Provincial Russians keep faith with Putin despite crisis

Reuters News
Posted: May 09, 2016 9:02 AM

By Zlata Garasyuta

TVER, Russia (Reuters) - Before Russia annexed Crimea and oil prices fell, Dmitry Trapeznikov had a flourishing dental practice. He spent freely, bought a flat and holidayed in Egypt.

Two years later, his prospects are shrinking as fast as the country's economy.

The dentist, who lives in the provincial city of Tver, has watched patient numbers shrivel. He cannot afford to finish furnishing his flat and is selling his children's old clothes for petrol money.

With a wife, Yulia, to support and two small children, he has taken a fourth job to make ends meet. If he has a holiday this year, it will be in the former Soviet Union to limit costs.

"I used to be rushed off my feet with work," Trapeznikov, 39, told Reuters.

He treated up to 25 patients on busy days before the economic crisis but said: "Now, on some days, there is nobody. We are practically living off borrowed money."

His problems mirror those of many Russians outside Moscow and St Petersburg as the economy feels the impact of the drop in oil prices, which has hit state revenues, and Western sanctions imposed after Russia seized Crimea from Ukraine in 2014.

They also show how resourceful many Russians are in the face of adversity and that hardship is testing but not fracturing loyalty to President Vladimir Putin, however lukewarm it may be.

Most people blame their problems on local decision-makers or the West, which is demonized in state media, but seldom on the Kremlin. Opinion polls show Putin remains popular.

The Kremlin has taken no chances anyway, clamping down on dissent and underlining the importance of national loyalty while talking up the threat of what it says is a foreign-funded fifth column bent on sabotaging Russia.


That message has registered with many even though Russia's economy contracted by 3.7 percent last year.

Trapeznikov, a bear of a man with a large tattoo on his right bicep, said the government's handling of the crisis had sometimes angered him, particularly what he sees as its failure to support the rouble.

But he also said: "I won't show up at a (protest) rally."

"It's pointless. Maybe I would have done so in the past, but not now. Gathering in a public place is potentially dangerous and I've got something to lose," he added.

He said he had voted for Putin before and would do so again in 2018 if Putin stands in the next presidential election.

"I don't see any alternative candidates," he said. "I'm not saying that our president is super, but you can't say he doesn't sort out problems. Our country is enormous, it's impossible to control everything."

The crisis is painful for many in Tver, a city of 400,000 between Moscow and St Petersburg that was devastated by Nazi Germany during World War Two and has traditionally manufactured railway carriages, excavators and glass.

The Tver region suffered the biggest drop in quality of life in central Russia in 2015, according to the RIA rating agency, and was 58th on a prosperity list of Russia's over 80 regions.

As in the rest of the country, food prices have soared because of high inflation, which the central bank expects to be 6-7 percent this year, and Trapeznikov said that some months he cannot pay down his loans.

His family used to spend about 3,000 roubles every time they shopped for food. They now spend twice that and have cut down on restaurant visits and clothes purchases.


Even before things became harder, Trapeznikov worked as an orthodontist, a dental surgeon and as a university teaching assistant. He now has a fourth job, involving a weekly day trip to another town to work in a small dental practice.

Patients come in less often and "for very precise problems -- not to fix what is essential but only to sort out what they are really worried about."

Like many Russians, Trapeznikov has debts, including a mortgage on his one-bedroom flat on Tver's outskirts for 3.4 million roubles ($51,800) at an interest rate of 14 percent, and a bank loan he took out to renovate his flat.

"I used to make 180,000-200,000 roubles a month. Now I make almost half that," he said. Much of his income goes on servicing his debts.

When times were good he fitted his kitchen with modern appliances and installed a small bar in the corner of his living room with a mirror ball suspended above. Plans to gradually buy furniture over three to four years are now on hold.

Though his problems are partly caused by the sanctions imposed over Ukraine, he and many other Russians still put national pride over their wallets.

"I wish that Russia would take a tougher position," he said.

($1 = 65.6400 roubles)

(Writing by Andrew Osborn, Editing by Timothy Heritage)