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“It was an issue of image. He didn't want it to look like he wasn't strong enough to win
[in the first round]. So they forged the results at least 10 percent. Anyway, he would have
been President. But we were deceived by fake results, so it was unpleasant.”
Unpleasant. If, Alexei added, there had been two candidates running and votes were
forged to actually change who was elected, he may have taken to the streets. But this didn't
rise to that level. He wasn't stirred up.
“It's not such a big deal. Unpleasant, but not such a big deal.”
There's a window into what Putin is managing: something resembling a democracy, a
system that keeps him in power and makes people such as Alexei—educated, and poten-
tially influential if made angry enough—satisfied, happy, and so far, quiet. This makes
me think that if Putin oversteps—if he outright steals an election, say—people like Alexei
would join forces of protest in Moscow, and the government could have a problem on its
hands. It would be not just the middle class of Moscow rising up but also the middle class
elsewhere in Russia, people with means and embarrassed and chagrined to live in a coun-
try where freedoms are restricted. That could bring the clash of ideas—potentially viol-
ent—that Robert, the Memorial activist in Perm, predicted as a possibility. But if Putin
keeps his authoritarian ways in check—enough—he may have latitude. And it may be years
before Russia sees any true political change, depending on the wishes of the younger gen-
For now, Alexei spends as much time as he can on the road. He and his grad school
friends have met up in Colorado a few times, taking on the slopes at Aspen and Vail. He
also has a videography business on the side—a recent video, shot on a snowy mountain,
had young Russian women flying down a slope on skis and snowboards, wearing nothing
but bikinis. Alexei himself made a cameo—shirtless. Last check, his video had gotten over
seven million hits on YouTube. “I'm not a fan of skiing, tried it once and that was it,” Rose
tells him. “Even the hot instructor couldn't get me to like it.”
“You just have to keep trying,” Alexei says, putting both hands out, palms up, for em-
phasis, “until it gets fun. The whole thing is fun. You have the skiing. Then the spa, the
sauna, the swimming pool in the open air. Recently, I started snowboarding too. I'm still
dreaming of trying heli-skiing.” (That would be when a helicopter drops you and your skis
off in a remote spot on the mountain.)
At the moment, he's gearing up for his next adventure with some friends—a road trip
from Russia, through Central Asia, into China, across Laos, Vietnam, and Cambodia, and
eventually to Malaysia. “We are driving to the most southern tip of continental Eurasia,”
he declares. It is tempting to frown on his excessive lifestyle, especially in a country where
wealth is concentrated at the top and so many people scrape by. But as Rose and I would
remind ourselves, Alexei, Natalya, and other Russians like them are in many ways success
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