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raised questions about whether Putin had made recent policy changes that slowed the fed-
eral response to natural disasters. Those allegations never became much of an issue, and
what's more, Putin turned the events in his favor. He arrived at one burned village, Verkh-
nuya Vereya, a few hundred miles east of Moscow, and promised residents that their houses
would be rebuilt before winter arrived. He had cameras installed in the village to chart pro-
gress on state-run television. “There's one, two, they're everywhere!” the excited deputy
governor told me when I visited, pointing out the cameras on telephone poles, as construc-
tion crews buzzed around, erecting new houses as quickly, it seemed, as you can place
pieces on a Monopoly board. It was hard to see this as anything but a ploy, a charade, to
burnish the image of Putin and his ruling United Russia Party and protect them from any
political fallout. This was underscored as I chatted with residents of the village, still re-
covering from the scare of the fires and not all that optimistic about the sturdiness of their
new homes. One woman, who barely outran the fire and survived, said, “They should have
spoken to us to find out how we wanted these houses built. They promised they'd talk to
us individually. But that never happened. They're building without us.” Her brother, whose
own house up the street was destroyed, said the foundation of his new structure looked so
weak he expected it to sink when the spring rains came—notably, after the cameras were
shut off.
Then there was the story of Viktor Kondrashov, a young developer in the Siberian city of
Irkutsk. He's a former fashion model with wavy blond hair, an infectious smile, and a knack
for politics. He rose up in the Communist Party—the main opposition in today's Russia to
Putin's United Russia Party—and stunned the establishment in 2010 by winning the may-
oral race in Irkutsk. Putin's party won a landslide victory overall in local and regional elec-
tions that year, but support was beginning to fade, and Kondrashov's victory in a city so
large was a blemish. I arrived in Irkutsk and spoke to residents who felt they had sent a loud
message that democracy is alive in the country. “I do go to elections, but what's the point?”
one woman said. “They always have everything decided.” This time, she proudly declared,
“We were mistaken!” In his office Kondrashov knew he had pulled off something special.
“This never happened in the history of Irkutsk—so many cars at polling stations. I managed
to stir up this part of the population, people who never went to elections, who were indif-
ferent.” But something bothered me toward the end of our interview. I asked Kondrashov
if he worried that the ruling party might retaliate somehow—perhaps threatening to cut off
services or funding to his city, perhaps by intimidating him. “There are risks,” he said. “I'm
simply going to observe the law, not going to steal, not going to take bribes.” I had one
more question: If United Russia presented him with an invitation to join them, a not-so-
subtle way of saying things would be better for the city if he joined Team Putin, would he
accept? Putin's party, after all, controls the levers of power, the money, the domestic secur-
ity services—they can make offers that are hard to refuse and make life difficult for people
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