Support for Putin Wanes in His Former Russian Stronghold
In 2011, the industrial city of Nizhny Tagil was dubbed "Putingrad" for its residents' fervent support for Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Nine years later, it appears the city 1,400 kilometers (870 miles) east of Moscow no longer lives up to that nickname.
Workers are speaking out against the constitutional changes that would allow Putin to stay in office until 2036 amid growing frustration over their dire living conditions, which have not improved despite all the promises.
"I am against the constitutional changes, most importantly because they are a coronation of the czar, who reigns but does not rule — Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin," says Nikolay Nemytov, a 43-year-old engineer at Russian Railways, a state-run monopoly. He says his monthly salary, the equivalent of $430, is not nearly enough.
Anton Zhuravlyov, a 33-year-old operator at the Nizhny Tagil Iron and Steel Works Plant, or NTMK, agrees with him on the vote.
"I think (the vote) is just a show. It is more for Putin to show that, 'Look, the people support me, I am still needed, I am in demand,'" said Zhuravlyov, whose employer is one of the two biggest companies in the city. He says his salary hasn't changed in four years, adding: "The majority of people are against him."
Commentators say dwindling public support is the reason why the Kremlin rushed to push through the changes that effectively would allow Putin, already in power for two decades, to hold office for another 16 years if he chooses.
The coronavirus outbreak forced officials to postpone an April 22 vote on a set of constitution amendments that included a clause that resets the term count for Putin, allowing him to run for two more six-year terms after his current term ends in 2024.
At the first sign of the outbreak slowing down, Putin rescheduled the plebiscite for Wednesday, even though Russia's daily number of new infections is still just under 7,000. His historically high approval rating is at an all-time low — 59% in May, according to Levada Center, Russia's top independent pollster — and the Kremlin is clearly struggling to rally the enthusiasm and the turnout needed for the vote to be seen as a nationwide triumph.
Economic woes, like those in Nizhny Tagil, have been eroding Putin's ratings for years, said Denis Volkov, a sociologist with the Levada Center.
"Over the past five years, poverty has been continuously growing, people's financial situation was worsening, and in the midst of it, the (approval) ratings have been slowly declining," he said.
The mood was far different in 2011-12, when Nizhny Tagil, with its 360,000 residents, became a bedrock of support for Putin.
Igor Kholmanskih, a foreman at the state tank and railroad car factory Uralvagonzavod, appeared on Putin's annual nationwide phone-in marathon in December 2011 and denounced the mass protests occurring in Moscow at the time as a threat to "stability."
"Today, our staff of many thousands has work, has salaries, has a future, and we value this stability very much. We don't want to go back," the foreman said in proposing that he "and the guys" travel to Moscow to help suppress the unrest.
"Do come over!" Putin said with a smile. Several days after his inauguration in May 2012, the president visited Nizhny Tagil. A week later, he appointed Kholmanskikh to be his envoy in the Ural mountains region.
In a stark contrast, the once-vehement Putin supporter later criticized authorities for embellishing statistics on salaries that didn't reflect the dire living conditions. Kholmanskikh's unremarkable political career ended in June 2018 when Putin dismissed him, and he returned to Uralvagonzavod as chairman of the board — only to step down and completely vanish from public view by January of this year.
"The majority doesn't see this kind of money in their wallets. When people hear about average salaries in their cities and regions, they just assume they're being lied to," Kholmanskikh said in a rare public appearance at a conference in December.
His sentiment tracked the shifting mood of Nizhny Tagil residents, from support to opposition, after several years of falling living standards.
"Indeed, we used to be 'Putingrad.' We used to support the government's agenda," says Nadezhda Zhuravlyova, 36, a local activist. "A lot has changed. The agenda that the government is promoting no longer satisfies local residents' needs."
Zhuravlyova, who worked at NTMK for seven years and is now on maternity leave, is the face of a local opposition movement, Tagil for Changes, that was founded in 2018 — the year of the election that gave Putin another six years.
She says protests have been rising since then, with people no longer afraid to take a public stand.
"In March, we organized a mass picket against the constitutional amendments, and many city residents (who attended) we were not acquainted with — they were not just from our circle. People just saw the protest and came forward," Zhuravlyova says.
Zhuravlyova blames unpopular government policies such as raising the retirement age and increasing tariffs on garbage collection. She says wages are rising slowly but living conditions are worsening.
"Many people get their salary and immediately spend it — (on) utility bills, paying off loans ... education, health care, groceries and medicine," Zhuravlyova said.
Nemytov, who worked at NTMK for 12 years before joining Russian Railways, says he spends almost half of his $430 salary on utility bills that go up every year.
"This is just not enough for my family," said the engineer, who adds that he cannot take his four children on fun outings or on vacations to southern Russia.
Zhuravlyov echoes his sentiment, blaming Putin.
"He's the most important boss. (People) do as he says," the worker says.
Nemytov believes the constitutional changes won't improve life for workers in Nizhny Tagil.
"They only care for us as numbers on a piece of paper. We don't exist for them," the engineer says.