir Putin's election success feels less than triumphant.
The broad discontent seen on the long-distance train journey reflects that of this sprawling country, a prism of its demographic layers. Although anger with Mr Putin isn't unanimous, it is clearly widespread, a striking challenge to his self-promoted image as the working man's hero who is the only leader all Russians can love and admire.
Few doubted that Mr Putin, who was president from 2000 to 2008, would win yesterday's presidential election, returning him to the Kremlin after a four-year stint as prime minister. But the frustrations encountered on Train 109 indicated that his new term won't be easy.
The train's 66-hour, 3,500km trip to the capital starts in Novy Urengoi, a gas-producing town just below the Arctic Circle. Natural gas revenues are a key piece of the prosperity that Russia has enjoyed under Mr Putin.
The new-found wealth initially pleased Russia's working classes and lulled them into docile complacency, but many are increasingly discontent with the political ossification that set in under Mr Putin and his place-holder successor as president, Dmitry Medvedev. Term limits ban presidents from serving more than two consecutive terms.
"For eight years we had Putin, then we had Medvedev, and now Putin again. Who after that: Medvedev?" Alexander Yurov asked in a third-class car where barracks-like bunks crowd both sides of a narrow walkway. "Well, this is what they're getting from me," he said, holding up his middle finger.
A group of people gathered around a little table between the bunks chuckle approvingly.
An astonishing wave of protests against fraud-marred parliamentary elections in December sprang mainly from cities like Moscow and St Petersburg, and Mr Putin has been quick to characterise his opponents as coddled urban elites.
But conversations with people like Mr Yurov, a Novy Urengoi construction foreman who plans to vote for the Communist candidate, Gennady Zyuganov, reveal the undercurrent of dissatisfaction across all layers of society. In fact, many said the elites are Mr Putin and his cronies.
Much of Mr Putin's appeal has been based on the stability he brought Russia after the chaos of the Soviet Union's collapse and Boris Yeltsin's capricious and tragicomic rule of the newly independent country.
Statistics do present an impressive picture of improvements under Mr Putin, who is running against four Kremlin-approved opponents. When he was inaugurated for his first term in May 2000, the average monthly wage was US$75 (Dh275); it is 10 times higher now. The infamously low life expectancy for males rose from 60 to 64. Although Russia's murder rate is still high by European standards, it has fallen nearly 45 per cent in the past dozen years.
"Everybody wants stability," said businessman Andrei Khorashavin, travelling in first class. "I see Putin as the person that can guarantee that."
But many of his neighbours even in the neat, two-berth cabins of first class - those who have grown rich in Putin's Russia - are fed up with the unbridled corruption that spreads through the country's leadership and infiltrates their everyday lives.
Igor, a software entrepreneur, points to his smartphone and grumbled: "I often buy these as presents." He means, of course, as bribes to government officials.
Igor, who asked his last name not be used for fear of damaging his business, said failure to curry favour with officials could leave him prone to arbitrary government checks and ruin his chances in state tenders.
The train stop at Gus-Khrustalny, some two hours train ride east of Moscow, vividly demonstrates that although Russia has come far under Putin, it still is a country of marginal living for many. Women employed at the city's glassware factory clamber aboard, prowling the corridors to try to sell stemware and trinkets they made in their spare time to try to supplement their wages.
Mr Putin's unchallenged rule has hinged greatly on a deep-rooted conformism among Russians, who widely concluded that an excess of democracy in the 1990s led to chaos and a deterioration in their standard of living.
Criticism of Mr Putin has been all but banished from the national airwaves - allowing the Kremlin to dismiss dissent as irrelevant sniping by marginal figures.
That is proving harder this time around as ordinary people from all walks of life voice disapproval, and cities heave with protesters who had never before bothered with political activism.
In his four-berth second-class cabin, Fyodor Kolesnikov said Mr Putin's economic management was a recipe for disaster.
"The economy has got better, but that is only thanks to the oil," said the marketing company analyst from Siberia's main city of Novosibirsk. "We need somebody in this country that can take bold decisions, otherwise we are just going down the road of stagnation."
Despite all the criticism, the passengers on Train 109 agreed with a degree of resignation that their next president will be Mr Putin.
Medicinal supplies trader Yury Pulin, travelling in second class, likened the current government to a bloodsucking insect - but said any other government would probably be no better.
"The mosquitoes have had their fill, but why invite new ones just so they can take their turn at sucking our blood too," he said.