Rosenberg's Russia: On the election trail
- 20 February 2012
- From the section Europe
Russians go to the polls on 4 March to elect a president to replace Dmitry Medvedev. Prime Minister Vladimir Putin is widely predicted to win the race, and with it a third term in office.
In his latest report ahead of the poll, the BBC's Moscow correspondent Steve Rosenberg finds commuters arguing about the politicians during a famous train journey.
MOSCOW COMMUTERS AND THE MEANING OF LIFE
More than 40 years ago, the Soviet author Venedikt Yerofeyev wrote a story about a rail journey. An alcoholic cable-layer, Venya, staggers onto a train in Moscow and heads to the little town of Petushki, 70 miles (113km) away. Along the way his drunken stream of consciousness highlights the hopelessness of life in the USSR.
The Soviets banned the book. But Russians still managed to get hold of secret copies. Soon "Moscow to Petushki" became one of the country's most famous railway journeys. It's the journey I'm about to make.
At Moscow's Kursky Rail Terminal I hop aboard the "elektrichka". The doors close and Commuter Train 6920 heads east.
Every few minutes we stop at stations with names which sound so exotic in translation: "Hammer and Sickle", "Electrocoal", "The Snoring One". By now the compartment is packed. It's minus 20 outside, so inside passengers are bundled up in fur coats.
In the book, called Moscow to Petushki, Venya's travelling companions include angels, Satan and a drunken ticket inspector who takes his trousers off. So who will I meet?
"Oh, I was born in Siberia! La-la-la!" sings a man with a big moustache at the end of the carriage. Nikolai is a Siberian electrician. He has a song in his heart - and a vodka bottle sticking out of his bag. When I ask Nikolai who he's going to vote for in Russia's presidential election, he sings the praises of Vladimir Putin.
"I'm for Putin," Nikolai tells me, "because he's made Russia proud and strong. As for those street protests against him, I'd throw all the ringleaders into jail. You can't criticise your government."
Overhearing our conversation Zenaida says she, too, supports Mr Putin. "Twenty years ago," she recalls, "the shops were empty and there were ration cards for sugar. Under Putin life's got so much better."
Not all the passengers agree. Suddenly I find myself in the middle of a giant argument.
The woman sitting next to me, Svetlana, says it's all a myth that life's so good. She tells me that most of the people on this train cannot find jobs in their home towns, because the economic situation is so bad. So they have to commute to Moscow every day to earn a living.
For Svetlana it means getting up at two o'clock in the morning to catch the "Moon Train" to Moscow. She works as a cleaner in a Moscow police station, then takes the train back home. Svetlana believes Russia needs a new direction. In the presidential election she'll be voting for an iron fist.
"If the nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky becomes president," Svetlana tells me, "he'll restore order. Just like Joseph Stalin did."
I get chatting to Anna Sergeyevna. She tells me she cannot survive on her monthly pension of 5,900 roubles (£123; $194). So, at the age of 73, she travels to Moscow every day to earn extra cash. Two hours there, and two hours back. Anna mops floors at a scientific institute. She recently suffered a mild stroke. But she can't afford to stop working.
"As long as my legs keep moving, I'll keep working," Anna tells me. "I have to. That's why I spend my life travelling on a train."
There's a commotion in the carriage. The ticket inspector is coming through and lots of the passengers haven't bought tickets. They're told to pay up or leave the train. Anna doesn't have a ticket. She says it's too expensive.
But just as the conductor is about to pounce, Zenaida slips Anna her ticket. Then, with the sleight of hand of a magician, Zenaida snatches it back just in time to produce it herself.
But where, I wonder, is the singing Siberian? Returning to her seat, a shocked Svetlana tells me that Nikolai's journey is about to be cut short. After downing too much vodka, the electrician has just tried to punch Svetlana's son at the other end of the carriage. Two security guards have pinned Nikolai to the floor. He is thrown off the train at the next stop.
At times the "elektrichka" to Petushki looks more like a shopping centre than a train.
"Ice creams and frozen squid!" cries one trader passing through the carriage. Then a man appears selling giant rolls of insulation tape. I go up to a woman who is selling mirrors, magnifying glasses and mobile phone cases.
"If it wasn't for this job," she tells me, "I'd starve to death".
Then I meet Albert, who has worked at a saw mill for 20 years. He clearly misses the old days.
"In the past, if you were drunk and you collapsed in the snow, someone would come along to pick you up. These days, you're left to freeze. It's everyone for themselves now."
Albert has no time for politicians or presidents. "Those government people, they sit there in their suits and ties jabbering away, they never think of the workers. Make them stand for four hours every day on a commuter train. Maybe then they'll understand what our life is really like."
As we approach the end of the line, one of the passengers breaks into a song, as if to urge the tired train on those last few miles to Petushki. "I love you Russia," she sings, "you stretch till eternity. How often they have tried to kill you. But you will never be defeated!"
But by the end of my journey, I get the feeling that Russians have lost direction, and that some have lost faith in the man up front who's been driving their locomotive.
Vladimir Putin will probably still win the election. Not because Russians truly believe he can lead them to a brighter future. They are just not ready to risk changing drivers.