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How Vladimir Putin Has Continued To Remain Popular In Russia


On New Year's Eve 20 years ago, Russia's president at the time, Boris Yeltsin, went on national TV.


BORIS YELTSIN: (Non-English language spoken).

KELLY: Yeltsin was tired. He was sick after eight years of political and economic turmoil. He said he was stepping down and handing power to his more energetic prime minister, Vladimir Putin.


Two decades later, Putin is still in charge and most Russians still appear to support him. NPR's Lucian Kim reports from Tula, the traditional center of Russia's arms industry.


LUCIAN KIM, BYLINE: I've come to Tula, the gritty industrial town south of Moscow, to find out how Vladimir Putin consistently keeps his approval ratings around 70%. Ever since one of Putin's bodyguards became the governor here, things have been looking up.


KIM: Historic buildings are being renovated, and the city has a brand-new riverside park. That's where I meet Zoya Timofeyeva, a retired factory worker and proud grandmother and great-grandmother. When I ask her about Putin, she can't contain her enthusiasm.

ZOYA TIMOFEYEVA: (Through interpreter) He's sincere, kind and noble. He's very smart, energetic and combative - everything you need in a leader.

KIM: He's done so much for our country, she says, and restored a sense of pride after the economic collapse when the Soviet Union fell apart. Ruslan Parshutin, an engineer in a Tula factory, agrees.

RUSLAN PARSHUTIN: (Non-English language spoken).

KIM: "It's important to us because we remember our roots from Soviet times. Patriotism is in our blood. We always aim to be No. 1 in the world, and Putin understands that." Parshutin was a teenager when Boris Yeltsin handed over power to Putin. He remembers the hope his family felt 20 years ago.

PARSHUTIN: (Non-English language spoken).

KIM: "Our hopes were fulfilled," he says, as church bells ring in the background. "It's just enough to look at how my hometown has changed."

I'm at ground zero of Tula's urban revival. Tanks from an army base used to be parked in garages here. Now there's shops, cocktail bars and restaurants arranged around the square. It's a little bit chilly out here, but people tell me it's packed in the summer. Several old industrial sites around town have been turned into cutting-edge cultural centers, but the young people who come to hang out in Tula's converted factories have no memory of life before Putin.

To students like 19-year-old Yekaterina Zaretskaya, the stability her parents praise looks much more like stagnation.

YEKATERINA ZARETSKAYA: (Through interpreter) We want to move forward. We don't want to stay in one place. We're getting sick of this tunnel vision. We want something new. And that's why we look at what's going on in other countries and sometimes wonder why we can't have the same thing.

KIM: Zaretskaya says she gets her news from the Internet, not state television.

ZARETSKAYA: (Non-English language spoken).

KIM: "I haven't watched TV forever," she says. "It's disgusting to watch because of all the lies." She's attracted to Putin's most vocal critic, anti-corruption campaigner and protest leader Alexei Navalny. He was banned from running against Putin in last year's presidential election and can only reach his supporters via social media - in other words, mostly young people.

Back on Tula's refurbished riverbank, I ask grandmother Zoya Timofeyeva what she thinks about Navalny.

TIMOFEYEVA: (Through interpreter) Heaven forbid Navalny. Who does he think he is? He's just all talk.

KIM: She says her pension may be too small, but she's sticking with Putin.

TIMOFEYEVA: (Non-English language spoken).

KIM: "We don't despair," she says. "We're optimists." The main thing, Timofeyeva says, is a certainty Putin gives her that the next generation will have a great future.

Lucian Kim, NPR News, Tula.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Lucian Kim is NPR's international correspondent based in Moscow. He has been reporting on Europe and the former Soviet Union for the past two decades.