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The Tip of Putin’s Wedge Between Urban and Rural

The Saturday Profile  By ANDREW E. KRAMER
Published: September 28, 2012
Olga Kravets for The New York Times
"People who create the wealth of the country with their hands should lead. The working class is not represented in contemporary politics," said Igor R. Kholmanskikh.
An offer to bring the "lads" from the factory to clear Moscow of protesters won a new job and this new home for Mr. Kholmanskikh.
IGOR R. KHOLMANSKIKH spent most of his working life on the gritty floor of a factory making tanks and rail cars. But these days, as Russia’s most famous assembly line foreman, he strolls hallways paneled in marble and illuminated by cut-glass chandeliers, with aides and servants at his beck and call.
President Vladimir V. Putin plucked Mr. Kholmanskikh from his anonymous job and placed him in the most senior federal position in the Ural Mountain district after Mr. Kholmanskikh offered in a televised interview during the presidential election this winter to bring "the lads” from the factory and clear the Moscow streets of protesters.
The ascendance of Mr. Kholmanskikh — who leads In Defense of the Man of Labor, a new, Kremlin-backed movement of left-wing supporters of Mr. Putin — represents a deliberate turn by the president. Using unabashed, Soviet-era language, he is picking a culture war with the idea of driving a wedge between the Moscow-based opposition and what is assumed to be his natural base of support among workers in the provinces.
Rather than appease the urban opposition, which seemed to be the Kremlin’s strategy last winter, with laws easing elections and the registration of political parties, Mr. Putin has cracked down on protest leaders and looked to build support among people like Mr. Kholmanskikh and his movement of burly, cursing factory workers.
In this developing conflict, the opposition has made some costly errors, particularly allowing attention to focus on the Pussy Riot protest, in which an all-female, anti-Kremlin punk rock group staged a prank concert in an important cathedral, drawing prison sentences for three band members.
"The whole Pussy Riot affair seems to have been a gift to the Kremlin, which used it pretty effectively to drive a cultural wedge between the Moscow democracy movement and the more mainstream Russians,” wrote Daniel Treisman, a professor of political science at the University of California, Los Angeles.
OUT in the blighted Siberian industrial towns, Mr. Kholmanskikh, a taciturn, strapping man who exudes not so much a politician’s warmth as a sense of coiled anger at the post-Soviet decades of affronts and insults to industrial laborers, likes to drive that point home.
"People who create the wealth of the country with their hands should lead,” Mr. Kholmanskikh said in a recent interview in a television studio built into his palace. "The working class is not represented in contemporary politics.”
His movement consists mostly of provincial, blue-collar workers in their 30s to 50s — "Russia’s rednecks,” as they are widely known, and not disparagingly — who have precious little patience for the urban opposition, "people who are not very satisfied because they have a lot of spare time,” Mr. Kholmanskikh said.
"If they worked more, they would protest less,” he said. "They should come to us and see real work. They could come and see train cars leaving the factory every day, the result of real work.”
The provincial, poor electorate in Russia, estimated to be around 20 million people, would not seem out of place in rural America. They typically tool about the Ural Mountain region in four-wheel-drive Ladas, like the one jacked up on monster tires parked recently in the lot of a metallurgical factory here. They grill meat, go ice fishing, ride snowmobiles and affectionately call one another "real men.”
Mr. Kholmanskikh embodies the generation of post-Soviet Russian men who endured extraordinary hardship and humiliation in the 1990s, the once honored factory work of their fathers debased, and often unpaid, while survival came to depend on raising potatoes in a garden.
That, in fact, is how Mr. Kholmanskikh fed his wife and infant daughter in the early 1990s, when his factory, Uralvagonzavod, withheld pay for months.
"Well,” he said, "that was just my life. Everybody lived this way. Only now, when we look back on what happened, we realize this should not have happened, and should not be repeated. Our children should never know something like the 1990s.”
Only with the arrival of Mr. Putin in 2000, he said, did tank orders pick up and the factory creak back to life.
Nevertheless, some commentators question how heavily Mr. Putin can rely on rural Russians. Paradoxically, the 12 years of his rule as president and prime minister seem to have benefited them far less than the middle class that emerged in Moscow, where the protest was strongest. And if Russia slides into recession in the fall, as many economists expect on the heels of the European debt crisis, that support could evaporate along with jobs in rust belt cities.
"Putin still has the grudging support of many in the provinces,” Professor Treisman wrote of the Kremlin’s turn to rely on this part of Russia. "But it is support with very little enthusiasm.”
THAT was seen in the parking lot of Rezh Nickel, one of the region’s metallurgical plants, where Gennady Mineyev, a retired worker, was standing beside his car.
"We don’t support Putin, but we vote for him,” he said, revealing steel teeth in his grin. "Who else is there?”
Mr. Putin wants to keep it that way, and Mr. Kholmanskikh is central to his strategy.
The extraordinary priority accorded to him was seen in his appointment, the first of Mr. Putin’s after winning a third-term in the presidential election.
"I think that for you, a man who has spent his whole life at the plant, who knows ordinary people’s lives, it will be right to take this post,” Mr. Putin said at the time. He encouraged him to hire his former factory buddies as aides, as opposed to what the president called the "office plankton” who took to the streets of Moscow.
In Defense of the Man of Labor hosted a national convention in August in the Siberian oil city of Tyumen, and it plans to nominate candidates for local elections in October. Its broader appeal, though, remains untested.
Mr. Kholmanskikh has had no trouble highlighting his authenticity as a fan of Mr. Putin’s who is also a working man.
Underscoring his credentials as a Russian "muzhik,” or "real man,” he has been compelled to rebut widespread rumors that he celebrated his appointment with a raucous vodka party for his factory worker friends in the palace. Absolutely not, he said. He drinks with friends in the steam bath.
A version of this article appeared in print on September 29, 2012, on page A9 of the New York edition with the headline: The Tip of Putin’s Wedge Between Urban and Rural.

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