Although located some 1,700 kilometers east of Moscow, Yekaterinburg has played an important role in the history of Russia. In the coming weeks, hosting four World Cup matches, the nation’s fourth largest city will gain popularity as global media and thousands of soccer fans descend to its rebuilt stadium.
However, they may also discover that this city of 1.4 million inhabitants has become a microcosm of Russia’s growing political struggle.
The protests have filled the streets of Yekaterinburg more than once throughout this year. Thousands demonstrated against the assumption of President Vladimir Putin, just as they did when the government mobilized to expel the city’s leader, the last elected mayor independently. Yevgeny Roziman, a belligerent opponent of Putin, had struggled to remain relevant despite having lost his executive powers.
While most mayors would be elated to host the World Cup, Roizman considered it a waste of money and a distraction. Recently, instead of waiting until his term ended in September, he resigned publicly, at a town hall meeting, and then in a speech on YouTube.
The independent mayor of Yekaterinburg differed from other Russian cities, according to political adviser Sergey Moshkin. When Boris Yeltsin was president, the city reveled in his reputation as a nonconformist. That ended under Putin, as he built what has been called “the vertical of power”: in 2010, the regional authorities controlled by his United Russia party made the mayor’s office ceremonial.
On May 5, some 5,000 residents of the city led by Roizman joined an unauthorized march as part of the national protests against Putin. But despite the demonstrations, Yekaterinburg has prepared for the World Cup, including the reconstruction of its old stadium with large seating extensions.
Russia spends USD 11 billion on the games, a sum that, according to Roizman, is used to distract from the annexation of Crimea and Ukraine, intervention in Syria, interference in the 2016 US presidential election and internal economic problems. There is, on the other hand, a “great lack of financing of everything,” he said: from hospitals to roads, going through housing infrastructure.
During the Russian Empire, Yekaterinburg served as a strategic outpost for expansion to the east. Later he witnessed the brutal execution of the Romanovs at the hands of the Bolsheviks. After the Soviet Union dissolved, the city became a hotbed of organized crime: in one of its cemeteries there is a section famous for its striking tributes to the heads of the dead mafia.
During the last decade, it has been a center of the synthetic opiate epidemic called Krokodil, and in April it made the news with the death of an investigative journalist who had followed suspected groups of Russian mercenaries in Syria.
When Putin came to power in 1999, there were dozens of strong mayors throughout Russia. For 2013, the year in which Roizman was elected, only three remained. One of them was imprisoned and another expelled. Then on April 2 the legislative assembly of the Sverdlovsk region, of which Yekaterinburg is the capital, voted to end direct elections to the mayor’s office. The mayor was elected by the deputies from a list drawn up by a commission appointed by the Kremlin.
Political adviser Anatoly Gagarin, deputy director of the Public Chamber of the Sverdlovsk region, a non-governmental organization body controlled by the Kremlin and other civic groups, said the “ungovernable mayors” have “generated conflicts and lost opportunities.” He despises the supporters of Roizman: “On the one hand, they say that the officials must act as contracted soldiers, and on the other hand, they want a strong mayor with surrealist executive authority.”
He admitted that the decision to cancel the elections was not adequately explained to the voters, except as a saving of money.
Roizman, 55, has not turned away from some tactics of his own. Before running for mayor, he spearheaded a campaign to rid Ekaterinburg of drug use, including the forced isolation of heroin addicts, who were sometimes chained to radiators. Roizman remains unrepentant. “We saved thousands of lives,” he said, rejecting critics as people “who fight to be nice at the expense of others.”
A few days ago, dozens lined up to see him in the ornate municipal headquarters of the Stalin era. A mother of four adopted children wanted to move out of her abandoned building so the state would not take her children. An old woman said that her neighbors beat her regularly and stole her money. One young man said his wife was in jail for separate fraud of her two young daughters, the youngest with a heart defect that refuses replacement milk.
Roizman, a tall and muscular man, exploded: “Give one-year postponements to murderers and drug dealers in the same circumstances! Why not her?” He made a series of calls, and soon a prominent lawyer appeared to help with the woman’s case.
“He is the conscience of Yekaterinburg,” said local radio host Denis Kamenshchikov, before Roizman resigned. Travel impresario Konstantin Brylyakov called it the “Vox populi of Yekaterinburg”, while Ivan Badanov, whose hardware business was recently withdrawn, said “Roizman is the only man you can talk to throughout the government.”
Badanov, while supporting Putin’s military efforts abroad, lamented the economic recession in Russia and blamed the regional authorities for his misfortune. He said he would vote for Roizman in any election at any charge. “It has many more followers than the authorities believe,” he said.