Vienna’s Russians: Remote and Resigned

As protesters rally in the squares of Moscow, the diaspora in Austria’s capital takes a more sceptical view of political change

A “Putin Party” at The Box nightclub in Vienna in late February. | Photo: Misha Kalashnikov

Online social networks are today’s stage for political discourse. This became relevant for Russia when suspicions of fraud by the ruling party in parliamentary elections last December brought some 50,000 protesters to the streets, organised over the internet. Since then, there has been a string of demonstrations in urban centres, not seen in Russia since the early 1990s.

So, with the 4 Mar. presidential vote drawing nearer, I turned to the Russian version of Facebook – – to track social attitudes back home. Along with pictures of protests in freezing Moscow squares, an invitation to a “Putin Party” popped up in my inbox. At The Box nightclub here in Vienna!  The invitation – which would gain me entry and a free shot of vodka – pictured Vladimir Putin, Russia’s current prime minister, two-time president, and favourite in the upcoming elections. The iconic, glassy eyed image of the political leader had become a marketing tool.

“Damn Russians! They’re everywhere,” my friend Roman muttered as we made our way along Kärtnerstraße, dodging tourists clustering in front of the Swarowski store. Roman shrugged at the irony of his statement: He is Russian himself, but there is little that still connects him to “home”. Having moved to Vienna as a child, he graduated from an international school and an English-language university. I am his only Russian friend. Roman is almost anti-Russian; it’s actually quite funny. I told him about the Putin Party; he laughed. Could be a good time…

Like Stolichnaya or Kalashnikov, Vladimir Putin has grown synonymous with Russia in the minds of foreigners. But the use of his profile to promote an apolitical club night for Vienna’s Russian crowd suggests the distance, physical and psychological, separating Russians abroad from their motherland. This made me curious. And as I talked with émigré Russians in Vienna, a picture emerged of how they were coming to terms with political developments back home.

The upcoming election will decide who will lead Russia for the next six years. Although candidates include Gennady Zuganov, the communist, Vladimir Zhirinovsky, the infamous nationalist, Sergei Mironov, the social democrat, and Mikhail Prohorov, Russia’s third richest man, all say that Putin will grab the brass ring.

Since his rise to power a decade ago, Putin has enjoyed overwhelming support. But the current situation is different in several ways. Putin’s approval rating has dropped in recent years, especially among city dwellers. And his critics have grown increasingly vocal, as the on-going protests make clear.

More subtly, between 2003 and 2008, some 230,000 Russians left the country in a wave of “quiet emigration”, according to the Russian Institute of Demographic Studies. But the shadow figure is as high as 440,000, as those who leave often hold on to their passports. In Austria, the Austrian Integration Fund (ÖIF) lists some 40,000 residents of Russian origin.

Don’t rock the boat

While popular, Vladimir Putin is not stocked at this Russian speciality shop in the 1st District | Photo: Margaret Childs

One of these is Cyril, 25. An economics graduate from the University of Vienna, he now works in an insurance agency. I met him after work, a look of exhausted relief on his face as he unbuttoned his collar. We had a beer before getting down to business.

“I’m voting for Putin,” he said with conviction. “At this point, he matches the people best. Even if there were adequate alternatives, any shocks to the system would only weaken Russia.”

The protests made him cringe. “These campaigns are sponsored by ‘outside sources’ and I don’t have to explain how dangerous that is,” his voice echoing the distrust towards the foreign ties of several of the movement’s leaders.

“I don’t believe in democracy,” Cyril continues. “Underneath that mask lies the same old struggle for power. Putin has a grip on the ‘unpredictable Russian soul’.

“I remember the nineties – No, thank you!” We shudder at the thought of the violent kleptocracy that defined the Russia of two decades past. “I don’t follow the statistics but the lives of my family who are ordinary Russian citizens have improved.”

Statistics are on Cyril’s side: The average Russian salary increased eightfold under Putin, according to the Harvard Business Review. “So I stand for gradual progress with a shrewd leader at the wheel instead of revolutions with unpredictable consequences!”

Outcome inevitable

Others, however unhappy, see the outcome as inevitable. Nikolai, 32, is a department store manager. Born in Vienna, he holds a Russian passport and returns regularly.  I took a seat as he ordered a cappuccino in flawless Viennese and set aside the Dovlatov novel he was reading.

“I will vote, even though I know Putin will win,” Nikolai said. “Besides, the others inspire amusement and wariness,” he continues. “No one really wants the communists in power – so a chunk of their votes, mine included, will be protest votes!” These votes also defined the December elections, when United Russia took a 15% drop in support, according to Radio Free Europe.

“In the end, only Putin remains, and this is a rotten situation,” Nikolai concluded.

But the dissatisfaction may lie deeper. “The protests start with Putin, but end with everyday concerns.” Utility fees in Moscow, for example, have increased tenfold since 2001, as calculated by the realty firm Penny Lane. “That’s why the active, educated urban populace is exhausted.”

Cyril does see some progress, though, as decision-makers take a broader base of interests into account. “But the course depends on levelheadedness. Governments are not forged by rallies alone.”

Yet, Irina, 55, would prefer to ignore the subject altogether. A piano teacher, she and her son left Russia 15 years ago so he could pursue a career as a classical musician in Austria. We met in her kitchen over tea and biscuits.

“I keep my distance from politics,” she began. “I love that about Austria; you can be blissfully oblivious of who the prime minister is. This is so different from the hysteria in Russia. Everyone is at each other’s throats.”

Still, she could relate to the anti-Putin protesters: “I sympathise,” she said. “From what I have heard, they are peaceful and only demand fair elections.” This isn’t entirely true, as some now demand that Putin step down. “My son showed me photos of the rally, and I saw a sign directed at Putin: ‘We are not the opposition, we are your employers. You are fired.’ A bit harsh, but to the point. The government and the people need to have simple, contractual relations.” I nodded, deciding not to argue.

Yet she didn’t plan to vote. “There’s no point,” Irina insisted. Still, she thought change was necessary. “Putin in power for two more terms may lead to Soviet style stagnation or even worse.”

Loyalties differ but a common understanding is overriding: The future of Russia will remain attached to Vladimir Putin for years to come. That this is clear to those who left only supports the prognosis. Yet the protesters also signify that a meaningful opposition may be emerging.

The Putin years have indeed seen economic growth. Trading Economics, a business information service, registered a growth rate of 4% of GDP in the fourth quarter of 2011, as Europe was stagnating. This suggests that Russians’ “quiet emigration” may be down to their enhanced purchasing power, as much as their desire to leave behind a still imperfect state.

Younger émigrés seem keener to retain links to their homeland, as Russian business expands along with its economy, making knowledge of the language and culture more valuable.

Perhaps the Putin Parties celebrate a subconscious hope that one day there will be something to go back to.

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