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It starts to make sense when you look at the way life is structured in Kurgan. The factory where Usmanov works, Kurganstalmost, depends entirely on government contracts to pay the wages of about 3,000 workers. Nearly all live in the dreary cluster of apartment blocks called Neighborhood No. 1, which the factory built. The factory's owner is a close family friend of the governor, who is appointed by the Kremlin, and another of the governor's buddies controls the local TV channels. Most of these regional nomenklatura belong to Putin's United Russia party, which fits them neatly into what Russians call "the vertical of power," shorthand for Putin's enormous chain of command.
Take Alexander Iltyakov, a local pig farmer and sausage magnate who is a dead ringer for Robert De Niro in Raging Bull, complete with a boxer's flattened nose. In June, he caught Putin's eye during a speech he gave on life in his village, and a few months later, he was invited to run for parliament on the United Russia ticket. It was an easy win, and in exchange, he is adapting Putin's campaign to the language of the provinces. "Serfdom is not slavery," he likes to say. Over a meal of pork knuckle and sausage at a Kurgan pub, he explains how stable life was for the serfs of 18th century Russia. They were supported by their land baron and grateful to the Czar. So what remains of that culture today? Iltyakov smiles and slowly brings his forefinger to his temple. "Moses walked with the Jews in the desert for 40 years to free them of their slave mentality," he says. "Putin has only been our leader for a decade."
And then there is Dmitri Paryshev, the current head of Kurganstalmost, who inherited the factory from his father in 2008. Two years later, he was asked to run for United Russia on a local legislative ballot. When he lost to a communist, the voters paid the price. "They still come asking for help," Paryshev says in his office, where a stuffed lynx stands in the corner with its ears pricked. "I tell them, Folks, when I needed you, you voted for the communists. So let the communists help you. Let them lay your sewer pipes, put in your fire extinguishers, patch the walls in your houses." Ingratitude has its price in the vertical of power, even at the level of sewer pipes.
And that tends to make people think twice before protesting, either in the streets or at the ballot box, which helps explain why the revolutionary mood keeping Moscow restless this winter has not caught on in places like Kurgan. "Such things don't reach our neck of the woods," Paryshev says. "Small towns are great that way. You can control the whole process, and if somebody starts plotting a protest, it's easy to shut them down." Sure enough, recent protests in Kurgan, which were organized by the local opposition to coincide with the ones in Moscow, were prohibited by city officials. Nearly all of the few dozen people who showed up were arrested.
The biggest rally Kurgan has seen during Russia's winter of discontent was actually in support of Putin, on Feb. 4, when a few thousand people filled the town square chanting slogans for stability. About 300 of them were from Kurganstalmost. "It was voluntary-mandatory," says Alexei Mosin, a foreman at the factory, with a smile. "We didn't force anyone to go. We just suggested it was a good idea."
If that were not enough, Putin's campaign has provided ample encouragement. As the Prime Minister was heading to the airport to fly to Kurgan, newspapers published his announcement of a huge wage increase for teachers. It was the latest phase in a budget-bending effort to buy votes through social payouts, helping everyone from pensioners to college students but forcing the federal budget into its first deficit in a decade. (In February, these payouts will reach 12% of GDP, or more than $30 billion, compared with an average of 0.8% of GDP in previous months, according to analysts at Credit Suisse.)
The campaign's other weapon has been fear. The day before Putin's arrival in Kurgan, state TV aired a program arguing that the West is trying to overthrow the government through proxies. As proof, it showed footage of anti-Putin activists visiting the U.S. embassy in Moscow and quoted U.S. Senator John McCain's Twitter jab at Putin on Dec. 5: "Dear Vlad, The Arab Spring is coming to a neighborhood near you." The broadcast went on to explain that there are two forces in Russia today: "Those who want great upheaval, and those who want a great Russia."
Never before had Putin bristled at the U.S. as fiercely as he has during this campaign. On Dec. 8, he accused U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton of "giving the signal" that started the protests against his government, and a week later, while addressing the nation live on television, he clenched his hand into a fist and said, "People are tired of the dictates of one nation ... America does not need allies it needs vassals." So any serious talk of a thaw in U.S.-Russian relations, which President Obama touted as a key goal of his foreign policy, has fallen by the wayside during Putin's campaign. A new Putin term could be more hawkish than the previous two. "A weakened Putin will face the same problem governing that he faces now campaigning," says Paul Saunders of the Center for the National Interest in Washington. "He will be tempted to appeal to Russian nationalists and may find it more difficult to pursue policies that would antagonize them."
Vasily Kislitsin, the head of the Kurgan branch of the Communist Party, who wears a pin of Che Guevara on his lapel, says the "anti-American wave" has been a brilliant move for Putin. "It really works. The people are really afraid of a Russian Arab Spring," he says. In December, his party won almost 20% of the vote in parliamentary elections, placing second after Putin's United Russia. Its candidate for the presidency, Gennady Zyuganov, has the best chance of forcing Putin into a runoff vote. But Putin is still sure to win with the support of men like Usmanov.
The factory manager has worked at Kurganstalmost since 1998 and still remembers how wages weren't paid during that year's financial crisis. "Putin pulled us out of that," he says. Today Usmanov's wife works as a factory clerk at the desk adjacent to his, and when his sons finish studying at School No. 7, he wants them to work at the factory too. "We should thank God for what we have," he says. "Just look at education. The state does not need to teach our children, but it does. The quality might be bad. The schools might be in awful shape. But we have schools, and I think that's a plus for Putin." Such thinking is not the stuff of adoration or even of heartfelt support. But for Putin, going into these elections, it will have to do.
with reporting by Jay Newton-Small / Washington