In Syktyvkar, the capital of Komi in northwestern Russia, there is a junction where October Avenue crosses Pecherskaya Street. It’s a busy spot: the locals drive 14km along this, the longest avenue in Europe, to the outlying district of Ezhva and their jobs at one of Russia’s largest timber processing complexes. Here, there’s a large billboard at the junction, from which a portrait of Vladimir Putin observes the comings and goings of the city’s residents and visitors. The message on it reads: “A strong president means a strong Russia”. Putin’s face radiates confidence and calm. A police car sits next to the hoarding, alternating from time to time with an ordinary car and driver in plain clothes.
Putin’s image has been under police protection since the beginning of February. The first person to comment on it was Tatyana Ivanova, a local blogger and civil society activist, who pointed out that the president was especially privileged: billboards showing other presidential candidates attracted no such official attention. This situation was confirmed by Nikolay Bratenkov, a member of Komi’s oldest environmental organisation, the Committee to Save the Pechora River. In fact, anyone driving or walking past Putin’s picture can see the car and its occupant. One police officer even admitted to the bloggers that he was parked at the junction specially to guard the hoarding.
What were the people who ordered the guard afraid of?
The most famous incident connected with the defacing of a billboard took place in Syktyvkar in 2010, when civil rights activists Ernest Mesak and Igor Sazhin threw tomato ketchup at a portrait of Joseph Stalin. Putin, of course, isn’t Stalin (although the veneration of both is in full swing in Russia), and this incident happened eight years ago. But Mesak and Sazhin are still around, still engaged in campaigning for civil rights and possibly messing with people’s heads, while ketchup is still available in the shops.