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A homeless man gets a hot meal from a soup truck courtesy of the Nochlezhka homeless shelter in St. Petersburg January 18, 2014. (John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail)
A homeless man gets a hot meal from a soup truck courtesy of the Nochlezhka homeless shelter in St. Petersburg January 18, 2014. (John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail)

PUTIN'S GAMES

‘Sochi is Putingrad’: Vladimir Putin has made a lasting impression Add to ...

Mr. Putin spent the first five years of his life in a one-room apartment in a yellow-brick building on Baskov Lane, just north of the historic centre. Today, the building is home to families on the rise, people who have benefited from his time in power, which has seen the gross domestic product rise by more than five times to 40 million rubles while unemployment has fallen by half to 6 per cent, and the population living below poverty by two-thirds to 11.2 per cent.

Alina Sokolova, a 17-year-old pre-med student at the prestigious First Pavlov State Medical University, lives one storey below Mr. Putin’s childhood home on the fourth floor. Her mother Nelly is the daughter of a teacher and a farmer who clawed her way up the social ladder to become a successful lawyer, beginning her career just as Mr. Putin began to bring order to Russia’s chaos.

Ms. Sokolova says she has voted for him at every opportunity: “What we can say is that Putin is someone who works hard.” However, she does not share his nostalgia for Soviet times. “Now is better. I have no fear speaking my mind. We have a democracy now. My parents didn’t.”

St. Petersburg, of course, has two sides, and a 10-minute drive from Baskov Lane leads to a grotty courtyard and Nochlezhka, the city’s lone homeless shelter. Despite the surrounding glow of the city, it is badly overburdened, with just 52 beds and fewer resources now than when it opened in 1990.

Social workers say that between 60,000 and 70,000 of the 4.9 million residents sleep outside every night, a number that keeps rising despite a horrifying rate of attrition: about 1,000 homeless die every year on city streets, often freezing during the city’s harsh, long winter nights.

“This is not a characteristic of only St. Petersburg, it’s a characteristic of all Russia,” says staffer Vlada Gasnikova. “There’s a large gap between the rich and the poor that keeps growing.”

Despite its many economic advances, Russia devotes a smaller portion of its gross domestic product to health care now (6 per cent) than it did pre-Putin (7 per cent in 1998). Last year, however, it matched the United States by spending 4.4 per cent of its GDP on the military.

Artyom Dudov is a 38-year-old ex-soldier who is now lucky to have a bed at Nochlezhka. He made a decent living as a construction worker after six years in Mr. Putin’s army. Then his life fell apart. First, his wife died of cancer, then he spent 21/2 years in hospital with tuberculosis.

Still not considered healthy enough to work, Mr. Dudov has little else to do but vows he won’t be watching the Games on the 26-inch television in the room he shares with seven other men.

“I’m not interested in sports or politics. I don’t like watching people doing things only for their own gain,” he says, clicking away at a Acer laptop computer he bought after pooling funds with another Nochlezhka resident.

“The Olympics is throwing money to the wind. … There are so many other issues they could have addressed.”

Moscow: ‘Soviet times are not regarded negatively’

When I first landed in the Russian capital in the winter of 2001, the economy was just starting to settle after the country’s 1998 financial crisis. War raged in Chechnya, but liberals, nationalists and communists all saw in Mr. Putin, an aide to the reformist governor of St. Petersburg after leaving the KGB, the man who could give Russia what it needed most: stability.

Back then, Sergei Markov and Mikhail Kasyanov were on the same side. When Mr. Putin came to power, the fast-talking Mr. Markov was one of his chief political strategists, and Mr. Kasyanov his first prime minister.

Still a member of the Presidential Administration and an outspoken loyalist, Mr. Markov was an architect of Putinism, the blend of authoritarianism, controlled dissent and crony capitalism that rules Russia. He contends the country is now entering another period of political change, with the Kremlin being led by public opinion that is nationalist and conservative.

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