FOR DECADES, scarcely a peep was heard from Strunino. “There hasn’t been a protest here in a hundred years,” says Oleg Aristarkhov, a former head doctor of the hospital in this sleepy town some 120km north-east of Moscow. But when local activists organised a march in January against planned cuts to medical services, more than 100 people took to the streets.
The trouble began in 2015, when regional authorities started closing hospital departments in Strunino and merging them with those in the neighbouring city of Alexandrov. After the children’s clinic, the dermatological ward and the psychiatric ward went under the knife last summer, exasperated city-council members called into President Vladimir Putin’s “Direct Line”, an annual televised spectacle in which Russians plead with their leader to solve local problems. Mr Putin blessed their request, decreeing that the departments be refurbished by year’s end. Yet, as 2019 began, the wards remained closed. The activists sprang to life, kicking up a minor national scandal with their demonstrations. The federal health ministry dispatched senior officials, hoping to placate them, but to no avail. Locals marched again on February 10th. One pensioner, Tatiana Shmiganovskaya, even held a brief hunger strike.
Struninites still hope Mr Putin’s command will be heeded. “We believe in only one man: Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin,” Ms Shmiganovskaya declares. In the meeting room where the city council gathers, a portrait of the president stands in the corner of the room, perched on a shelf typically reserved for religious icons. Yet as the system he built fails them, many are questioning their faith in it. “What are we supposed to do, not believe in the authorities at all?” says Galina Bolotina, a councillor. “How are we supposed to live then?”
The tale is an example of shifts in public opinion that are reshaping the country’s political landscape. Following the annexation of Crimea in 2014, Mr Putin’s ratings soared above 80%. Domestic issues receded while foreign conflicts captured the imagination. Most Russians backed their leadership, welcoming its professed restoration of national glory regardless of the economic consequences. Analysts called it the “Crimean consensus”. That consensus has ended, ushering in a more flammable, less predictable era. Mr Putin’s approval ratings have fallen to 64%, a level last seen before the war. More Russians—45%—say the country is headed in the wrong direction than in the right one, the highest share in over a decade. This month, those calling for the government to resign topped 50% for the first time since the Levada Centre, an independent pollster, began asking the question. As Lev Gudkov, the centre’s director, puts it, “You can’t be in a euphoric state forever—at some point, you sober up.”
The rapture began to fade last May, when the government announced plans to raise the retirement age. Cuts to social services considered basic rights precipitated a “desacralisation of the authorities”, argues Mikhail Vinogradov, a political analyst. Yet the pension reform was not so much the cause of frustration as a catalyst for dormant discontent. Real incomes in Russia have fallen by more than 10% since 2014. Though Russia’s economy is growing again, nearly 40% of Russians say their material well-being has worsened in the past year, compared with fewer than 10% who see improvement. In a recent report, Mikhail Dmitriev, an economist who predicted Russia’s previous mass protests in 2011-12, notes that his focus groups indicate a readiness for change.
Such complaints can be heard across the country, not least in Strunino. “They don’t listen to the people,” gripes Irina Bandalak, head of the council’s health-care committee. Broken promises undermine mutual trust. “How can they lie so unscrupulously?” grouses one doctor. Officials skirt responsibility, infuriating their constituents. At a recent gathering, Marina Chekunova, a deputy regional governor, scolded staff in Strunino for the sorry state of their clinic, telling them to hang clean curtains and wash the floors. Employees responded by pointing out that the facilities have problems that curtains cannot fix: the walls are riddled with holes. “It’s like you think the authorities should do everything for you, as if I’m the golden fish,” Ms Chekunova retorted, invoking a fairy-tale about a fish that grants its captor’s wishes.
Russians have become more willing to challenge the authorities. In gubernatorial elections last year, protest votes defeated Kremlin-backed candidates in four regions. The share of the population ready to participate in political or economic protests, according to polls, was at 6-8% last March; by the end of 2018, it had reached 22-30%, higher than after the 2008 financial crisis or during the protests of 2011-12. Discontent has shifted from the urban middle class that rose against electoral fraud then, to byudzhetniki, or public-sector employees. Though typically less able and willing to organise, they also make up the government’s traditional base of support. Alexei Navalny, Russia’s leading opposition politician, recently launched a union for public-sector workers, hoping to capitalise on their frustrations.
Rising up, slowly
Although these trends do not portend the collapse of Mr Putin’s regime, they do present fresh challenges as he approaches two decades in power. Sixteen more gubernatorial elections loom this year. Foreign adventures generate ever less enthusiasm. Rising inflation, a sales-tax rise and plans to tax self-employed workers will pinch wallets further. “I heard a story on the radio about German pilots striking, and it hit me that we’re just sitting here swallowing all of this,” says the doctor in Strunino. “This is just the tip of the tip of the iceberg.”