Part Two On the Russian Presidential Campaign Trail in Siberia: Putin, Grudinin, Titov and the Meaning of Life


Rumors of Putin’s non-campaign Presidential visit first surfaced when a helicopter did a practice landing in a soccer field near a youth center in Akademgorodok, the science center of Siberia 30 kilometers from Novosibirsk. Yes, a demonstration that President Putin has enormous administrative resources that are not available to other candidates, like not having to worry about traffic jams, and he takes full advantage of them. But, it is also a sign from the Russian political elite that the disruption of official motorcades is no longer something people are ready to forgive while providing an example of being on-time in a country known for a lenient attitude towards punctuality.

The word was the President was coming to celebrate Russian Day of Science. When public information surfaced about his schedule, it only included Akadem locations (Institute of Nuclear Physics and the House of Scientists) after a meeting with the semi-recently appointed Governor. Beyond that, it was all Internet buzz which, verified or unverified, always tends towards the sensational. It began with a friend posting on Facebook a couple of days before the President’s arrival. Security personnel had visited and warned her that all first-floor apartment dwellers should stay away from their windows. The day before the President, a panic was set off with a rumor that the streets of Akademgorodok would be closed from 9–5. Everyone reorganized their day before an official disclaimer was issued. The big day and the sound of snow shoveling woke me up at 5AM. The cleanest winter roads Novosibirsk has ever known became the meme of the day.

Stepping out onto snowless pavement, I was reminded of the first time I experienced a high level Russian official visiting Akademgorodok. It was February 1993 and Ruslan Khasbulatov, the leader of the Russian Parliament, was coming to deliver a speech at the House of Scientists. Preparations for the welcome by local government officials consisted of discussing whether they should stuff goods in the stores and do repairs, or if this was no longer appropriate? Should things look good or bad?

25 years later Putin is coming to town to celebrate science and the undeniable progress that has been made in this town. He has no platform “steps”, his campaign website has “Accomplishments”. And that remains the complicating factor for any candidate running against him, he has produced positive, quality of life results for most voting age people. Of course, the bar couldn’t have been set lower in the 90’s. It was bad everywhere, but there was a more profound psychic resonance among scientists, the rock stars of the Soviet Union. Overnight they were losers in this new democracy if they couldn’t adapt and figure out how to sell something, anything. From 1992–93 the price of butter in Akademgorodok went up 17.5 times, sugar increased 25 times and the price of sausage, a whopping 180 times.

But prices were irrelevant because nobody was getting paid. Instead of money, Institutes distributed plots of land to the scientists so they could feed their families and sell what was left over to support their labs. A small number of enterprising mothers, determined to outsmart the rising price of poultry, bought chickens and kept them in the bathroom or kitchen. A bright young student did not think her mother was enterprising but insane, “Two rooms, Mom and Dad, my sister, her husband and their baby and now these damned chickens clucking all night in the kitchen”. Another summarized the situation in an essay, “The situation killed a lot of talented scientists who couldn’t stand the humiliating conditions. One department at the Institute of Thermophysics buried three gifted scientists ages 50–60 in three months. But, I will end this cheerfully and say that Russians are Russians and we still hope that things will get better”.

To turn this around, an enormous amount of money and hope for the future has been invested in this community by the Putin Administration. That includes over $130 million for a new University building (topped with a gold colored dome) and an on-going strategic program to support teachers, researchers and the internationalization of the University. The goal is to reach the top 100 rating for global universities. So far, Novosibirsk State University’s overall ranking has moved from #371 to #250 with Physics at #68 and Natural Sciences #63 in the world.

Another huge project was launched during the Medvedev era, Technopark, a center for technology and innovation start-ups. Even “liberal” opposition candidate Sobchak found this hard to criticize during her visit to the complex. More controversial have been reforms to the Russian Academy of Sciences introduced by Putin. The idea was to make the organization more accountable and efficient by removing their ownership of property and introducing bureaucratic procedures to be eligible for government funding. Akademgorodok was never Putin country, people here tended towards neo-liberal or social democratic with a smattering of communist in the mix. These reforms did not improve the President’s rating.

Protests were minimal and well covered by several Russian on-line news outlets and three US government supported Russian language web-sites. Ten people showed up in the City to protest tenders for building a new bridge and garbage processing plant. A lone picketer in Akadem wore a vest with “Putin is Russia’s misfortune” in front and “Putin is a bad President” on the back. He was escorted away, held and fined $8.

In the morning I wandered down the main street and all I saw were unarmed or concealed carry police on every corner and 10 Toyota Camry’s with official plates parked outside the House of Scientists. Most people went on about their business. One mother with her young son at hand asked a policeman when the President was coming, “My son wants to see him”. No answer.

The only people who knew exactly where the President would be at what time were the organizers and guests invited to specific events. At 10:30 AM, into the info void stepped an independent, commercially supported local information site. They provided minute by minute coverage of the event as soon as information became available. Their coverage included videos of the street cleaning and landing of the helicopter as well as a 2:24 PM international call made by the President with a clarification that he was talking to Turkish President Erdogan at 3:10PM. They covered reports of Wi Fi blackouts and a 2:30 PM GPS failure when many Novosibirsk residents found themselves located in a neighboring town.

Thanks to their reporting, I was able to catch the surprisingly modest motorcade at 3:55 PM as it entered the Institute of Nuclear Physics for a meeting with scientists. Among other things, they requested a $350,000,000 synchrotron. At a later meeting of with the Council on Science and Education, the President of the Russian Academy of Science asked the Putin, “What generation of synchrotron should we build?”. Putin laughed and said “Build the next one…Our country needs large projects. They unite, they mobilize, they become a locomotive of development.” Another Council member complained about bureaucracy and red tape and held up a copy of Sakharov’s one -page diagram for the hydrogen bomb. Putin responded by saying that Beria, ruthless chief of Stalin’s secret police, was in charge of this project, “Do not try to do it his way, we can’t use the previous methods”. But, he continued, “It is obvious things need to be streamlined”.

During a short ceremony the President recognized the work of three young scientists with $45,000 prizes. He also met with students from the special Physics and Mathematics High School. This meeting was noteworthy for the gender balance, five boys and five girls, and the trillion-dollar question asked by one of the boys, “Even now some smart people are already thinking of going abroad…” President Putin replied, “We want talented, promising specialists to stay in our country but we won’t enchain them. It’s impossible and wrong. We increased funding for science 3.7 times, it is now our responsibility to create better working conditions for you.”

The Internet guide said goodbye to its 8,187 visitors and signed off at 7:25 PM citing Putin’s closing remarks. He repeated the words of an elder scientist from earlier in the day, it is essential that scientific institutions do not lay claim to young scientist’s inventions and allow the young people to create their own start-ups. Then added, “Without the development of science — there will be no development of the country”.


The first sign that things were going to be a little more interesting this election was when the Communists nominated 57-year-old Pavel Grudinin instead of their 73-year-old perennial candidate, Gennady Zyuganov. He brought with him a calm, confident charisma and 50’s movie star looks with a thick head of hair and mustache, a more salt and pepper Caesar Romero. He is also unapologetically rich, making his money privatizing a collective farm outside of Moscow. This is not your grandmothers Communist party.

Grudinin’s platform consists of only “20 Steps” that will make Russia strong and powerful again. It’s appeal for a wide swath of people is its brevity and positions that promote price controls, progressive taxes, increased minimum wage and maternity benefits. However, what he is most noted for is his anti-corruption rhetoric, Step #1, that takes direct aim at Putin, “Our priority will be the well-being of the broad masses of the people, not a handful of oligarchs, the interests of the common man, and not the “fat cats”. This requires a sharp turn from oligarchic capitalism to a social state.”

The Party is well represented in Novosibirsk with a Communist Mayor and 24% of the Deputies in the City Council. So, there was plenty of warning about the candidate’s plans here. Red posters with Grudinin’s face, time and place for each of the three major events were plastered everywhere. Since his background was farming, the focus was Agriculture with visits to the State Agricultural University, the Siberian Division of the Russian Academy of Agricultural Sciences and a meeting with agricultural community residents. The Party also set up on-line streaming of all events that attracted 4,000–9,600 viewers.

I attended the last of the public events scheduled for 4:30 at Mayakovski Movie theatre in the City center. An enormous Grudinin billboard decorated the outside of the building alongside a billboard advertising a special Valentine’s Day showing of “Titanic”.

Inside, the foyer was ablaze with red and black from the balloons to the ball gowns worn by two violinists flanked by red flag waving young men. Nothing jazzy or fancy, a retro feel but not depressing because there were so many people. Volunteers wore white t-shirts with red “Grudinin” and they were all young. They provided magic markers encouraging everyone to write their requests to the candidate on a wall size poster board in the center of the room or sign up to be a volunteer. As expected for any event during work hours the crowd was primarily older. But, I glanced at a couple of volunteer sign- up sheets that showed impressive age diversity from 26–80 with almost half 40 and younger.

I climbed the stairs and entered the already jam packed 1,206 seat hall. With no easily accessible seats available, I plastered myself against the wall at the top of the raked stairs by the double doors.

Rows four across of people continued to squeeze through filling up every inch available. The context and vibe for the Sobchak and Putin events and Navalny’s activities, were familiar and predictable. This was something different, like a shoreline that is receding more than usual and left me wondering, is it just a full moon or have the tectonic plates shifted? The quiet masses. Not a silent majority, the majority still belongs to Putin, but a reminder that at heart, Russia still tends towards conservative and socialist. Only now they are ok with rich people as long as it is not at their expense.

The scene certainly confirmed the initial buzz that Grudinin was the strongest contender for 2nd place with even the possibility for a second round. However, the best laid plans for getting his message out and building on the out of the gate momentum that was registering in the polls, hit a snag. The universally well respected head of the Central Election Commission announced there was a problem with Grudinin’s financial disclosure form. Candidates for President are not supposed to have foreign bank accounts and the Commission did not have proof of closure for all of his accounts.

Even as the people were streaming into that hall, a different scenario was unfolding at a nearby press conference with the candidate. Moscow media joined local press who wanted to focus on the bank account issue. Grudinin shut this line of questioning down after 10 minutes assuring everyone that the proper documents were being submitted to the Electoral Commission.


The arrival of Boris Titov, candidate for the pro-business and pro-free market “Party of Growth”, was so muted I didn’t hear about it until it was over. A rich businessman and President Putin’s Commissioner for the rights of entrepreneurs since 2012, there is nothing flashy about him. He has a kind face and serious demeanor. In more intimate settings than his rivals, Titov met with academics and business people. He held a press conference and his on-line coverage was comprehensive, if not as extensive as the other candidates.

Still, even this modest campaign swing had significance. During a tour of Technopark, Titov spent time with Dmitri Trubitsyn, the 36-year-old founder of Tion that makes air purifiers for medical facilities. It was one of the most successful and impressive start-ups in Akademgorodok until last summer when Trubitsyn was arrested and charged with fraud. This sent shockwaves through the community that is unanimously behind him and vigorously defends the integrity of the entrepreneur and his product. This legal maneuver is seen as an attempt at a hostile take-over. Whatever the intent, it is the line that should not have been crossed, the very thing that cannot happen if Technopark, Akademgorodok and Russia are going to move forward into the bright future promised by all four candidates that came to Novosibirsk.

The Meaning of Life

In 2002, my husband and I built a house in a village in the Altai Republic, one of the poorest but most beautiful regions in Russia. One day I was walking along the banks of the Katyn River when I ran into the oldest woman in the village. Baba Lena was sitting on a bench in front of her property overlooking the rapids. 103, 109, no one knew exactly how old she was because she was born in a smaller village even further from the middle of nowhere than here.

This woman lived through Tsarist Russia, the Bolshevik Revolution and Russian Civil War, Stalin’s industrialization and repression, the Great Patriotic War, the Cold War, Khrushchev’s thaw, Brezhnev’s stagnation, Gorbachev’s perestroika, Yeltsin’s democracy and oligarchic capitalism and two years of Putin. I joined her on the bench and asked, “You have experienced Tsarism, Communism, democracy…compare and contrast, do you have a preference?”. She didn’t have much to say, her only reference points were how the fish were running, how much milk the cow was providing and the garden was producing. Throughout the summer I met her every day, in the same spot, and repeated the question hoping for some new insight. The answers were always the same, Tsars, presidents, communism, capitalism no difference, good fishing that year= happy, cow’s not making enough milk = bad. There was really only one true power in the realm of this Babushka’s century, nature.

Baba Lena died before the end of Putin’s first term. We are into the homestretch of this campaign season for Putin’s fourth term. A series of debates (minus one candidate, the President) have been taking place on TV and radio. Sobchak’s lesser angels got the better of her during one of them and she threw water at the nationalist candidate. The Central Election Commission announced they have no legal grounds for removing Grudinin as a candidate, but biographical information posted at all polling places will be amended to include six additional foreign accounts with over $1 million dollars and 5.5 kg of gold. Putin presented the State of the State address, but state television was not allowed to show the Oliver Stone documentary on Putin.

A no change election does not mean people don’t want change. Everyone in Russia wants change, even those who support Putin and he knows it. Good people everywhere are confused, they want to be inspired and have faith in their leaders and government. But republican, democrat. communist, nationalist, conservative, liberal, socialist, democratic socialist, all the signposts have lost their meaning. So, everyone is looking for the North Star, the sun to rise in the East or set in the West, the certain compass that the oldest woman in the village found many years ago and never let go of. In the meantime, the majority of Russians will vote for Putin.



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