Russian Road Trip

Vladimir Putin is about to press the flesh. And he doesn't exactly look like he's enjoying it.

The Russian president's face has the expression of a man forced to accompany his wife on a shopping excursion: affectionate, dutiful and a bit weary. He steps up to the rope that divides him from the enthusiastic throngs. Local residents are wearing their holiday best on this final Friday of April, pushing forward hands to be shaken and sheets of paper to be autographed. "Vladimir Vladimirovich!" barks an older man with a flushed face and tousled gray hair. "Just keep doing what you're doing! We're for you!" Putin takes the proffered hand, smiles shyly, thanks him and moves on down the line.

For me, too, this is an occasion-if not for the same reasons. Foreign correspondents in modern Russia do not often get the chance to walk with Putin as he works a crowd-and certainly not in a place like this one. Kirillov, population 8,800, is tucked away in a remote corner of the country's northwest.

"This is a big event for a little provincial town like ours," says Marina Travnikova, 45, who works in the local museum visited by Putin during his recent four-hour visit.

In fact, the last time a Russian head of state came through Kirillov was Peter the Great's visit some 300 years ago. At the end of the day, Putin himself cites another precedent. As a child, the future tsar Ivan the Terrible visited the town's impressive monastery in the company of his parents in the 16th century.

Putin doesn't say whether Ivan the Terrible is an example he wants to follow. Peter the Great, on the other hand, is one of Putin's declared political models-perhaps because Peter was an authoritarian modernizer who understood that Russia could be reformed only through forceful, and sometimes cruel, rule from above.

None of which answers the question: why Kirillov? The other journalists on the trip-mostly Russians working in the official Kremlin press corps-agree that the only aspect that distinguishes this part of Russia is its ordinariness.

Ask Kirillovites their opinion of Putin, for example, and the answers mirror the sentiments usually used to explain Putin's sky-high approval ratings. "Young," "energetic," and "businesslike" are the first words that crop up.

If anything, Putin's diffidence toward his fans-so unlike that of predecessor Boris Yeltsin-only reinforces the impression. As the crowd disperses at the end of the visit, four women are chatting among themselves about "what a man" Putin is. They won't give me their names, but they're happy to tell me what they thought of him. "He's so restrained," says one. "And that makes him attractive. He's so tactful." A friend immediately corrects her: "He's so sexy." Everyone titters.

Perhaps none of that should come as a surprise. As the state-run media point out during the run-up to Putin's visit, Kirillov is typical of the midsize rural communities in which the majority of Russians live. Economically, Vologda Province, of which Kirillov is a part, sprawls along the median.

No one is starving, but no one is doing particularly well, either. As elsewhere in Russia, except for a few big cities, political parties are virtually nonexistent. The only one with a high profile around here is the Unity Party, whose local chapter is headed by the governor of the province, Vyacheslav Pozgalyov.

But Unity is little more than a pro-Putin booster club, and local journalists say Pozgalyov's primary allegiance is to the big provincial steel plant, which exports most of its production to the outside world. With the factory having the cash to finance a powerful political machine-as well as most of the local media-there is little room for competing voices.

That may explain why we kept hearing one of those old Russian proverbs repeated during our trip: "The tsar is good, the boyars are bad." The boyars were the senior aristocracy, the only force in the country capable of competing with the tsar-often with catastrophic results.

Boyars tended to be enmeshed in the complexities of court influence peddling and regional intrigue. The tsar, by contrast, was invariably viewed as a godlike authority who stood above the messy confusion of everyday politics. The bad tsars were the ones who allowed the boyars to get away with a lot; good tsars courted popular opinion by cutting the boyars down to size. (Both Ivan and Peter tried the latter.)

In present-day Russia, Tsar Vladimir has already done his share of cutting. He has curtailed many of the powers of the country's 89 governors, but rumors suggest that he may do more. It's now conventional wisdom among Moscow's political elite that the election of regional officials like the governors, introduced under Yeltsin, has helped to make the country ungovernable by creating local power blocs that don't always toe the Kremlin line.

Kirillov, as it happens, may have a solution to this problem. During a conference with local officials in the town, Putin gives a long and sympathetic hearing to the town's mayor, who claims to have solved many problems by appointing local officials rather than allowing them to be elected. The governor, sitting at Putin's right, looks distinctly unhappy.

Afterwards, the press corps confesses that we all wondered whether Putin wants to do the same in Vologda. Later, when a village elder complains that her community still doesn't have a paved road, Putin smilingly prods the governor: "Come on, won't you build them a road?" Pozgalyov sputters and squirms. Still smiling, Putin twists the knife: "What a greedy governor."

Needless to say, Putin isn't really joking. Signs abound that the economic resurgence Russia has been enjoying over the past year is grinding to a halt, and Putin has promised a big reform push to jump-start the economy.

The bureaucrats and regional powerbrokers who have the most to lose are already mounting the barricades. Two weeks ago, for example, the Russian general prosecutor publicly denounced Putin's plans for judicial reform in dramatic terms. The only solution, in Putin's eyes, may be to tighten the reins-including eradicating what's left of Russia's fragile democratic reforms.

But Putin will only be able to do it if he can make it look as if ordinary Russians approve. Perhaps that's why a pro-Kremlin Web site expressed the hope that Putin's visit to Kirillov would mark an overdue attempt to transform his personal popularity into a "political resource."

What a sad irony it would be if the proverbs came true-and dismantling democracy turned out to be a hit with the public.