Kremlin political strategists say Russia?s new spirit of independent political thinking is limited to intellectuals in Moscow. But on the western edge of Siberia, almost 2,000 kilometers east of Moscow, more and more Russians are speaking their minds on elections and on democracy.
Here in the Ural Mountains, Pavel Smolin takes tourists on dog-sled rides through the woods. But even in Russia?s heartland, one hears mixed feelings about Vladimir Putin?s 12-year rule of Russia. On one hand, Smolin values Russia?s new stability.
But Smolin, 58, says Russia?s pensions are so small, he cannot afford to retire next year.
Nearby, the regional capital of Yekaterinburg was the only big city in which Prime Minister Putin?s ruling United Russia Party lost in December?s parliamentary elections.
Georgi Persky represents Fair Russia, the opposition party that won here in December. He says Russia?s new independent political thinking is not limited to Moscow.
He sees a big attitude shift. Large numbers of people have stopped trusting the ruling party and its leader, Putin.
Even though the opposition won here, there have been three protests. People are angry about what they call big fraud across Russia. Independent city council member Leonid Volkov says there will be a fourth protest.
He says the opposition won in Yekaterinburg because elections were fair. He charges that in much of the country the ruling party won through fraud.
But Volkov and others stress they want reform, not revolution.
Yekaterinburg?s "Church on the Blood" was built on the spot where a Bolshevik firing squad shot to death Czar Nicholas II and his family in 1918. Here, playing on this deep fear of traumatic change, a state company posted pro-Putin billboards with the slogan, ?For A Stable Tomorrow.?
Stability and continuity are key words used by Putin in his campaign to win Russia?s presidential election on March 4, according to regional vice governor Anatoli Gredin.
He says other candidates call for nationalizations or big changes.
Stability was the slogan of a pro-government rally held Saturday in front of the city's railroad station.
One speaker said factory workers wanted stability and Vladimir Putin.
Reporters who covered the rally said many participants were lukewarm in their support for Putin, but were bused into the city and given a chance to visit a shopping mall as well as attend the rally.
Volkov, the opposition city council member, says that the goal was to create images for national television.
He says the Kremlin hopes voters watching state television before the election will think Putin has strong working-class support in the nation?s industrial heartland, in the faraway Ural Mountains.