Yesterday, I spent the afternoon at the largest pro-Putin rally to date. You can read my report on it in Russia Profile, though it doesn’t quite touch on some of my personal thoughts.
It’s been widely reported – and indeed, almost common sense at this point – that many of the participants in these rallies have been heavily “encouraged” to attend, whether through open coercion from their managers or through attractive incentives, such as a bottle of hooch, a small wad of cash, or even a warm meal and a free ride. But as I spoke with a number of out-of-towners, their enthusiasm actually surprised me. Whether they had been flown in by their local administrations or employers, the group of schoolteachers from far eastern Yakutia, pictured above, were all smiles and cheers. Like many others who had come from afar, their trip had been organized “among their colleagues” but insisted they came to Moscow of their own free will. A small group of parliamentarians from Ingushetia I ran into similarly said they hopped in a car and made the two-day drive on their own dime. They, too, seemed brimming with enough enthusiasm to fill Luzhniki stadium by themselves.
Much has been made lately of this (not-so-new) phenomenon in post-Soviet Russia, mostly because of the growing protest trend here. Countless media reports have detailed pro-Putin demonstrators’ lack of enthusiasm or the explicit orders they received from their superiors to attend the rallies. No doubt, both are important factors that deserve attention (and I also touched upon “enforcing cooperation” in this report for RP). But there’s also something to be said for those, despite possible urging from above, who remain genuinely enthusiastic about supporting their regime. Yes, there’s a good chance that the Ingush parliamentarians, all of whom are members of the ruling United Russia party, were ordered to attend by the party apparatus in their home republic. But what about the schoolteachers from Yakutia? True, it’s hard to imagine their meager salaries could cover a trip across several time zones just for the rally, but then why the particular excitement? They could have showed up for an hour, made their point, and then left with the throngs of others who streamed out of the area even before Putin took the stage.
What I’m getting to is a conversation I had not long ago with the head of Transparency International’s Moscow office, Elena Panfilova, about this very topic. She wisely noted that it’s not quite so simple to paint this issue in such stark colors: that people are coerced by employers and threatened with dismissal or with suspended paychecks. Some public employees, she said, genuinely believe it’s their mission to support the powers that be. Especially in far-flung, underdeveloped regions, it simply hasn’t occurred to a generation of workers, in whom the ghost of Soviet past still lingers, that it’s even possible to contradict or reveal dissatisfaction with the authorities. It’s not necessarily thrust upon them, it’s just the “right thing to do.”
Of course, that’s not to say that there isn’t a great deal of administrative resources being leveraged here, as well. Rather, it’s just an attempt to balance out the now-popular and widespread rhetoric that such pro-Putin rallies are almost exclusively filled with paid protesters looking for an easy buck, unable to even answer why they came. As a fairly liberal Western journalist, I recognize my counterparts’ tendency to focus on the gross malfeasances often inherent to the Putin regime and anything it sponsors; this is often necessary, especially in a country largely devoid of a free press. I just think it’s worthwhile to play the devil’s advocate and shed some light on the particularly underreported idea that there are still many hundreds of thousands – and indeed millions – who still support Putin based on some degree of genuineness.
And, I guess, to prove my point that both sides of the spectrum were represented at the rally, here’s a photo I snapped of less-than-enthusiastic migrant workers passing time at the demonstration — none of whom were willing to speak with me.