“Excuse me, is this the line to the museum?”: Voting at ‘Noon Against Putin’12 min read

 In Blog, Civil Society, Politics, Russia

With the least freedom in the country’s contemporary history, Russians headed to the polls on 17 March. They were choosing a president, but no choice was left. Knowing Vladimir Putin would steal yet another election, Russians showed up at polling stations anyway. Some spent hours waiting to cast a ballot that wouldn’t change a thing. I was one of them. Why did we do it?

At a quarter to noon on Sunday, 17 March, I got on a bus that would take me from Columbia University to Manhattan’s East Side. My plan was to reach 91st E Street by noon, but I was running late. I picked a seat by the window and opened Masha Gessen’s The Future Is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia, a book that had been guiding my thoughts about my country of origin. An Eastern European accent stopped my reading. I looked up and saw a woman with a child chatting to the bus driver about St Patrick’s Day road closures I soon heard her speak Russian. We got off the bus together.

Sunday was the third and final day of the Russian Presidential Election. As I approached the Russian Consulate in New York, the line to the Consulate’s entrance wrapped around three blocks in the form of the Cyrillic letter П. I whispered, “Wow,” and spotted Anna Nemzer, a Russian journalist who works for TV Rain – the main independent Russian TV channel, in exile since 2022. Arms folded across my chest, I tried to quell my rising excitement. In a big stride, I walked to the end of the line and took my spot. Not staring at people’s faces took an effort. I wanted to study everyone around me.

In Russia’s contemporary history, this year’s election was unprecedented. Its capture by the state broke records, and it held no legitimacy from the outset. Vladimir Putin had stolen up to 17 million votes during the 2018 Presidential Election. In 2021, he changed the Constitution to run for office in his fifth and sixth terms. By 2024, “[n]ever before have we seen a presidential campaign that fell so far short of constitutional standards,” the all-Russian  “Movement for Defence of Voters’ Rights Golos [Voice]” said in a statement on 17 March. Golos repeatedly used the word “imitation.” It became the election’s leitmotif. There was no real campaigning, no real opposition candidate, no independent observation, and no independent election commissions.

The election’s setup welcomed fraud: in Russia, people voted for three days either in-person or electronically, the latter of which is particularly infamous for surges in pro-government votes. The Russian authorities also took the election to the occupied territories of Ukraine, where ballot bins stood on car hoods and cardboard boxes in the streets. The OSCE’s international election observers were refused access to the country. Golos, Russia’s main election monitoring group, received the “foreign agent” label in 2021 and its co-founder, Grigory Melkonyants, has been in jail since August 2023.

Showing up at polling stations in Russia or abroad at noon on 17 March became a protest. Maksim Reznik, an exiled former lawmaker from St Petersburg, came up with the idea. Dubbed “Noon Against Putin,” the action and its message were simple: Come to the polling stations together with like-minded citizens to condemn the election and Putin. Alexey Navalny, Russia’s opposition leader, supported the Noon Against Putin protest. In unusual unity, other Russian opposition figures followed suit, including Mikhail Khodorkovsky, Dmitry Gudkov, Vladimir Kara-Murza, Ilya Yashin, Lyubov Sobol, and Maxim Kats.

“It is absolutely impossible to prevent this action,” Navalny wrote from prison. “Well, what can they do? Close polling stations at 12:00? […] At noon, there is already a high turnout, many people come, and it is simply impossible to single out those voting ‘against’.” On 16 February, Navalny died – or rather, he was murdered – in an Arctic prison in Russia. Navalny was Putin’s loudest and bravest opponent.

Joining Noon Against Putin was a symbolic act. Voting against Putin would not change the election’s result: Non-systemic opposition candidates had not been allowed on the ballot, and no honest count of votes would take place. Then why come to the polling stations at all?

“Clearly, this will not change anything,” Nika, who voted in Moscow at noon in protest, told Meduza on 17 March. “But doing nothing is simply impossible. And it was important to see people like me: people who do not revel in war, murder, resentment toward the whole world, and an abstract ideology that is absolutely unviable in the 21st century. I needed at least a small breath of freedom so as not to lose my mind.”

In that shameful block over which the Russian flag waves in New York, I spent four hours waiting to vote, looking at people’s faces. I have not seen such faces for a long time. They were full of joy. Every other voter arrived with their phone camera facing those already in the line. Some controlled themselves, some did not.

“Oh my god,” a woman exclaimed, measuring the line. “I feel like crying!”

“What are you lining up for?” an American shouted from a doorstep on the other side of the street.

“To vote for a Russian president,” someone shouted back.

“To vote against!” someone added.

People came with friends and family. They ran back and forth from the windy shade of the sidewalk line to the sunlit Central Park street to keep warm. They rushed for snacks and came back, treating each other. Every now and then, a dog in a purple wool sweater sniffed at our feet. If people talked about politics, the mood was cheerful, but not without a tinge of despair.  

“Excuse me, is this the line to the museum?” a man asked a group of Russians in front of me.

“The museum of authoritarianism!” one responded. We laughed.

“The exit polls show Putin is getting 87%,” a voter read a news notification out loud. He glanced at each person in his small circle through his round, brown-framed glasses and said sarcastically, “Shocking content.”

The content was not shocking. Yet Russians in New York could laugh about it, sporting anti-war posters, Navalny portraits, and a round clock suspended at 12 PM. From fourteen hours ago in Russia’s Far East to six hours ago in Kaliningrad, Russians remaining in the country – those opposing the Kremlin, angry at it, or merely tired – held no anti-Kremlin posters and chanted no “Putin is a Dickhead” slogans. Novaya Gazeta Europe reported the absence of the secret ballot: policemen watched people mark their votes. Administrations of industrial enterprises and state institutions pressured their workers to vote and confirm the “correct” check mark with a photo. An observer who spotted blatant fraud at a polling station in St. Petersburg was beaten. In the Ukrainian territories that Russia occupies, people voted in the presence of Russian soldiers who had their rifles at the ready.

Noon Against Putin embodied one of the few last forms of protest allowed in Russia. The crackdown on dissent has been intensifying in the 25 years of Putin’s rule. I imagine its scale and intensity as a leather-gloved hand gripping a dissenter’s throat – someone who is 26, like me, and whose entire conscious life has been with Putin in the Kremlin. In the early 2000s, that leather-gloved hand started pressing. The grip got tighter after the 2011 protests “For Fair Elections.” After 24 February 2022, when Russia invaded Ukraine at full-scale, not one but two leather-gloved hands began strangling my imaginary dissenter.

In March 2022, laws targeting anti-war dissent were passed at a galloping pace. Spreading “fake news” about the Russian Army can now be punished with up to 15 years in jail. People face arrests for social media posts, blue and yellow ribbons tied to their backpacks, and for laying flowers and candy at monuments to Ukrainian poets and victims of political repression. A tiny donation to the Armed Forces of Ukraine can lead to a state treason charge.

“This action breathed life [into me],” Sophia, a Noon Against Putin participant in Moscow, said in an interview with Meduza. “I’m so tired of looking around: God forbid I say the wrong thing; shaking during rallies with anger and fear, mixed with self-contempt for not being able to participate in a rally because of fear for my life. One day, these people and I will meet again at a polling station [and] vote for different candidates, not knowing who will win.”

Going into the second hour of waiting at 91st E Street, I met Svetlana (not her real name), a young blond woman wearing black square sunglasses that hid half of her face. I asked if she had seen the just-arrived news about the exit poll results.

“His winning percentage is already set,” I told her. “But the question is: How much audacity do they have? Is it 80%? Is it 90%?”

Svetlana and I became friendly quickly. I guarded her spot in the line while she ran to get a coffee. She guarded mine as I ran to grab an oat bar. We kept chatting until we reached the Consulate’s steps. Svetlana has spent eight years in the US, recently graduated from a university, and is now applying to get into a master’s program. Her whole family is in Moscow. She visits them often.

As we talked, requests to sign petitions abounded. “Would you like a Navalny monument to be installed in Central Park?” My thoughts were conflicted, but I smiled and scanned the QR code. “Would you sign a joint letter calling for the US Congress not to recognize the election results?” Sure. Svetlana hesitated. Seeing me put my name and phone number down, she decided to sign. The petition man cracked an awkward joke and left us. Svetlana got nervous.

“Do you think he might send our names and phone numbers to the Russian security services?” she asked, giving out a forced laugh. I was looking for words to comfort her.

“What the hell is this drone with a camera for?” she pointed at a drone hovering above a black jeep, looking straight at us.

In our third hour, another black jeep rolled down the street. It was colossal. Two flags on tall poles stood on both sides of its bumper. They were the Russian tricolour – white-blue-red – with the two-headed eagle – the Russian coat of arms – and РОССИЯ typed below it. The waiting crowd laughed, took photos, and booed the slowly moving giant. That ride was a statement. Today, the Russian tricolour flag stands for war and the war crimes Russia is committing in Ukraine. The white-blue-white flag with no red stripe – no colour for blood – symbolises a Russia without war and oppression. Some voters arrived wrapped in the white-blue-white. Some were wrapped in the Ukrainian blue-and-yellow.

“Do you have an extra flag?” Svetlana kept asking the petition people.

In the fourth hour, we discussed our options: What do we do with the ballot? The opposition called for either of the two: Vote for any candidate but Putin or make the ballot invalid. In theory, both would gnaw at Putin’s final percentage. But with the latter strategy, merely scribbling on the ballot was risky; if the little boxes next to the candidates’ names were left empty, they invited potential electoral fraud.

I was determined to invalidate the ballot. When we reached the Consulate’s doorstep, Svetlana made up her mind, too.

“All three checkmarks,” she said, going for the damaged ballot option.

We walked in. I spotted a metal detector and multiple water bottles next to it. I took my bottle out of my backpack.

“Take a sip,” the guard told me.

I looked at him incredulously.

“Take a sip of your water,” a Consulate employee with garish makeup and arms folded across her chest said, repeating the guard’s words.

For three voting days, people in Russia had sneaked dye into the polling stations and poured it into ballot bins. Some brought Molotov cocktails. All were arrested on the spot.

I took a sip of my water. I was allowed in.

“Please this way, come this way, please,” gestured another Consulate employee who was overwhelmingly polite.

A young woman faced me at the registration table. She was curt. She wrote down my passport details, asked for my US address, and handed me the voting ballot. I approached a high black table with borders on its three sides – “for secrecy.” The guard on my right could have seen my writing if he just turned his head left. I put two check marks next to the no-name candidates’ boxes, crossed out ПУТИН Владимир Владимирович, and printed two sentences:

“Russia will be free!” and “Russia will be happy.”

These had been Alexey Navalny’s slogans of hope. I took a photo of my spoiled vote.

As I dropped the folded ballot into a transparent bin, it unfolded. I panicked but quickly recollected myself: I am abroad, and I am safe.

Once outside, I saw the line still hugging the three blocks. It might have been stretching into more – the street scaffolding blurred my view.

Three women in their 40s and 50s stopped me – “Excuse me, did you vote already?” They had many questions. “What was it like? What did they ask you? What passport did you vote with? Oh! Address?! Why do they ask for an address?!”

“To knock on the door sometime soon!” said another voter, who joined the conversation. Her laugh was tense. A pause followed.

“You could give them the address of a random hotel,” I said, remembering an instruction article on election safety I had read that morning. The woman gave me a confused look.

“I will tell them my old address,” she responded.

Even an ocean away, even in a country that granted them entry and maybe full working rights, even at a place where they could protest freely, Russians are still afraid.

The election results came the next day. Vladimir Putin won with 87.28%. His opponents’ figures ranged from 3.2% to 4.3%. The turnout broke more records, reaching 77.44%. Dear reader, don’t you find these numbers beautiful? Russia’s Central Election Commission has been publishing the turnout and ballot count data, and independent election analysts have been busy. They have highlighted egregious statistical anomalies. The exact estimates of stolen votes are not yet known. For now, they range between 20 and 30 million.

On a bus from Manhattan’s East Side to the West Side, I looked at the photo of my ballot.

“Russia will be free!” and “Russia will be happy.”

I do not know if I believe these. I find the sentences beautiful but fleeting.

Back at the Columbia campus, I felt the sound of Russian around me was missing. Being together – so briefly, so futilely – felt good. It felt like home.

We have been too far and apart for too long.

Feature Image courtesy of the author
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