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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 ...

In the Soviet era, great leaders had cities named after them. St. Petersburg, the imperial capital, was rechristened in honour of Lenin and Volgograd became Stalingrad. Now, as modern Russia strives to recapture its past glory, the practice seems ready for a revival.

“Sochi is Putingrad,” says Marat Gelman, who considers the $50-billion investment in the Black Sea resort and the Winter Olympics to begin there on Friday the personal handiwork of his former boss, President Vladimir Putin.

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“He built the whole thing. It’s his legacy.”

And they are the Putin Games. Seven years ago, Mr. Putin travelled to Guatemala and campaigned so persuasively (in three languages) that the International Olympic Committee chose Sochi even though it lacked appropriate facilities and is Russia’s only city never guaranteed to see snow in February.

Eager to erase painful memories of 1980’s blighted Summer Games in Moscow, marred by a Western boycott after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the President and his supporters are now poised to celebrate, with by far the most costly Olympiad ever held, the rebirth of a country they say is strong and proud once again: stable domestically and able to walk on the international stage with a swagger.

The trouble is that Mr. Putin hasn’t contained himself to Putingrad.

Fifteen years ago, Mr. Gelman, a former state TV executive turned political aide, helped to craft a tough-guy media image for the little-known ex-KGB agent and cheered him on as he steadied Russia after a decade of social and economic chaos.

But Mr. Gelman walked away four years later. The tough guy had turned authoritarian, crushing political dissent. Instead of transforming the Kremlin, he transformed the country in his own – deeply fraught – image: proud and ambitious, but also grasping, obsessed with appearances and sometimes explosively violent.

The Putin swagger has sent relations with the West – bitter over Kremlin support for Syria’s Bashar al-Assad and now irritated with its meddling in the Ukraine power struggle – to their lowest ebb since the collapse of the Soviet Union. The domestic situation is equally unsettling. Putin’s Games are mired in allegations of corruption, an international outcry over gay rights, as well as fears of a terrorist attack.

So what, beyond Putingrad, will Mr. Putin’s legacy in Russia be?

To find out, I returned to the country where I lived a decade ago, during the introductory phase of the political and economic system now known simply as “Putinism.” Along with Globe photographer John Lehmann, I travelled more than 6,500 kilometres over two weeks, working our way toward Sochi and tracing the rise of Vladimir Putin, the impact he has had, and what Russians – powerful and powerless alike – make of it all.

St. Petersburg: ‘A large gap between the rich and the poor’

Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin was born in 1952 in what was then Leningrad, which he describes in his memoirs as a place of violence and despair, where his older brother died of diphtheria and daily survival depended on learning how to defend yourself.

After the Soviet collapse, the original name was restored, as was the city centre after Mr. Putin came to power – one of the megaprojects, along with the rebuilding of Vladivostok in the east and Grozny, in the south, the President has overseen to showcase the economic growth he has brought to Russia.

As in Sochi, cost was no object. At least $13-billion has been spent to revive the city that is also home to much of Mr. Putin’s inner circle, including Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev. Soon it will receive another injection of cash as one of 11 host cities for Mr. Putin’s next big party, the 2018 soccer World Cup (budget: $22-billion, and expected to rise).

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.

“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.

Russians were angry and scared. Mr. Putin gave them a target for their rage. Twenty years earlier, he had been a young KGB officer monitoring the activities of foreigners when Soviet troops were sent into Afghanistan. Russia had been at war with Muslims on the fringes of its empire for centuries, but that decision not only spoiled the 1980 Olympics, it began the Soviet Union’s long fall from superpower to beggar state.

Offered a chance to end the humiliation and succeed where the tsars had failed, Mr. Putin seized it. He told the nation that Chechnya, which had humiliated Russia’s army a ew years earlier and won de facto independence, had become a bandit republic, a breeding ground for “terrorists.” Then he sent the army back, this time with no holds barred.

I first visited Grozny in the fall of 2002, and found more destruction than in Kabul after two decades of warlords and the Taliban. Not a single building in the heart of the city had escaped heavy-weapons fire. “People live here!” had been painted on apartment blocks, a desperate reminder to warring parties long past caring.

Since then Moscow has invested several times the more than $1-billion it spent on its two wars in Chechnya to reconstruct the city. The downtown is dominated by a massive mosque named for Akhmad Kadyrov, the Chechen mufti assassinated after throwing his moral support, and his family’s fighters, behind the Kremlin. Next to it stands the 32-storey Hotel Grozny City, flanked by five skyscrapers that wouldn’t look out of place in Riyadh or Abu Dhabi.

Mr. Putin’s image smiles down from apartment blocks and government offices as traffic glides past pizzerias and cafés that line Putin Prospekt (formerly Victory Prospekt). Beside him is always a portrait of Akhmad Kadyrov or his son Ramzan, the ruler since his father’s death. The city is a forest of billboards for the Sochi Games – “It’s your Olympiad!” – and sponsors Coca-Cola and Russian Railways. But, as in St. Petersburg, the shine is illusory, hiding a different reality.

The imam of the giant mosque, Daoud Khanbeyev, is a close ally of Ramzan Kadyrov, who has instructed his fighters to search anyone who looks like “Wahhabi,” a term applied to all those who oppose the Chechen leader and his friends in the Kremlin.

Mr. Khanbeyev handles the hearts and minds side of the campaign. “My message is against Wahabbism of any sort, and these movements that try to divide the people,” he tells me after treating worshippers to a fire-and-brimstone denunciation of those still fighting to establish an Islamic emirate in Chechnya and neighbouring Dagestan.

He disowns the separatism that tens of thousands of Chechens died pursuing – “We are Russian Muslims.”

But in truth, he and Mr. Kadyrov are building a distinct society within Russia ruled more by clan loyalties and loosely interpreted sharia law than by the constitution. Alcohol, a Russian staple, has disappeared from menus and store shelves. Head scarves are now mandatory for women in the civil service.

Despite the appearance of law and order, security is such a concern that thousands of Chechens have abandoned their homeland. Aley, 39 (he spoke on condition his full name not be used), says he moved back and took a government job in 2004. But two years later, a gunman came to his house and demanded that the father of four use his credentials to smuggle supplies to rebels hiding in the forest.

He did so just once, he says, and was arrested and jailed for more than a year, during which he was tortured until temporarily paralyzed, and forced to watch fellow inmates executed seemingly at random.

When released, he fled to Moscow despite lacking the papers needed to legally rent an apartment or find a job. “It’s impossible to stay in Grozny. Everything you see there is an illusion. You can’t stand up or sit down without permission. People who look the wrong way just disappear.”

As does Grozny’s glitz as soon as we leave en route to our final destination, the Olympic city. Before long, the road dissolves into a potholed, muddy mess broken by checkpoints manned by Russian soldiers searching for bombs and weapons.

This, after all, is the logical source of the threat to the Games.

Sochi: ‘A massive crime’

It is too soon even to guess whether Mr. Putin’s greatest legacy project will be a success.

With days to go, contractors were scrambling to finish sporting venues and hotels amid allegations that workers brought from former Soviet republics had been sent home without being paid.

But much of the controversy surrounding the Games is of Mr. Putin’s making – his demonizing of gays and lesbians has inspired protests around the world, while the palm-greasing that helps to keep the bureaucracy loyal to the Kremlin seems to have spiralled out of control in Sochi.

Only part of the $50-billion-plus came from directly from the government’s coffers. In Sochi, the various Olympic facilities are nicknamed after the state-owned enterprises and Kremlin-friendly oligarchs that paid for them: the Gazprom ski lift, the Sberbank ski jump and a ski slope for Vladimir Potanin, a mining magnate close to the administration.

Critics say paying for Putingrad is an easy way for a business to stay on the President’s good side, which appalls civic activist Valeri Suchkov.

“When a massive crime is committed, you can’t talk about the positives – you have to call it what it is, and demand an investigation,” he tells me over coffee in “real” Sochi, beyond the Olympic park where nearly all the city’s 343,000 residents live.

But more worrying to visitors than corruption is the prospect of an attack. Soldiers and police are tightening their cordon around the city, hunting for suspected suicide bombers even as athletes such as hockey star Sidney Crosby openly worry about their safety.

There are reports that as many as three would-be bombers may already be in Sochi, and terrorists make no secret of their desire to exact revenge on the President for crushing Chechnya.

In a video posted online, two men believed to have carried out suicide attacks that killed 34 in Volgograd last month, warn of a “present” awaiting when he arrives.

Still, if the Putingrad Games end up a shining success, he will receive the credit – and Zurab Tsereteli is ready.

Now 80, Mr. Tsereteli has built a career on sculpting the great figures in Russian history, from Stalin to Peter the Great, whose colossal monument dominates (scars, some say) the Moscow skyline. A few years ago, he created a larger-than-life bronze of Mr. Putin, something he has done for neither Mikhail Gorbachev nor Mr. Yeltsin.

“I get on my knees before giants,” he explains.

It is recognition that, for better or for worse, Mr. Putin has made a lasting impression. He is now Russia’s longest-serving leader since Leonid Brezhnev, a tenure comparable to those of both nation builders, such as Peter the Great, and far less beloved rulers, such as Ivan the Terrible.

Mr. Tsereteli’s five-metre-high statue shows Mr. Putin (who actually stands 5-foot-7) in his judo outfit, steely gaze locked on the horizon, and is on display in his Moscow gallery.

But there are constant whispers that it could soon find a prominent outdoor home. The city has been debating when, not if, to erect a monument of some sort to the man who remade Russia.

Mr. Tsereteli says he has a place in mind, but admits that the jury still out on Mr. Putin’s place in history.

In other words, even he isn’t really sure whether his statue depicts Vladimir the Great or Vladimir the Terrible.

Putin’s mark

Population

1998: 147.7 million

2012: 143.2 million

Unemployment

1998: 13%

2012: 6%

Mobile subscribers

1998: 747,160

2012: 261.9 million

Internet users

1998: 1.4 million

2012: 66 million

Refuge seekers

1999: 104,300

2013: 3,309 (vs 75,033 refugees who fled the country)

Health spending (% of GDP)

1998: 7

2011: 6

Alcohol consumption (litres of pure alcohol per capita)

1998: 9.8

2008: 11.5

Research by Stephanie Chambers of The Globe and Mail

Sources: OECD, World Bank, Computer Industry Almanac, UNHCR, WHO, BBC, Dow-Jones.

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