It's good to speak Russian.
My knowledge of the language, picked up in nearly 15 years working in Moscow as a journalist, really comes in handy during those times when Russia is in the news. Like now.
There's been plenty written about the re-election of Vladimir Putin. But here are a few interesting things I've picked up in Russian that you might not have heard elsewhere:
The latest theory circling the Internet is that Putin wasn't really crying when he left the Kremlin Sunday night to declare victory, but that the head of his election campaign -- Russian film director Stanislav Govorukhin -- decided to make Putin appear teary eyed with an old Soviet film trick: smelling salts. Some bloggers write that Govorukhin put smelling salts into the collar of Putin's coat, where one side is clearly sticking up. They say that when Putin turned his head to look over the crowd, he drew a breath right were the smelling salts were located, making the tears appear. I'm not saying this is true -- I'm saying this is going around the Russia blogosphere. Putin's blaming his tears on the wind, but Russians are also noting that President Dmitri Medvedev, who was standing with Putin, didn't cry at all.
And in Putin's brief remarks to the crowd, he used the word "honest" to describe the elections twice, and "clean" once. These are not words that politicians tend to use in victory speeches.
And speaking of the Putin rally, there is a fascinating 10-minute long video going around made by two young journalists from the Russian weekly newspaper Bolshoi Gorod (or Big City). The two interview people walking towards the Kremlin a few hours before the pro-Putin victory rally, and inside a giant holding area where the pro-Putin force was being organized. The journalists show pretty convincingly that the people there were being paid, and only there either for the money or because they were bused in by their employers. Very few said anything about liking Putin. In fact, many didn't even know what they were there to do--they had just signed up with sites like Massovik.ru, (which bills itself as a site for making extra money on shoots and "promo-actions.")
The vote totals are in for the Russians who voted in the United States. Billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov got nearly twice as many votes as Vladimir Putin did.
The official election results show that the Russians living in the U.S. cast 5,857 votes for Prokhorov and 3,349 for Putin. For those of you keeping score, these are voting precincts 5235 (San Francisco), 5233 (New York), 5231 (Washington, DC), 5367 (Seattle), and 5364 (Houston).
(The results are only in Russian, but you can click here to see the full foreign vote. Line 19 shows the total for Vladimir Zhirinovsky, Line 20 for Gennady Zyuganov, Line 21 for Sergei Mironov, Line 22 for Mikhail Prokhorov and Line 23 for Vladimir Putin.)
Russian officials in the U.S. seem to have done an excellent job organizing and conducting the election, setting up polling stations not only at their embassy and consulates, but in many areas with significant Russian populations like Boston and, of course, Brighton Beach.
One of the most surprising things was seeing Mrs. Putin show up to vote. As far as I can tell, Lyudmila Putin hadn't been seen in public with her husband since mid-2010, when they sat down together to be interviewed for the census -- an event shown on Russian television.
For the past two years, Lyudmila has been AWOL during some occasions when she had traditionally appeared with her husband. For instance, President Medvedev always shows up at Moscow's main cathedral for midnight mass on Orthodox Christmas with his wife, Svetlana. The nationally televised ceremony cuts to the Medvedevs often, showing them crossing themselves and looking pensive amid the grandeur of the cathedral. The Putins used to be there too, but for the past two years, Vladimir Putin has attended mass in a small, humble church outside of Moscow. There have been dozens of parishioners with him, but no Lyudmila. Not this past Christmas, nor the one before.
Russia has been rife with rumors about Mrs. Putin's whereabouts. The most common was that she had gone off to live in a nunnery after being all but discarded by her husband. I'm not making that up. Nunnery or not, Mrs. Putin was back to vote on Sunday, although truth be told, she had noticeably gained weight since being interviewed by the census taker.
The protestors were back out on Monday, and there will be more protests over the next few weeks. But aside from a few places like the Chechen polling station that had more people vote than were registered, there wasn't falsification on a mass scale this time. It was more like a finger pressing a little on the scale, to make sure Putin got well over the 50 percent barrier to avoid a runoff.
People are angry, but some are already resigned to six more years of Putin. It reminds me of the old Russian saying: "We hoped things would be better, but they turned out like always."
Beth Knobel worked as a reporter in Moscow from 1992-2006. She is the co-author with her CBS News colleague Mike Wallace of Heat and Light: Advice for the Next Generation of Journalists, a guidebook for young reporters.
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