Few jobs and little hope, but rural Russians sticking with Putin ahead of local elections

When asked if Vladimir Putin is to blame for their economic squeeze, residents of the small town of Galich overwhelmingly say: "He doesn't know."

More than 15 years after Putin became president, Russians like these, part of what is known as "Putin's majority," still see no alternative to him. At the same time, their faith in positive change is diminishing and many are resigned to seeing no improvements in their lifetime.

Voters will cast ballots Sunday across Russia to elect local legislators and governors, and the Kostroma region, which includes Galich, was alone among 11 regions voting for regional parliaments in allowing the anti-Putin opposition to run.

Kostroma, an economically depressed area ranked 79 out of the 83 Russian regions in average income, is best known for the unkempt beauty of its crumbling medieval churches and weedy banks of the Volga River. Once the heartland of the medieval Russian state, its capital Kostroma is a typical provincial city with potholed roads.

The Russian opposition was hoping to run in four regions, including more cosmopolitan areas like Russia's third-largest city of Novosibirsk. But with election authorities refusing them registration elsewhere, opposition activists were left to canvass in Kostroma and places around it, like the sleepy medieval market town of Galich with 17,000 people.

Small towns like Galich, 400 kilometers (240 miles) north of Moscow, have been the foundation of Putin's popularity. In the 2012 presidential election, Putin won about 53 percent of the vote in the Kostroma region, with turnout at about 61 percent. On Sunday, most voters are likely to stay home.

"What's the point?" 26-year-old Alexander Shatunov said with a smile, even though he was at his wits' end trying to fix the engine on his 2005 minivan. "They will have decided everything for me anyway."

This is a recurrent sentiment in these parts, reflecting the helplessness and apathy resulting from the Kremlin's paternalistic policies and control over the political process.

Russia's oil-driven economic boom has transformed big cities like Moscow and St. Petersburg into cosmopolitan centers where you can get a Frappuccino even in the most remote neighborhood. Life in Galich, however, has remained largely unchanged. Most people still live in one-story wooden cottages with slanted roofs and carved window frames and rely on the food grown in their gardens.

The main difference is that many young men now go to Moscow to work on construction sites or as security guards in one of the dozens of shopping malls. "Half of Galich goes to Moscow," Shatunov said.

But with the economic downturn, aggravated by Western sanctions and flagging energy prices, jobs are more difficult to come by, even in Moscow. Shatunov spent April to October last year outside Moscow, building summer cottages and bathhouses. This year, he said, demand was low and he was there just for a couple of weeks.

His neighbor, 57-year-old Natalya Gruzdeva, helps her son and daughter-in-law with their three children since she is out of work and past retirement age, which is 55 for women in Russia. She was making 11,000 rubles ($160) a month as a cook in a local cafe when she retired. With the family's combined income they bought a crumbling house without a roof years ago, a small one-story stone structure with a wood stove and no running water. They took out a loan of 500,000 rubles ($7,400) to pay for the repairs and new roof. These loans are now overdue.

"I wake up in the morning and I think: I don't know how to repay the loans," Gruzdeva said. "Banks keep calling and they threaten me. I tell them I can't pay and I won't able to pay." She thought about going to Moscow and getting a job as a nanny, but was needed at home to help with her grandchildren.

She is discouraged but convinced that Putin is not to blame. If only, she sighs, he could visit Galich and see it for himself, rather than relying on what local officials tell him.

"He doesn't see the scale of the problems, they cheat him," he said.

The opposition RPR-Parnas party has been one of Putin's fiercest critics. But here in the Kostroma region, its candidates have been careful to steer the conversation away from politics and focus instead on concrete issues.

Ilya Yashin, a Moscow political activist and ally of slain opposition leader Boris Nemtsov, said the Kremlin allowed them to run in Kostroma because of how difficult it is to campaign here, with 60 percent of the population living in villages and small towns.

"You cannot win without those village votes," said Yashin, who has held more than 130 meetings while campaigning in recent weeks. Even though village voters have never supported the liberal opposition, he said he has been well received because he travels to places so remote that local bureaucrats rarely venture there.

Standing under the roof of a whitewashed medieval market arcade, opposition activist Nikolai Levshits hands out leaflets and asks passers-by to vote for RPR-Parnas. He says their real opponents in this election are "indifference and a lack of faith that you can change anything."

What's more, state television, which is what everyone in Galich watches, describes the opposition leaders as revolutionaries bent on destroying Russia.

During a chat with the police chief in the village of Antropovo, Levshits said he was asked what he thought about the annexation of Crimea from Ukraine.

"I told him," Levshits said, "you know it's really weird to be talking about Crimea in the village of Antropovo, where there is no hot water, where there are no roads, where there is no physician, the maternity ward does not work and you have to travel 150 kilometers (93 miles) to Kostroma."

With the Crimea land grab in March 2014, Russian state television ramped up its patriotic message. Coverage has glossed over pressing domestic problems such as poor health care and crumbling housing, focusing instead on international issues and largely portraying the world as a hostile and dangerous place.

A year on, the strategy seems to have paid off as residents of struggling towns like Galich say their problems are nothing compared to the violence in Ukraine or Syria.

"Everybody here says 'Thank God, at least, there's no war, we're so glad,'" said 53-year-old Valentina Solovyeva, who sells clothes at the market and whose son travels to Moscow for work. "There are no clashes, no terrorist attacks in our country, but what if those migrants start coming here?"

Solovyeva, unlike her neighbors, says she will vote on Sunday. She won't say for whom — although it's clear where her loyalties lie.

"There's no war, it's good," she said. "I'm for Putin. I've always been for Putin."