Train 109 reveals a Russia resigned to Putin's return

Passengers voice their dissatisfaction before today's presidential elections

From the comfy cabins of first class to the crowded, smelly third-class bunks, passengers travelling to Moscow from a remote Arctic boomtown show why Vladimir Putin's almost certain return to the presidency in today's election feels less than triumphant.

The broad discontent seen on the long-distance train journey reflects that of this sprawling country. Although anger with Mr 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 Mr Putin, President from 2000-08, will win today, returning him to the Kremlin after four years as Prime Minister. But the frustrations voiced on Train 109 indicate his new term won't be easy.

The train's 66-hour, 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 Mr Putin. The newfound wealth initially pleased the working classes and lulled them into docile complacency, but many are increasingly unhappy with the political ossification that set in under Mr Putin and Dmitry Medvedev, his placeholder successor as President.

"For eight years we had Putin, then we had Medvedev, and now Putin again. Who after that: Medvedev?" asks Alexander Yurov 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 gathered around a little table between the bunks chuckle approvingly. An astonishing wave of protests against parliamentary elections in December that were marred by fraud sprang mainly from cities such as Moscow and St Petersburg. Mr Putin has been quick to characterise his opponents as coddled urban elites. But conversations with people like Yurov, a Novy Urengoi construction foreman who plans to vote for the Communist candidate, Gennady Zyuganov, reveal the dissatisfaction across all layers of society and across Russia's varied geography.

Much of Mr Putin's appeal has been based on the stability he brought 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 Mr 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 £47; 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 per cent in the past dozen years.

But many of those in the neat, two-berth cabins of first class are fed up with the unbridled corruption that 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. He says failure to curry favour 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 east of Moscow, demonstrates that, although Russia has come far under Mr Putin, it is still a country of marginal living for many. Women employed at the city's glassware factory clamber aboard, prowling the corridors to sell stemware and trinkets they make in their spare time to supplement their wages.

Mr 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 big cities, a small minority of internet-savvy dissenters bucked this trend, rejecting the official narrative that political pluralism and free media must be sacrificed for stability and prosperity. Criticism of Mr Putin has been all but banished from the national airwaves – allowing the Kremlin to dismiss dissent as irrelevant sniping by marginal figures.

A medicinal supplies trader in second class, Yury Pulin, says it's fear that has stopped people from being critical of Mr Putin's rule. "If you say anything against the government, they'll quickly shut you down. Critics have latched on to such lack of freedom of expression, as well as other abuses.

Yet despite all the criticism, the passengers on Train 109 agree, with a degree of resignation, that their next President will be Mr Putin.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Personal Tax Senior

£28000 - £37000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join ...

Recruitment Genius: Customer and Markets Development Executive

£22000 - £29000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company's mission is to ma...

Recruitment Genius: Guest Services Assistant

£13832 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This 5 star leisure destination on the w...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Account Manager

£20000 - £32000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Sales Account Manager is requ...

Day In a Page

A nap a day could save your life - and here's why

A nap a day could save your life

A midday nap is 'associated with reduced blood pressure'
If men are so obsessed by sex, why do they clam up when confronted with the grisly realities?

If men are so obsessed by sex...

...why do they clam up when confronted with the grisly realities?
The comedy titans of Avalon on their attempt to save BBC3

Jon Thoday and Richard Allen-Turner

The comedy titans of Avalon on their attempt to save BBC3
The bathing machine is back... but with a difference

Rolling in the deep

The bathing machine is back but with a difference
Part-privatised tests, new age limits, driverless cars: Tories plot motoring revolution

Conservatives plot a motoring revolution

Draft report reveals biggest reform to regulations since driving test introduced in 1935
The Silk Roads that trace civilisation: Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places

The Silk Roads that trace civilisation

Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places
House of Lords: Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled

The honours that shame Britain

Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled
When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race

'When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race'

Why are black men living the stereotypes and why are we letting them get away with it?
International Tap Festival: Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic

International Tap Festival comes to the UK

Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic
War with Isis: Is Turkey's buffer zone in Syria a matter of self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

Turkey's buffer zone in Syria: self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

Ankara accused of exacerbating racial division by allowing Turkmen minority to cross the border
Doris Lessing: Acclaimed novelist was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show

'A subversive brothel keeper and Communist'

Acclaimed novelist Doris Lessing was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show
Big Blue Live: BBC's Springwatch offshoot swaps back gardens for California's Monterey Bay

BBC heads to the Californian coast

The Big Blue Live crew is preparing for the first of three episodes on Sunday night, filming from boats, planes and an aquarium studio
Austin Bidwell: The Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England with the most daring forgery the world had known

Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England

Conman Austin Bidwell. was a heartless cad who carried out the most daring forgery the world had known
Car hacking scandal: Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked

Car hacking scandal

Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked
10 best placemats

Take your seat: 10 best placemats

Protect your table and dine in style with a bold new accessory