For Mr. Putin, the people in his ward are his property: He can do whatever he wants with them. From time to time, he feeds them — never generously — to ensure his approval ratings remain high. He has a habit of offering handouts, especially in the run-up to elections. One-off targeted financial gifts and benefit payments are a favorite tactic. The aim, of course, is not the material betterment of Russians. It’s to shore up support for the regime and ensure that turnout, in Russia’s strange pseudo-elections, remains tolerably high.
Many of the people in Mr. Putin’s ward do not live; they survive. Though reliable statistics are hard to come by, an independent economist, Natalia Zubarevich, estimated that in 2019, 15 percent of Russians were living in poverty, while another 49 percent were close to dropping into that category. Two years of the pandemic have only made things worse. Last summer, 40 percent of Russians, according to the independent Levada Center, were unable to feed themselves adequately while 52 percent couldn’t afford the necessary clothes and shoes.
In this dire condition, people understandably tend to think first and foremost about their stomachs. For many of them, politics is like the weather, an unchangeable and often incomprehensible fact of life. All opportunities for them to comprehend why they live this way have been completely blocked by state propaganda — and the politicians who could help them understand are either dead or in prison. Independent information, available online from a dwindling number of sources, is impossible to find without an unaffordable outlay of time, energy and know-how.