Last week, my mom, a doctor working at a local polyclinic, was summoned along with all her colleagues to an unusual kind of staff meeting.
The head nurse, a member of the ruling United Russia party, had gathered everyone to remind them of the importance to vote the “correct” way in the upcoming March 4 presidential elections. Though she never explicitly endorsed Putin, she delivered a long lecture about the various achievements of the current government and painted a terrifying picture of a Putin-less world, hinting darkly that the fate of a conveniently instituted pre-election pay-rise hung in the balance.
This kind of thing has been happening in nearly every school, hospital, barracks, university and other state organisation, as well as many large businesses. So it comes as no surprise to read about the climactic, massive pro-Putin rally in Moscow attended by over 100,000 people, many of whom no doubt came as willingly as my mom had done to her staff meeting.
But it’s wrong to read too much into these astro-turfed meetings, a staple of Soviet times endured more with stoicism than animosity. The hapless voters frogmarched to the rally from their factories and office desks would not have come on their own accord, but neither were they likely to run in the opposite direction.
In fact, if there is one thing the average Russian hates more than the government, it’s the decadent, self-satisfied, out of touch, Western-orientated opposition. So much so that, outside of this self-referential circle, few were surprised when Russia’s Paris Hilton decided to throw in her lot with the pro-democracy brigade.
And let’s face it, some of the things they say would grate the nerves of a middle class Westerner, let alone an ordinary Russian. For example, this quote from Yevgenia Chirikova, organiser of the Khimky protests and a key figure in the grassroots opposition, trying to differentiate herself from Sobchak:
“We are from different planets,” said Chirikova. “I was in business and bringing up my children. I didn’t even have a television set.”
To the average Russian reading this, it’s Chirikova who appears to be from another planet. What kind of person, successful in business, would not have a TV set? Unless you’re some sort of Western-style hipster who’s too good to do something 99% of the population do.
Rather than make her seem like an everyman, this kind of bullshit just shows up the vast cultural, as well as material, gap between the liberal opposition – cosmopolitan, metropolitan, eminently annoying – and everyone else.
Thus, it’s no surprise to hear, from a person who confessed to the Guardian about having been paid off to attend the rally, that he will actually not be voting for Putin…but…wait for it: Zhirinovsky, the goofily fascist demagogue (who, on top of it, is also widely suspected of being Putin’s tool to divert the nationalist vote – for all his hilarious bluster, Zhirik has almost never voted against United Russia in parliament).
So, all those who cheer the growing discontent with the Kremlin should keep in mind that a vote against Putin is more likely to be a vote for rightwing nationalism (or worse) than liberal democracy.