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Workers unite behind Putin

While Vladimir Putin has succeeded in alienating the middle class in Russia, in a Soviet-era factory in Siberia, Jonah Hull finds workers still loyal to the man poised to return to the Kremlin.
Last modified: 1 Mar 2012 12:12
In Tyumen, among the workers, Putin for president is still a safe bet.

The wisdom of the pundits, the free-thinking ones, seems to be that while Vladimir Putin has succeeded in alienating the big city middle classes in Russia, he still confidently holds the support of the regional masses, the workers who make up the electoral majority.

The polls, at time of writing, seem to suggest likewise having risen sharply in Putin's favour, suggesting he will win in the first round and avoid a humiliating run-off.

Having travelled back in real time for days, crossing time zones from east to west that made each day longer than the last, I took a step back into history in the oil town of Tyumen.

I visited a Soviet-era factory to find out if the pundits were right about the workers.

At the privately-owned Sibneftegasmag, around a hundred workers take big hunks of steel and turn them into heavy bits and pieces - like 'preventers', that you'll all be familiar with - for oil rigs and pipelines.

You can tell it's a Soviet-era factory because everything in it looks like it was built by hand a century ago with a hammer, and 'health-and-safety' is as alien a concept as 'coffee machine' or 'ventilation'.

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However, in a break with tradition, we were given astonishing access to the plant by a kindly Soviet-era manager, allowed to climb on things, open and close things, and dangle our camera from things while other large and hazardous things whirred and thumped and shuddered nearby.

We were also allowed to ask anyone we liked lots of questions, political ones, about the past and the future, about the election and who people would be voting for.

Most said, 'Putin'.

I didn't get the sense of any corporate coercion, as is often described in state-run factories and industry. Some workers said they'd vote Communist, some said they weren't going to vote at all.

Nor was the Putin support entirely wholehearted, unquestioning, as perhaps it once was.

Instead, there is the feeling that Putin is the only viable option. The other candidates are buffoons. He has experience, they don't. He's shown his ability, they just talk. He guarantees stability, they are unknown quantities.

The lack of nuance in these views is matched by a general lack of enthusiasm.

Putin hailed

Vladimir Putin once excited and inspired the people of Russia, people like these.

"He brought the country up from its knees," one man told me.

Under Putin, salaries were actually paid where they hadn't been in the 90s. They even went up while for many the cost of living came down. On the back of high oil prices and new wealth there were improvements to infrastructure.

And there were promises, lots of promises, of much more.

The 2000s was a time to be proud again, of being Russian.

But those times are starting to recede into memory.

For a worker on 1000 bucks a month, much of the glitz of the new Russia is available for window-shopping only. Who cares about a new airport if you can't afford to fly anywhere?

Schools and hospitals remain on the whole in a parlous state. Prices are on the rise while salaries have flatlined. And corruption. Don't mention corruption.

So the Putin star has waned.

Why do they still support him, the regional working class masses, while the educated city folk are on the streets protesting?

The experts say in part it's because the workers use the internet for entertainment and the middle class uses it to broadcast images of ballot fraud captured on smart phones.

In large part, too, the workers watch state tv.

As factory worker Sergei Ovechkin told me, "I watched television yesterday and it's a real circus. The others are not presidential candidates. Putin looks stronger and more serious."

Exactly as he's meant to.