ABOARD RUSSIAN RAILWAYS TRAIN 109 — From the comfy cabins of first class to the crowded and smelly third-class bunks, passengers traveling to Moscow from a remote Arctic boomtown show why Vladimir Putin's almost certain return to the presidency Sunday feels less than triumphant.
The broad discontent seen on the long-distance train journey reflects that of this sprawling country, a prism of its demographic layers. Although anger with Putin isn't unanimous, it is clearly widespread, a striking challenge to his self-promoted image as the working man's hero who is the only leader all Russians can love and admire.
Few doubt that Putin, who was president from 2000-2008, will win Sunday's presidential election, returning him to the Kremlin after a four-year stint as prime minister. But the frustrations encountered on Train 109 indicate that his new term won't be easy.
The train's 66-hour, 3,500-kilometer (2,170-mile) trip to the capital starts in Novy Urengoi, a gas-producing town just below the Arctic Circle. Natural gas revenues are a key piece of the prosperity that Russia has enjoyed under Putin.
The newfound wealth initially pleased Russia's working classes and lulled them into docile complacency, but many are increasingly discontent with the political ossification that set in under Putin and his placeholder successor as president, Dmitry Medvedev. Term limits ban presidents from serving more than two consecutive terms.
"For eight years we had Putin, then we had Medvedev, and now Putin again. Who after that: Medvedev?" Alexander Yurov asks in a third-class car where barracks-like bunks crowd both sides of a narrow walkway. "Well, this is what they're getting from me," he says, holding up his middle finger.
A group of people gathered around a little table between the bunks chuckle approvingly.
An astonishing wave of protests against fraud-marred parliamentary elections in December sprang mainly from cities like Moscow and St. Petersburg, and Putin has been quick to characterize his opponents as coddled urban elites.
But conversations with people like Yurov, a Novy Urengoi construction foreman who plans to vote for Communist candidate Gennady Zyuganov, reveal the undercurrent of dissatisfaction across all layers of society and across Russia's varied geography. In fact, many say the elites are Putin and his cronies.
"All that matters for the government is what's going on in Moscow and in St. Petersburg. As for the rest of the country, it can just deal with its own problems," Ilya Kuropatkin says in the corridor of a second-class carriage on his trip to Moscow from the Siberian city of Tomsk.
Much of Putin's appeal has been based on the stability he brought Russia after the chaos of the Soviet Union's collapse and Boris Yeltsin's capricious and tragicomic rule of the newly independent country.
Statistics do present an impressive picture of improvements under Putin, who is running against four Kremlin-approved opponents. When he was inaugurated for his first term in May 2000, the average monthly wage was $75; it's 10 times higher now. The infamously low life expectancy for males rose from 60 to 64. Although Russia's murder rate is still high by European standards, it has fallen nearly 45 percent in the past dozen years.
"Everybody wants stability," says businessman Andrei Khorashavin, traveling in first class. "I see Putin as the person that can guarantee that."
But many of his neighbors even in the neat, two-berth cabins of first class – those who have grown rich in Putin's Russia – are fed up with the unbridled corruption that spreads through the country's leadership and infiltrates their everyday lives.
Igor, a software entrepreneur, points to his smartphone and grumbles: "I often buy these as presents." He means, of course, as bribes to government officials.
Igor, who asked his last name not be used for fear of damaging his business, says failure to curry favor with officials could leave him prone to arbitrary government checks and ruin his chances in state tenders.
The train stop at Gus-Khrustalny, some two hours train ride east of Moscow, vividly demonstrates that although Russia has come far under Putin, it still is a country of marginal living for many. Women employed at the city's glassware factory clamber aboard, prowling the corridors to try to sell stemware and trinkets they made in their spare time to try to supplement their wages.
Putin's unchallenged rule has hinged greatly on a deep-rooted conformism among Russians, who widely concluded that an excess of democracy in the 1990s led to chaos and a deterioration in their standard of living.
In major cities, a small minority of Internet-savvy dissenters bucked this trend, rejecting the official narrative that political pluralism and a free media must be sacrificed for the sake of stability and prosperity. Criticism of Putin has been all but banished from the national airwaves – allowing the Kremlin to dismiss dissent as irrelevant sniping by marginal figures.
That is proving harder this time around as ordinary people from all walks of life voice disapproval, and cities heave with protesters who had never before bothered with political activism.
In his four-berth second-class cabin, Fyodor Kolesnikov says Putin's economic management is a recipe for disaster.
"The economy has gotten better, but that is only thanks to the oil," says the marketing company analyst from Siberia's main city of Novosibirsk. "We need somebody in this country that can take bold decisions, otherwise we are just going down the road of stagnation."
Medicinal supplies trader Yury Pulin, traveling in second class, says it's fear that has stopped people from being critical of Putin's rule.
"If you say anything against the government, they'll quickly shut you down," he says.
Critics of Putin's regime have latched onto such lack of freedom of expression, as well as other abuses.
A brutal war waged to put down the separatist threat in southern province of Chechnya has led to rule by strongman Ramzan Kadyrov, who is accused by international activists of horrific rights violations.
Jailed former oil baron Mikhail Khodorkovsky has languished in prison for almost a decade on charges of tax evasion that were pursued after he defied Putin's political supremacy. Other businessmen who became rich during the suspect privatization programs of the 1990s have been left untouched, apparently in return for not meddling in politics.
The list goes on: Rigged votes, scrapped provincial elections, clampdowns on free media, the lack of thorough investigations into the murder of prominent journalists and activists, and the routine denial of freedom of assembly.
Despite all the criticism, the passengers on Train 109 agree with a degree of resignation that their next president will be Putin.
Pulin likens the current government to a blood-sucking insect – but says any other government would probably be no better.
"The mosquitoes have had their fill," he says, "but why invite new ones just so they can take their turn at sucking our blood too."