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In the provinces, Putin’s a pillar

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.

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“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.

“Moscow is not Russia; it is another planet altogether, with different prices, salaries and interests,” said Alexander Ivanov, a 37-year-old metal craftsman who as a soldier took part in the bloody suppression of the 1993 Communist-encouraged riots in Moscow. “Should the authorities ask for help in dispersing the opposition rallies, I will go there and do my best to help crush them.”

A paradox of the workers’ support for Putin is their lack of allegiance to his United Russia party. In December’s parliamentary elections, which saw the once-dominant party suffer its most humiliating defeat in years, the result in Yaroslavl was the worst among all the big cities in the country.

The canny Putin managed to distance himself from the party well before the parliamentary poll, perhaps aware that workers traditionally hate bureaucracy on all levels, suspecting corruption.

The party is still languishing in such shock and confusion that its Yaroslavl branch didn’t even nominate a candidate for the mayoral election to be held simultaneously with the presidential election, local politicians and experts said.

Even Putin’s staunch backers understand that the ruling party is all but dead and gone, said Yevgeny Urlashov, a lawyer and mayoral candidate who reportedly commands 30% of local voter support.

“It is amazing how these people seem to miss any connection between the party and its leader,” Urlashov said, adding that despite United Russia’s worse-than-expected showing, support for Putin is still high enough, especially among the working class and rural dwellers, to most likely ensure his victory in March.

“Putin will obviously win this time, but to keep his job he will be obligated to radically change his policy, to change the constitution and laws to give people back the democratic freedoms and rights taken away from them over these years,” Urlashov said.

“In the new situation when the sacred image of the Kremlin has been dealt such a humiliating blow, Putin can only stay in power if he unleashes truly democratic reforms.”

About 50 miles northwest of Yaroslavl in the depression-hit defense and nuclear industry town of Rybinsk, a woman sat bent over an antiquated metal vise in a dark hall of a spare-parts production plant. Most workers had been sent home for the day because of a prolonged power outage.

But Svetlana Yershova, 46, didn’t need electricity to manually clip out inch-long metal parts for $10 a day in the winter daylight dying fast behind the soiled window.

She said she believed that the result of the presidential poll had already been decided, that nothing would depend on her vote and that she might as well stay home.

“But if I change my mind and vote, I will cast my vote for Putin,” she said, raising her head and smiling, lighting up the room with her gold front tooth. “You see, Putin doesn’t have this alterni ... alturni.... What do you call that?”

“Alternative?”

“Exactly,” she said. “Something he doesn’t have.”

sergei.loiko@latimes.com


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