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In Putin's Standoff With Navalny, Many Russians Put Faith in President

04/20/2021 | 04:07am EDT

By Thomas Grove | Photographs by Ksenia Ivanova for The Wall Street Journal

KALININGRAD, Russia -- Thousands of demonstrators are expected to take to the streets in many Russian cities Wednesday in support of Alexei Navalny, the jailed opposition leader who has galvanized popular discontent with the long rule of President Vladimir Putin.

But even as the opposition leader stirs dissent, Mr. Putin can count on the support of many Russians who either trust in his leadership, fear the uncertainties of political change or disapprove of Mr. Navalny and his protest movement.

"If it were up to me, Putin would stay another 20 years in power," said fashion designer Irina Larkina from her home in a drab apartment block in this Russian city on the Baltic sea. "He's the one who has boosted our living standards and given us respect for ourselves again."

A portrait of two Russias, polarized by the two-decade rule of Mr. Putin, has emerged in the wake of a standoff between the Kremlin and Mr. Navalny. The opposition politician has been on a hunger strike for nearly three weeks to protest what he calls prison authorities' refusal to grant him adequate medical treatment. On Monday, he was admitted to a prison hospital. His supporters say his health deteriorated dangerously.

Mr. Navalny's detention earlier this year sparked Russia's biggest nationwide protest movement in nearly a decade. At parliamentary elections later this year, allies want to use that momentum to make inroads among those Mr. Putin counts on for his continued rule -- a longstanding base and an equally large class of Russians who remain politically detached.

But Mr. Navalny's supporters are fighting an uphill battle.

Even amid falling living standards, Western sanctions and promises from Russian authorities to ban Western social networks such as Twitter and TikTok, Mr. Putin continues to enjoy enviable approval ratings. Sociologists say while few may feel deep support for Mr. Putin, the Kremlin can continue to count on approval ratings of around 60%.

"There's a point at which popularity won't fall any further," said Lev Gudkov, head of independent polling organization Levada Center.

"The country has fallen into two camps, but the Kremlin knows there is a wealth of support it can still draw from within the population, even though it's fallen in recent years," he added.

Furthermore, many Russians don't consider Mr. Navalny, sidelined and discredited by the Russian judicial system throughout much of his political career, to be a serious contender. And for a country that has a long history of political tumult, many distrust his protest movement.

Since his return to Russia, his detention and the first protest that followed, mistrust in Mr. Navalny has risen to 56% from 50%, according to data from Mr. Gudkov's Levada Center. Nearly half of Russians believe Mr. Navalny was rightly imprisoned and 48% of respondents consider his sentence to be fair, the data shows.

Few places illustrate those two Russias like Kaliningrad, a Russian territory cut off from the mainland and sandwiched between European Union nations Poland and Lithuania.

For decades, Kaliningrad was a symbol of dialogue between Russia and Europe and a departure point for visa-free weekend trips to the EU, once a luxury available to Kaliningrad residents. When unemployment rose 20% last year in this university city, which boasts a rich IT sector, Kaliningrad saw unprecedented protests earlier this year.

For some, the exclave is a reminder of Russia's much-vaunted military past, wrested from Nazi Germany at the end of World War II. Defenses are still pointed toward Europe, fearing confrontation with the West. A strong state sector remains, and as Mr. Putin has stoked patriotic sentiment in recent years, more murals commemorating what Russians refer to as the Great Patriotic War have popped up around the region, still dotted with German architecture.

"People should know their history," said Ms. Larkina, 34, who watches films about World War II with her three daughters.

Ms. Larkina remembers when, following the fall of the Soviet Union, families suffered from a deficit of kindergartens in the city, which were either closed down or rented out to make money. Her personal history spans the crime and penury of the years before Mr. Putin's rule as well as the oil-fueled economic boom after he came to power. State television, a driving force in Mr. Putin's ratings, has made that contrast the chief narrative of his 20-year rule.

Ms. Larkina said schools have improved for her daughters, who are 14, 8 and 5 years old, and now, after last year's economic shock due to the country's coronavirus lockdowns and falling oil prices, money from her business has started coming in again. Political differences with her husband partly caused them to split recently.

"Anyone who can't see the great things Putin has done just lacks a certain basic understanding of where we were when he came to power and where we are now," she said, adding that she traces her own political awakening to the time following the annexation by Russian forces of Crimea in 2014.

By contrast, German Prostakov, a clean-cut IT engineer, was driven to protests earlier this year by what he calls Mr. Putin's power grab to stay in office for life. For him, the aftermath of Crimea and Russia's meddling in eastern Ukraine blackened his first few years on the job market, when the ruble fell amid tumbling oil prices and Western sanctions.

"I remember the euphoria and the flags, but all I could think about at the time was that I couldn't get a job," he said. "Now, all the sanctions we're facing, it should give us reason to think whether we really should be supporting this president."

He says the increasing crackdown on the opposition, including criminal cases against Mr. Navalny's allies for the winter's protests, should galvanize anyone with a conscience.

"It's coming to the point where you have to question your own decency if you're not ready to get thrown in prison for protesting," he said.

In a country where many depend on jobs in sectors owned by or linked to the government, many are reluctant to speak out against the government, especially in the current downturn. Russia's state sector makes up between 40% and 50% of the country's economy, while large portions of the private sector are also loyal to the Kremlin.

Andrei Gikalo, 39, who works for the municipal government, says he isn't a deep supporter of Mr. Putin, but believes he is the only person strong enough to lead a country as big and chaotic as Russia, even if it means accepting the corruption that plagues Russia -- one of the main targets of Mr. Navalny's protest movement.

"Among my circle of friends, no one is interested in politics, maybe some have just thrown up their hands in frustration," he said. "But I know I don't want Navalny."

The polarization between Mr. Putin's enemies and supporters is becoming increasingly palpable, said Kaliningrad-based photographer Yuri Pavlov, 62, who started speaking out against the government after the annexation of Crimea.

Russia's economic downturn has forced Mr. Pavlov to take extra work as a taxi driver to make ends meet.

During a recent ride, two customers, women in their 20s, asked him whether he was for or against Mr. Putin after hearing a news report from an opposition-minded news broadcast on his car radio.

"We all laughed," he said. "But there's still not enough of us, not a critical mass...Will we get there, I don't know."

Write to Thomas Grove at thomas.grove@wsj.com

Corrections & Amplifications

This was corrected at 7:50 a.m. ET to reflect the correct ages for Irina Larkina's eldest daughter who is 14 years old and Yuri Pavlov who is 62. The original version incorrectly they were 15 and 63, respectively.

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

04-20-21 0607ET

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