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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 ...

“Society is awakening from the abnormal passivity of the 2000s,” Mr. Markov says, pacing his small office like a professor giving a lecture. “Vladimir Putin is following the moral majority. They want Russia to be independent. They want Russia to play a more important role. They want Russia to be more suspicious of the West. They want government to be more involved in economic and social life.”

He acknowledges that sounds a little like the old days, but reminds me: “Soviet times are not regarded negatively by the majority of the population.”

Russia is again standing up for its own values, with the Winter Games symbolic of that new strength. “The message of Sochi is that, after a period of losing, Russians are not losers,” he says. “Russians aren’t losers because they can organize such big events in the world.”

It’s a narrative that makes Mr. Kasyanov scoff. Now in opposition, the 56-year-old economist fell out with Mr. Putin in 2003 over a number of issues, including the jailing of oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, whose efforts to promote political opposition and spread the Internet to rural Russia he supported.

Mr. Kasyanov now accuses Mr. Putin of actively nurturing the angry public opinion that now motivates the Kremlin, saying he knew his desire to restore parts of the Soviet system would never be supported by the intelligentsia. So he used the state’s control over the main television channels to promote the idea that only a strong leader – himself – could save Russia.

“He’s chosen a clear policy, to just consider his core electorate – those people who live in poor areas, lacking information and education – and feed them this propaganda that Russia is surrounded by enemies looking to deprive us of our oil and gas,” Mr. Kasyanov says in the elegant downtown office of the party he co-leads. “It was just convenient for Mr. Putin and his team to keep power. They gave up trying to build bridges with the educated parts of society.”

In the 2012 presidential election – even though running against a field of Kremlin-screened rivals – Mr. Putin for the first time failed to win a majority in Moscow, receiving 48 per cent of the vote. Still, he took more than 80 per cent in many regions of Siberia, improbably topped 90 per cent in the tightly controlled North Caucasus, and currently enjoys an approval rating of 64 per cent – more than double that of Canada’s Prime Minister.

Mr. Kasyanov says that he, like many, was initially fooled by the man he calls Putin One. “We all wanted to believe in him, for the good of the country.” Putin Two revealed himself in late 2004, when Chechen militants took over an elementary school in the southern town of Beslan, provoking a firefight that left 334 dead, more than half of them children.

Saying Russia had been weakened by the post-Soviet diffusion of power, Mr. Putin responded with radical changes to the political structure, such as cancelling local elections in favour of Kremlin-appointed governors.

Mr. Kasyanov called his former boss to express concern, and says he was warned to remain quiet, lest the tax authorities that had jailed Mr. Khodorkovsky turn their attention to him. The two have not spoken since.

Grozny: ‘We are Russian Muslims’

Very few planes make as much noise as the Yak-42, a whinnying Soviet 120-seater that provides the lone daily connection between Moscow and the capital of the Republic of Chechnya. Yet the fact that Grozny Avia is flying the 1,500-kilometre route at all – after a 12-year pause for a pair of wars – is hugely symbolic.

“Life is normal now,” general director Hasan Salgiriyev says with a smile, explaining that the airline’s mandate includes communicating to the outside world that Chechnya is safe again, and open for business.

No city is more closely associated with Mr. Putin’s rule than Grozny, whose name means something between “fearsome” and “terrible” in Russian. A matter of weeks after he was elevated to prime minister in August, 1999, a series of mysterious apartment-block bombings in and around Moscow killed more than 300 people.

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