Rot lurks in golden city as Putin’s election looms

By Kara Fox, CNN
With Darya Tarasova, for CNN

Sergiev Posad, Russia — Under the shadow of a towering, red, high-rise block of apartments, Andrei Trofimov removes a black plastic covering from his car.

The silver Nissan has been off the road for more than two weeks and not because of the bitter cold weather. It was set on fire a day after Trofimov published a blog post on his website highlighting what he described as an environmental disaster unfolding on the outskirts of his hometown, Sergiev Posad.

The person who threw the Molotov cocktail was captured on camera, as was the license plate of the getaway car. But despite the CCTV footage, police haven’t solved the case yet and Trofimov is doubtful they will.

Trofimov’s car was set alight last month.

Andrei Trofimov, activist and blogger.

A neighbor walks past and asks if the insurance agents have come for an inspection. Trofimov says he’s glad he took out a good policy. It’s the second time his car has been set on fire and he was prepared on this occasion.

Trofimov’s blog post alleges that local authorities and a Moscow businessman agreed a deal that allowed raw sewage to be stored illegally on the edge of the industrial city, which is situated some 70 kilometers (43 miles) southwest of Moscow. Now, he says, raw fecal matter seeps through the quarry into the drinking water supply.

After months of protests and outrage, local authorities called a meeting with the affected people on Tuesday, but with the timing, residents are concerned the meeting was just for show. It is, after all, election week in Russia.

The golden domes of Trinity-St. Sergius Lavra.

Urban decay is rife in Sergiev Posad, population 104,579.

On Sunday, residents in Trofimov’s city of Sergiev Posad and the rest of the country will cast their ballots in a presidential vote where the outcome is a foregone conclusion.

With no serious opposition and a firm control of the country’s major media outlets, current Russian President Vladimir Putin is a shoo-in to scoop another six years at the helm.

Trofimov’s and other dissatisfied voters like him say they are planning to abstain from casting their ballots.

The abstention is something main opposition leader and longtime Putin-critic Alexei Navalny, who is banned from running in the election, has called for. It won’t change the overall outcome, but it may thwart Putin’s widely reported desire to achieve his perfect 70-70 — turnout of 70% combined with winning 70% of the total ballot.

That 70-70 aspiration is why authorities have answered Trofimov’s call to action today, he says.

Polling from the independent Levada Center in December showed that only 24% of respondents said they would definitely vote, 34% said they were "likely" to but hadn't yet decided.

At the Tuesday meeting Putin’s supporters are trying to appease local discontent.

Locals outside the Sergiev Posad Municipal District Council.

Bureaucrat Oksana Erokhanova speaking to the media.

Inside the Sergiev Posad Municipal District Council, Trofimov and other activists gather to hear the council’s decision. Deputy head of the district Oksana Erokhanova -- who is seated behind a table facing the gathering -- tells the room the blogger isn’t welcome.

But Trofimov, who has a following of several thousand on Twitter and Russian social media platform Vkontakte, moves around the room, camera glued to the palm of his hand, filming. It’s his weapon of choice -- one he says he has used to document Sergiev Posad’s grimy underbelly over the past eight years.

In front of two state-run television crews in the room, Erokhanova vows to take immediate action to repair the quarry and contain the smell. But Trofimov is skeptical.

In a statement to CNN, Erokhanova said local residents would soon be given a solution to mask the smell of the sewage, but did not specify when work to do this would begin.

On Sunday, Trofimov will spend the day monitoring polling stations for irregularities. The activist says his work is dangerous. And that his family feels it too. But Trofimov says he won’t stop.

“I want to infect people with courage and show that it’s possible to defend your rights,” he says.

“If I chicken out… it will mean that all my previous statements -- to fight, to not be afraid -- will be reduced to zero. That is why I will keep doing this; I hope that something will change and I won’t be killed but rather those who commit these crimes would be punished.”

Snow blankets the perimeter of the Trinity-St. Sergius Lavra complex in Sergiev Posad.

When you first arrive in Sergiev Posad it’s hard to see the city that Trofimov and other disgruntled locals describe. The main tourist attraction a 14th century monastery — replete with blue and gold onion-shaped domes — looks like it was transported from a storybook.

The fairytale setting brings in tourists and a significant financial boost to the city. But with visitors spending most of their time in the Trinity-St. Sergius Lavra monastery complex, any gains mostly go back to the Orthodox Church.

Worshippers pray inside the the Ilyinskaya church.

Graffiti on an apartment building reads: “God is tired of us.”

The Church has undergone a renaissance since the collapse of the Soviet Union and is synonymous with a particular Russian identity, which the Kremlin actively promotes.

Throughout the country, pro-Putin rhetoric has weaved its way into post-sermon conversations between priests and their parishioners.

But not all church-goers are heeding that election advice.

Across the street from the imposing structure of the monastery, sits the smaller Ilyinskaya church, where local residents battle through the freezing cold for Lenten mass.

It’s a month for reflection in the Orthodox calendar.

Outside the church, Oleg Kuznetsov, an altar warden, is worried. He recognizes Trofimov walking by and stops him to explain.

Oleg Kuznetsov, 31, says he is abstaining from the vote.

A facade attached to government housing in central Sergiev Posad.

A construction company has been awarded a contract to build a road that will run through Kuznetsov’s family home. The house will be demolished and Kuznetsov is certain the family will be moved to a house of far lesser value. He knows there's not much he can do to protest the decision.

Kuznetsov says he won’t vote for Putin on Sunday — but that is nothing new for the 31-year-old who has abstained from voting previously.

“To be honest, I believe that my voice does not go anywhere at all. It won’t change anything,” he says.

While an undercurrent of opposition runs deep in this city, Sergiev Posad is still very much part of Putin’s heartland, and long-time supporters are expected to continue their support.

Across the street from the city’s glistening golden domes, stands a collection of dilapidated government-run homes. A plastic facade has been shoddily hammered onto one of the houses.

Next door, there’s a green wooden house, where 23 people live in cramped quarters.

Inside, neighbors Valentina and Antonina, who declined to give their surnames, keep warm in the shared kitchen, adjacent to the outhouse. They say local politicians have repeatedly promised to move them out of the house. It’s a damp dwelling that has exacerbated both their health problems.

Valentina says politicians make a lot of promises but she doesn’t expect them to deliver.

But, the authorities haven’t followed up on their promises. And Valentina doesn’t expect that they will.

“Politicians? All of them are promising. They promise a lot,” the 63-year-old says. But she isn’t up in arms – because she knows things could be worse. She remembers harsher times.

She doesn’t worry about herself – instead, she looks to her grandson’s future. She won’t be able to afford higher education for him.

“It’s a sore spot for me,” Valentina says, referring to the prohibitive costs associated with continuing education.

Valentina thinks about how little has changed for her in nearly two decades: her monthly pension has decreased again during this six-year presidential term and her government housing is falling apart. Yet, she doesn’t see elections as something that will bring about change.

On Sunday, she will vote for Putin as she always has. When asked if she would consider an alternative, Valentina says she would. But as long as it’s someone like Putin, she quickly adds.

Her 73-year-old neighbor Antonina has also given it some thought. The carcinoma survivor adjusts her scarf, and tugs on her flowered dress nervously.

“Maybe I heard one man on the bus saying that Putin increased his rating in foreign policy -- but in the country he has disorder. He was speaking loudly so I could hear this,” she recalls.

Antonina, like many in her age group, gets her news from others in passing when she’s not watching state-run television news.

Antonina, a carcinoma survivor, lives in damp government housing that she says aggravates her health.

But she confesses she has a secret.

“I’d vote for [nationalist party candidate Sergey] Baburin,” she says.

Her eyes widen. Almost surprised by her admission.

She takes a step back, realizing that times have changed. She can say what she wants – just maybe not too much.

Victoria Butenko contributed to this report.

This story has been updated to correct when Andrei Trofimov's car was set on fire.