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Gauging Russian mood on trans-Siberian railway

With just days left until the Russia's presidential election, Al Jazeera’s Jonah Hull travels aboard the Trans-Siberian railway to take the pulse of voters.
Last modified: 29 Feb 2012 07:40

We have clipped along by train for two days now across the unrelentingly white landscape of frozen southern Siberia.

It's an agreeable way of getting from place to place if, like me, one is lodged in a private first class compartment with a kindly provodnitsa (attendant) like Vera who delivers sweet, black tea and freshly made pancakes before first light.

The majority of my fellow travellers are stacked up on bunks in the very clean but open-plan third class carriages. Many are making the whole six-day journey from Vladivostok to Moscow, though a fair number get on and off at stops in between.

I would find that a pretty horrible way to travel over any length of time, without privacy or the chance of a good wash. They don't seem to mind.

They have brought food, homemade buns, nuts, fruit, puzzles and playing cards. They replenish their supplies from station shops and vendors en route. They watch DVDs, read, crochet, knit and sleep.

Some, perhaps, will be wondering what they will find in Moscow, the heart of power, in the days before a presidential election with thousands of middle class Russians taking to the streets. Others will know only what they have seen on state TV about the opposition demonstrations - the foreign-funded noises of the bourgeoisie.

You can watch my report, above, for more of what the people I met had to say.

I was fortunate enough to stumble upon a real cross-section of views, from the slightly menacing, heavily pro-Putin 'worker' of no fixed trade, dubbed Sasha the Beast - "They are building capitalism, and capitalism is good" - to the truck driver who described how in his work crossing the country he sees a very different reality to that presented by Putin on TV.

The truck driver's wife said she would vote for the billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov in the hope that, being already so rich, he wouldn't have to steal anything from them.

And then there was Ludmila, her bright smile revealing a glistening top row of copper teeth, and her 15-year-old daughter Irina, with cerebral palsy, uncontrollably shaking and craning her neck at awkward angles towards the sun.

Irina was making her way through some fairly complicated looking mathematics homework.

Ludmila and Irina are on their way to a Moscow clinic for what may, or may not turn out to be state-funded specialist treatment. Irina will be assessed there, before any decision is made whether to offer her care. They don't know how long the assessment will take, or subsequently how long she may be cared for, nor when her schooling will resume, or where they will live in the meantime.

They don't know who, if not the state, will pick up the tab.

Theirs is a story not unique to Russia. But Russia is not a country with a famously good record of support for the sick and disabled.

Ludmila says they have had little state help in 15 years, but for this small chance of a better life for Irina, she will give Vladimir Putin her vote. She sees no alternative among the other candidates.

Her naive belief is that it is not Putin's fault no one has come to their aid sooner.

"We live far from Moscow," she says. "He does not know what is happening so far away in the regions because it is all down to local officials, the governor, the mayor."

"But soon he will know and things will be better."

"We hope they will pay more attention to children and the disabled...that's my personal hope."

My Russian colleague Anton is depressed by Ludmila's account.

Even more so by the woman in the next compartment, also handicapped, also cheerful, whose husband threw her off a four-storey building, breaking her neck, before divorcing her and taking custody of their child.

Anton seems to be reassessing the country he lives in, looking anew at the hardships he and many Russians take for granted, symptoms not of political mismanagement but simply of life.

I put this to him. He denies it.

"I'm not reassessing," he says. "It's just that every now and then one is reminded."

Anton lives a clean and healthy life, doesn't smoke or drink.

But this morning, shortly before noon, he offered me a shot of cognac from a half-jack pulled from his rucksack.