By Neil MacFarquhar
Russia’s countryside and smaller cities have long been fertile ground for President Vladimir V Putin and his message of restoring bygone greatness, but even here, there are limits.
Plans to ship Moscow’s garbage to the provinces — abetted by secrecy, trickery and bending the law — have set off widespread protests. Underlying this winter of Russian discontent are deepening economic woes and a popular view that the government pours money into the glittering capital while squeezing the struggling hinterlands.
It was only by chance that residents of Urdoma, 700 miles northeast of Moscow, learned last year of an enormous landfill project nearby, when two local hunters stumbled onto workers felling lofty pine and birch trees to make way for it. The news galvanised Urdoma and dozens of other communities nestled among the forests of Arkhangelsk Province, and hardened attitudes toward the government.
“All raw materials — oil, gas, diamonds, timber — it all comes from here and is sold abroad, while the profits go to Moscow,” said Yuri Dezhin, a 41-year-old hunter living in a small trailer that protesters set up to monitor activity on the landfill site. “We get nothing.”
Polling shows that support for Mr Putin is slipping, and for the first time in 13 years, a plurality of Russians think their country is moving in the wrong direction. Far removed from urban activists who protest government autocracy, public opinion has shifted most sharply in provincial areas, where Mr Putin’s popularity has stemmed from economic gains as much as from national pride.
The government has made changes that are deeply unpopular nationwide, like raising the retirement age and increasing sales taxes and utility fees. Inflation-adjusted incomes have dropped about 11 per cent over five years; a move in January by Russian producers to sell nine eggs at the price of 10 generated a storm of mocking tweets.
In Urdoma, population 4,750, and other towns in the region, residents say that the governor has sold their idyll to garbage interests, and the government — all the way up to Mr Putin’s office — has rebuffed their quest for answers.
“They try to brush us away like so many flies,” said Lyudmila Marina, a retired head of the local administration.
So far, Mr Putin has shown few signs that the disaffection worries him, but a continued decline in support could present a long-term problem for him. Term limits require that he surrender the presidency in 2024, and he would need popular support to push through any change to extend his rule.
For now, the question is how the disenchanted will channel their grievances, and what Mr Putin will do about it.
The cost of joining public protests against the government can be high. In January, Anastasia Shevchenko, a human rights campaigner for the opposition group Open Russia, was arrested in Rostov-on-Don, in southern Russia, on charges of working for an “undesirable organisation”. Her teenage daughter died within days from respiratory problems, with Ms Shevchenko allowed to go to her child’s bedside only at the last moment.
Protesting about garbage is considered a safer alternative. Yet broader political discontent simmered through scores of demonstrations held across Russia this month against rising garbage collection fees and the absence of ecological recycling methods.
A late January poll by the Levada Center, an independent Russian polling organisation, showed that 45 per cent of Russians thought the country was headed in the wrong direction, while 42 per cent thought its course was correct, a sharp downturn from a year earlier.
Approval of Mr Putin’s job performance stands at 64 per cent, with disapproval at 34 per cent. Any Western politician would love such numbers, but a year ago, the Russian leader had an 80 per cent approval rating.
“There is more displeasure expressed in the provinces, which were the foundation of Mr Putin’s support,” said Lev D Gudkov, director of the Levada Center.
Mr Putin often boasts that Russia is thriving despite Western sanctions that followed its annexation of Crimea in 2014. But last month the government revised its gross domestic product figure in an attempt to show faster growth in 2018, and experts cried foul.
Sanctions and falling oil prices have taken a toll, while the government has spent heavily to modernise the military. Support has waned for the long, costly interventions in Syria and Ukraine that once lifted Mr Putin’s popularity.
“People are ready to be great, but they are not ready to pay for it from their own pockets,” said Vladimir A Ryzhkov, a history professor and opposition politician. “For the first time since Putin came to power 20 years ago, life is not improving, but getting worse.”
Still, while people want change, said Ekaterina Schulmann, a political scientist at Ranepa, a university for technocrats, they “are not going to storm the Kremlin”.
Protest votes lost the government four governor’s races last fall, with similar defeats expected this year. Aleksei A Navalny, Russia’s most popular opposition politician, announced the formation of a national trade union to fight for decent wages for doctors, nurses, teachers and other professionals, an unfulfilled Putin promise.
Russians are suffering from a “deep depression” that promises to intensify even if it does not threaten Mr Putin, wrote Mikhail Rostovsky, a columnist with the influential tabloid Moskovsky Komsomolets. “A society that got used to such terms as ‘Putin’ and ‘fat years’ being interchangeable is suddenly facing a new, surprising reality.”
Members of Clean Urdoma, the group spearheading efforts to ban trash imports to Arkhangelsk, note that despite Russia’s immense natural riches and pockets of wealth, many of its people live in poverty.
“Moscow is the richest, most glittering city in Russia,” said Sergei Yakimov, the group’s lawyer. “Rather than spending money on recycling, they spend money on new pleasures and they want to send the garbage to the provinces.”
The Arkhangelsk region, almost the size of France but with just 1.1 million people, would seem to have ample space for a massive landfill. The authorities settled on Shiyes, about 20 miles north of Urdoma, a former village with only a railroad maintenance station left.
Igor Orlov, the governor of Arkhangelsk, extols the project as much-needed investment that will bring 500 jobs.
A slick presentation developed by the City of Moscow said that the “communal waste” — it never mentions garbage — would be shaped into bales and wrapped in plastic, and that the landfill would be constructed to prevent pollutants from seeping out. It is designed to take 500,000 tons of garbage annually.
But residents cite many reasons to distrust such promises, notably the secretive, dishonest tactics that have accompanied the project from the start. It was rolled out with minimal public information and it remains unclear who is behind the project.
Someone produced an attack video called “Traitors or Fools?” that depicted anti-dump organisers as paid foreign agents.
Mr Navalny and others have linked lucrative garbage contracts to senior bureaucrats, suggesting corruption.
After complaints that a public hearing had not been held as required, residents of Urdoma awoke one day to discover scores of strangers bused into town. The outsiders entered an auditorium for a “hearing”, while police officers barred residents from entering.
There has been no public environmental impact study, and residents fear that both the groundwater and the nearby Vychegda River will be polluted, spreading toxins as far as the Barents Sea.
Unlike many Russian villages, Urdoma has a prosperous air, with newly built houses and a new school subsidised by Gazprom, Russia’s state-run gas giant, which employs more than 530 local people. Residents argue that the village doesn’t need more jobs.
Urdoma is far removed from Moscow, more than 20 hours away by train. Gulag prisoners building the railroad first settled this remote area in the 1930s, essentially dumped in the woods and told to survive.
That ethos endures, with residents describing how they survive brutal winters feasting on mushrooms, berries and meat culled from the forest.
In the current economic environment, they expect even less from Moscow, and disparage it more, but for many people, ignoring the capital is no longer an option.
In a speech in August, Nikolai Viktorov, the owner of a hardware business, uttered a line that became something of a rallying cry.
“After we get rid of the garbage in Shiyes,” he said, “we will start getting rid of the garbage in Moscow.”