MOSCOW – He sang and twirled as child-friendly pop music blared from a mobile sound system, but it was clear Zhenya the Clown’s heart just wasn’t in it.
“There is no real choice,” said the 20-year-old, whose full name is Yevgeny Kiva. He told RFE/RL that he had been paid by the local election committee in Moscow’s working-class Tekstilshchiki neighborhood to wear a clown suit and entertain the children of voters in the March 18 presidential election, which was certain to go in favor of President Vladimir Putin, securing him a fourth six-year term.
Kiva conceded, however, that he had cast his vote for the incumbent leader, because “there is no one else who can do it like Putin.”
While election officials at Moscow polling stations visited by RFE/RL said turnout had been steady and higher than the previous presidential election, voter apathy was palpable here and reportedly across this vast country following what was a lackluster campaign season.
Many, including the costumed clown dancing to children’s pop music, couldn’t hide their indifference on election day.
“Give your smile to the world,” two young boys sang into the sound system’s microphone as Kiva twirled, expressionless.
In the courtyard nearby, there were kids’ games, and a stand selling “quality Russian food” at prices much lower than at the supermarket. But few people stopped to play or buy.
While the atmosphere at many polling stations appeared festive, several people expressed displeasure at having to come and vote.
One middle-aged man, who declined to give his name for fear of repercussions, told RFE/RL that management at the local textile plant where he has worked for more than 20 years threatened to fire employees who didn’t go to the polls.
“I’ll mark any of them. I don’t care,” the man said of the eight names that appeared on his ballot when asked for whom he planned to vote.
Dmitry Nemorovsky, a local election committee member at the polling station, said 16 percent of 1,927 registered voters had turned out by noon – a greater number than previous elections. But even he admitted that the election had already been decided.
“Everything is very predictable,” Nemorovsky said. The only question may be whether “60 or 70” percent of Russians who are eligible to vote turn out.
At a polling station in a wealthier neighborhood of central Moscow just off central Tverskaya Street, the mood was no different. Three women minding a booth selling Russian food products for cheap said they were cold and bored as they leaned atop a glass case of cured meats. Nobody seemed to want to take advantage of the deal.
Beside them, entertainers looking over a makeshift children’s hockey rink leaned against the building, gazing at their smartphones. One sprawled out on a mat atop the frozen concrete as if he were sleeping.
Many people at that polling station said they voted for Putin but did not want to elaborate on why they had done so.
Izabella, a retired physics teacher, and her daughter Marina, exuded rare enthusiasm in describing why they had voted for Communist Pavel Grudinin, who manages the Lenin collective farm outside Moscow.
“We aren’t satisfied with counterfeit medicine, low-quality food. And everything is expensive,” Marina said. “The government is not looking out for the health of the nation.”
Marina did not vote for Putin, she said, because “he allows thievery, corruption…we’re not protected.”
Most people approached by REF/RL said they did not want to speak to journalists about their vote. One such man named Pyotr, who shielded his face with a balloon as he spoke, joked that he voted for former Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev before admitting to casting his ballot for TV personality turned politician Ksenia Sobchak.
Overhearing the conversation, a young man named Vasily showed his head.
“You know, I didn’t vote for anybody,” he said. “To be honest, I’m not very interested…I think it’s all useless, because the result will be in any case clear.”
Hours later, Putin would stand in front of a choreographed crowd attending a pop concert on Moscow’s central Manezh square and claim victory yet again.