Russians pressured to attend Putin’s star-studded election rally

Vladimir Putin, flanked by cheering supporters, strode on to a stage in the centre of Moscow’s colossal Luzhniki Stadium and urged a crowd of tens of thousands of flag-waving Russians to join him in building a bright and joyful future for the country’s children.

“Our ancestors lived here, we live here, and this is where our children and grandchildren will live,” Putin said on Saturday afternoon, at what was his sole campaign rally ahead of this month’s Russian presidential elections. “And we will do everything to make them happy!”

Standing beside Putin were celebrities and sports stars, including members of Russia’s men’s ice hockey team fresh from their triumph at the Winter Olympics. At Putin’s bidding, they burst into a rendition of Russia’s national anthem. Police said 80,000 people were present, with another 50,000 watching on big screens outside the stadium.

It was, on the face of it, a perfect demonstration of popular support for Putin, who is all but certain to secure another six-year term of office when Russians go to the polls on 18 March.

Multiple reports before Saturday’s rally indicated that tens of thousands of Russians had been strongarmed into attending the event. University students, state employees, and workers at private companies were among those who came under pressure, according to opposition websites and social media posts.

“Organise yourselves into groups of no less than four, and photograph yourselves when you arrive at the stadium,” read an email, seen by the Guardian, which was sent to employees of a Moscow-based company. “Don’t forget to pick up your placards on Friday!” An employee at the company said he feared his wages would be cut if he did not comply.

Andrei Kondrashov, Putin’s campaign spokesman, denied anyone had been forced to attend the rally.

However, as Saturday’s event got under way, long before Putin had made his entrance, thousands of people streamed towards the nearest metro station. “Let’s get out of here,” said one middle-aged man named Pavel, after posing for a group photo with work colleagues. “I support Putin,” he said. “But I’m not spending all day here.”

Others were paid to attend.

“Men and women. 20-55 years old. March 3rd, rally/concert ‘For a Strong Russia’ in support of Vladimir Putin. Payment 500 roubles [£6],” read an announcement posted on Tuesday on a popular “rent-a-crowd” website.

Those who answered the advertisement were met near the stadium by a man who identified himself as Rodion. “We’ll all go to the stadium together, then meet back here and you’ll get your money,” he said, before handing out Russian Ecological party flags and scarves. No one present appeared to have any connection to the party. The move was an apparent bid to create the impression of broad support for Putin across Russia’s political spectrum.

“What difference does it make if I pretend to be an Ecological party member? I mean, I don’t support Putin, either,” said one young man, who refused to give his name. A spokesperson for the Russian Ecological party was not immediately available for comment.

There was no lack of genuine Putin supporters, however. Activists from the National Liberation Movement, an ultra-nationalist group, were highly visible both around the stadium and on the snow-caked streets outside. “Putin is an outstanding president who is trying to improve our lives,” said Irina Vasilyeva, an older woman, as she held up a portrait of the Russian leader. “We all have to give him all our support.”

Police were quick to detain the handful of opposition protesters. Yelena Zakharova, an anti-Kremlin activist, was seized outside the stadium after she unfurled a sign condemning Russia’s military campaigns in Syria and Ukraine. She was later released without charge.

Inside the stadium, which will host this summer’s football World Cup final, speakers warmed up the crowd, with some continuing the bellicose tone of Putin’s recent state of the union address, at which he boasted of Russia’s new “invincible” nuclear weapons.

“We are a warring country, make no mistake. We have a commander-in-chief. He collects territories, wins wars, and introduces new weapons. How can a warring country change its commander-in-chief?” boomed Igor Ashmanov, a Russian businessman who is one of Putin’s official representatives during the election campaign.

Putin’s speech, when it came, was brief and low-energy, consisting of little more than nebulous promises of future victories. It was in stark contrast to his fiery comments at the same venue in 2012, ahead of that year’s elections, and amid mass opposition protests, when he urged the crowd to help him fight a “battle for Russia”.

Although Putin has never shown any great passion for election campaigning, his apparent indifference has reached new lows this year. He has not only declined to debate with rival candidates, he has also failed to publish even an election programme. Despite this, state-run opinion polls indicate that 69% of Russians will vote for him on 18 March. Pavel Grudinin, the Communist party candidate, is polling in second place, with 7%.