As usual, Vladimir Putin was late. Extremely late. Russia's Prime Minister was due to arrive at 3 p.m. in the town of Kurgan, a sooty industrial outpost on the Trans-Siberian Railway, to meet a group of provincial voters. Outside School No. 7, in Neighborhood No. 3, about 100 of them had gathered to wait for him, in a scene of village mirth much like a Bruegel painting with snow. But by 4 p.m. the people started shivering: the temperature was -20 degrees C. By 5, the flasks in their pockets were running dry. By 6, they started to curse, and the elderly went home.
It was not a good way to start a campaign tour. On March 4, the Prime Minister, who has already served two terms as President, will stand for re-election to a third presidential term, and while he does not have any real competition the playing field in Russia has been stomped flat since Putin rose to power 12 years ago he is scrambling for popular support for the first time in his career. His ratings in Russia's biggest cities have fallen to historic lows, and members of the middle class (or, as one of Putin's deputies called them, "annoyed city folk") have been rallying in Moscow by the tens of thousands to demand his resignation.
His fallback, as ever, has been the working class in Russia's industrial heartland, where Putin's campaign narrative sells a lot better than it does in Moscow. Its logic goes roughly like this: I saved you all from the chaos and poverty that followed the Soviet collapse, I am the only one who can guarantee stability, and all those people protesting against me are part of an American plot to overthrow the government. In places like Kurgan, this message has worked like a charm. (One of Kurgan's leading opposition lawmakers, whose national party has fielded a candidate against Putin, was so afraid of appearing to collude with Americans that he refused to meet with TIME in a public place. "I know it looks funny," he said, sitting in his car in an alley with the engine running. "They've just pushed us into a corner with this anti-American thing.")
But even in Kurgan, a factory town of about 300,000 people, Putin no longer has many diehard fans, as became clear when he finally walked into School No. 7 with his classic, slightly pugilistic stride. The point of the visit was a meeting in the cafeteria with the school's parent-teacher association, which is chaired by a local factory manager named Sergei Usmanov. A few days before, officials from the Education Ministry had arrived to take some pictures of the wallpaper and linoleum floors. "They told us not to change anything," Usmanov says. "They wanted the statistical average of the Russian school." So Putin's was to be a different kind of Potemkin village with warts and all, to give the candidate an opportunity to address people's problems. Apart from a computerized chalkboard that the officials installed in time for Putin's arrival, he was shown a typically Russian school, complete with busted windows, leaking roofs and a numbing cold inside the classrooms.
When Putin sat at the cafeteria table, the pent-up gripes over these kinds of problems spilled out. "For the past 12 years," Usmanov told him, "as long as my child has been going to this school, we've been fixing up the classes out of our own pockets." Under the glare of TV cameras, Putin winced as if eager to get the meeting over with. "I got it," he said. "All right. Today I'll talk to the governor." Sitting on a cafeteria bench, chewing his fingernails, was Governor Oleg Bogomolov, who has run Kurgan for 16 years.
The following day, in his office at the local steel-beam factory, Usmanov became the unwitting point man for Putin. Every few minutes, his door would open to reveal another curious worker, usually carrying a hard hat. Their questions were all the same: Did Putin seem like one of us? Was he a regular guy? Has he soured? Some of the workers recalled Putin as he had been circa 2006, when his approval ratings were well over 70%. Back then, he still personified the Russian tough guy, the muzhik, who could fly a jet, harpoon a whale, flip Washington the bird and still switch easily into the scrappy banter of a roughneck. But the Putin who arrived in Kurgan was not the salt of the earth. He seemed detached from his own people if not yet afraid of them. So Usmanov had a difficult time answering the questions. "He's O.K.," he told them. "I guess he's more or less a normal guy."
When the door closed for the fourth or fifth time, Usmanov remembered an old Russian tradition the khodoki, a term for the peasants who would go directly to the Czar to ask for help. "That was us yesterday," he says. "We were the khodoki appealing to the Czar. I know you're supposed call Putin the President or Prime Minister these days. But to us, he is the Czar. Not much has changed."
In Moscow, it would be hard to find anyone younger than 60 who still thinks along those lines. The educated middle class makes up as much as half of the population in Moscow, and as their slogans showed during the recent wave of protests, they are demanding fair elections, accountable officials and parliamentary democracy. They do not want a Czar.
But as the local saying goes, Moscow is not Russia, and Russia is not Moscow. "The old feudal order still exists in the countryside. It's just put on a democratic coat," says Elena Gabitova, a sociologist in Kurgan who conducts opinion polls throughout the region. "You can meet all kinds of people here who hate everything about the government. Their villages are dying out. But they still support only Putin. I don't really understand it, but it's true."