Analysis / Travel

A View from the Urals: Nizhny Tagil and the anti-Putin protests

During a visit to the Urals, Paul Hansbury sought locals’ opinions about the recent anti-government protests in Moscow and other parts of Russia.

Photo (c) the author.

Nizhny Tagil.  Photo (c) the author.

Igor Kholmanskikh’s fifteen minutes of fame came in December 2011. Kholmanskikh was Deputy Director of the assembly line at Uralvagonzavod, Russia’s largest battle tank manufacturer, situated in the city of Nizhny Tagil. During a TV conference with (then) Prime Minister, Vladimir Putin, Kholmanskikh pledged to bring a band of workers to Moscow and join the police in resisting the opposition protests provoked by the falsified legislative elections.

‘If the civilian militia (militsiya), or as they are called today – police (politsiya), … are unable to cope, we are ready to come and defend the status quo (stabil’nost’) … within the bounds of the law’ (watch here). His message was that the workers of Russia’s industrial heartland did not care for the metropolitan protest movement and remained loyal to the Kremlin. While Kremlin critics may fancy that the exchange was stage-managed, or that political change does not care for an industrial backwater in any case, it is nonetheless worthwhile testing Kholmanskikh’s message. What is the attitude of Tagilchanye (Nizhny Tagil’s residents) towards the anti-government protest movement today? What implications do these attitudes have for the protest movement?

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The P352 highway that connects Niznhy Tagil to Yekaterinburg is in worse condition each year. As the marshrutka rocks and rattles into the city one catches a first glimpse of the factory stacks pumping black and brown smoke into the sky. These factories are the city’s lifeblood: the three main employers are the Nizhny Tagil Metallurgy Complex (NTMK), the Mining and Processing Complex (VGOK), and the above-mentioned tank factory. Without these enterprises there would be no means to sustain the city.

It is a city past its prime. In Soviet times the promenade along the man-made lake (long ago a quarry) was clean and well-kept. Today its broken concrete steps and weed-plugged cracks would be a good setting for a dystopian film. The population has fallen by 75,000 since the end of the USSR, comfortably outpacing Russia’s demographic crisis. Walking between the khrushchevka apartment blocks and the rusty Ferris wheel one senses the neglect. This neglect, though, is from the 1990s and not the 2000s.

In his address, Kholmanskikh thanked Putin for injecting cash into the tank factory. ‘Today we have many thousands of orders, a salary, prospects, and we very much value this stability,’ he proclaimed, ‘we do not want to go back.’ It is a view that resonates among those I speak to in the city. First, Putin is associated with stability; wages and pensions are paid on time, not six months late as they were during the Yeltsin era. As one friend puts it, ‘In the 90s I considered it lucky to work in return for two cans of dog food.’ Second, Putin is associated with material benefits. During his second term Putin drew up a list of strategic enterprises to which that the state would render support. Uralvagonzavod received fourteen billion roubles (circa £300 million) in the hand-out and NTMK also benefitted. Material betterment is felt too at an individual level. The expansion of personal credit has ensured everyone has the latest electronic equipment, albeit that the effects of this credit expansion remain to be evaluated.

It has been claimed that Uralvagonzavod produced more tanks in 2008 than the rest of the world combined (Moscow Defense Brief 2/16; cited on Wikipedia).

It has been claimed that Uralvagonzavod produced more tanks in 2008 than the rest of the world combined (Moscow Defense Brief 2/16; cited on Wikipedia).

Given these factors one would expect to find high support for Putin in last year’s elections. In fact, at first glance the election results do not bear out this story. According to official results, 66% of votes cast in Nizhny Tagil were for Putin, which compares with 56% in the capital. The difference is significant but far from overwhelming given the uneven playing field of Russian elections, which might be expected to amplify the Putin tally disproportionally away from the capital. Indeed, whilst the pro-Putin votes in the industrial sector of the town – Dzerzhinsky (or ‘Vagonka’), where the tank factory is – was an impressive 70%, it should be noted that a conspicuous incentive to vote was widely reported. Lottery tickets were handed out to factory workers entering the polling station, with the promise of prizes in the event of the appropriate result. The voting does not support Kholmanskikh’s message of deep-felt resistance to the Opposition movement emanating from Moscow.

The ballot box, though, is also the wrong measure of attitudes towards the protest movement. Despite tepid support for Putin, the protests (or ‘meetings’) in Moscow find little sympathy amongst the Tagilchanye with whom I discuss politics – a fact which only shores up Putin’s position outside of the electoral process. Beyond the 66% of votes that went to Putin, the Communist Gennady Zyuganov polled 11%. Opposition leader Mikhail Prokhorov – who took 20% in Moscow – was a no show. There is an obvious disconnect between factory employees in the Urals and the urbane Moscow middle-classes, which divides the prospective opposition. It may be that the former are uninformed, or it may be that they are misinformed via state-controlled media, yet the Tagilchanye share grievances with the Moscow protesters; no one is unfamiliar with the petty corruptions of life and politics.

Many feel that the town was cheated during the Yeltsin era and Putin has at least stopped the rot. There is a potential support base here for the Moscow-centred protesters, but there is little evidence that the protesters have wielded any influence to date. By focusing on the Kremlin, they have neglected the opportunity to expand the movement. The political opportunity existed and may now have passed [1]. With the factory worker back behind his lathe and the Muscovite back with his or her iPad, the gulf between the two populations is re-established.

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In reward Kholmanskikh was designated Putin’s representative in Nizhny Tagil. Meanwhile Putin is once again putting his hand into the state coffers and pushing money to Nizhny Tagil. All of which raises a final question: is Kholmanskikh a hero in his hometown? According to one poster on an internet discussion forum, Kholmanskikh took to passing through town with his hood up to conceal his face – was this an act of celebrity? Or an act of shame?  Inevitably both opinions are easily found on the broken streets of Nizhny Tagil.

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Footnote:

[1] See the wide literature on electoral revolutions, but in particular here: Tucker (2007) ‘Enough! Enough!  Electoral Fraud, Collective Action Problems, and Post-Communist Colored Revolutions’ in Perspectives on Politics 5:3.

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