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Last Updated: Saturday, 6 March, 2004, 16:51 GMT
The people's president?
BBC Moscow corrrespondent Steve Rosenberg visits Siberia ahead of Sunday's presidential election to find out why Vladimir Putin is assured of victory.

There is something magical about the Siberian snow.

When it falls and covers a village, it is like the brushstrokes of a great artist on canvas, transforming something bare into a masterpiece.

Village of Kovrygino, Siberia
Remote Siberia has changed very little since Tsarist times
In the snow, the village of Kovrygino looks like a painting - quaint wooden houses blanketed in white, armies of icicles glistening from rooftops, and babushkas in brown furs and black felt boots trudging down the lane with their buckets. A winter wonderland.

But behind the walls of Kovrygino's fairytale houses, is a world of living nightmares.

Over a meal of fried potatoes and mushrooms, Tatyana Chukrov shared her nightmare.

Tatyana's first husband had left her. She had remarried, but her second partner was an alcoholic and drank himself to death.

Tatyana Chukrov
Tatyana Chukrov speaks of loss
In the space of just a few months, she also lost her mother, her brother and her stepfather.

Her youngest son Alexei murdered a taxi driver in a drunken stupor and was sent to prison for 18 years.

And then came a telegram and the greatest tragedy of all.

Tatyana's eldest son Yevgeny, a conscript in Chechnya, had been killed. He was blown up by a radio-controlled mine.

"You must try the pickled cucumbers", Tatyana told us. "I make them myself. And how about some more tea?"

They would drink anything, even surgical spirit

They make people tough in Siberia.

Over that cup of tea, Tatyana told me more about Kovrygino. The village, she said, was dying.

Few people here had a job, nobody had a future, and most of the men were alcoholics. They would drink anything, she said, even surgical spirit.

I asked Tatyana what she thought of Vladimir Putin.

President Vladimir Putin
Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin became president of Russia in May 2000

I expected criticism. After all, her son had died fighting Mr Putin's war. It was the Russian president who sent troops back into Chechnya more than four years ago.

"Oh no", Tatyana said softly. "It is not Mr Putin's fault. He cannot be expected to know everything that is going on in the country."

"But he is the president", I argued. "Does he not bear ultimate responsibility?"

Tatyana disagreed: "I think that it is the people around the president who are to blame."

That is a view I have heard so often in my travels across Russia.

Whatever problems people face, they do not seem to blame Mr Putin.

At times it feels as if this whole country is living out a fairytale: "Once upon a time there was a kind tsar who could do no wrong, but he was surrounded by evil advisors, witches and dragons, plotting to undo his good deeds."

Popularity

It is a fantasy which is fed by the Russian media.

President Putin speaks to the media at an opening of a road and bridge in the far east of Russia
In recent years the Kremlin has secured greater control over the country's main national TV networks

On national TV, the kind tsar is rarely critcised and often praised. News bulletins portray him as a superhero, lambasting lazy bureaucrats, clambering into submarines, even kissing puppies.

The result is that Mr Putin is loved by his people, with an approval rating of over 80%.

But there is more to the president's popularity than just spin. Russians really do trust him.

They compare him to some of the leaders they have had in the past, such as the dying Brezhnev and the stumbling Yeltsin. Black-belt judo ace Vladimir Putin is much younger, much fitter and much more dynamic.

You can buy Putin board games, Putin tooth picks...Even wedding dresses bearing his presidential portrait

And, despite the problems and the poverty - none of which have gone away - life in many parts of this vast land has grown just a little easier under President Putin.

Unlike the chaos of the Yeltsin years, wages are now paid on time, the economy is growing, there is more stability, and more order.

Memorabilia

The good tsar has not worked a miracle, but he has done enough to earn respect, and even a cult status.

There are pop songs about Putin on national radio. His face adorns chocolate boxes and T-shirts. You can buy Putin board games, Putin tooth picks. There are even wedding dresses now bearing his presidential portrait.

President Putin
Mr Putin has become the subject of a Soviet-era style personality cult

In Siberia, one restaurant offers you the chance to sit on the "Putin chair" where the Kremlin leader placed his presidential posterior the last time he was in town.

"And this is the teacup which he drank from", the waitress told me with enormous pride.

It looked to me like any other teacup, except that it was on display in a glass cabinet with a golden plaque. And, of course, it had touched the lips of the kind tsar.

All this helps explain why Mr Putin is set to win re-election by a landslide; despite having failed to end the conflict in Chechnya, or to provide Russians security, or to tackle crime and corruption, or do anything at all for the village of Kovrigino.

On 14 March, 2004, Tatyana Chukrov will trudge through the snow to the polling station in her village and cast her vote for Vladimir Putin.

"I'm sure", she told me, "that it will be much better for Russia if he remains our leader."


From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday, 6 March, 2004 at 1130 GMT on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

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