Throughout the week, millions of Russians voted to reform their constitution, many using polling stations mounted on tree stumps, park benches and even car boots.
Giant sweepstakes helped lure them to the poll, with a chance to win everything from shopping coupons to a car or apartment.
The opposition figures ruled out the whole process as a farce, extended for seven days, without adequate monitoring or independent scrutiny.
But for the Kremlin, amendments are vital. The vote will pave the way for Vladimir Putin to remain in power until 2036, if he chooses.
Putin’s view of Russia
Not that the president mentioned this in his speech to the nation before the last day of voting.
“We are voting for the country in which we want to live … and which we want to hand over to our children,” said Putin, standing under a giant, ghostly statue of a Soviet soldier, to underline the “patriotic” theme that runs through this process.
The largest revision of the constitution since 1993, this vote is partly about Vladimir Putin’s vision of Russia: explaining the values and priorities he established for two decades in the Kremlin.
“Putin can’t just say to himself, ‘I need to do everything possible to stay in power!'” Argues Tatiana Stanovaya, head of R.Politik, a political organization.
“People try to hide the low things they are doing within something bigger and more positive. Then he says, ‘I want to create a great Russia and stay in power too’.”
What are the Russians voting for?
The new constitution includes articles that promote a patriotic education, reiterating the ban on same-sex marriage and adding explicit mention of God – all in line with the growing cultural conservatism of the Vladimir Putin government.
These “ideological” articles, alongside “social” ones, as guarantees of minimum wage, are the changes actively discussed on state TV and by celebrity endorsers.
In contrast, the amendments that allow Vladimir Putin to reset the clock on his presidency when his current term ends in 2024 – and therefore run for twice as much president – are hardly mentioned.
They were left out the initial information about the vote.
Yes or no
Voters can select only one of the two boxes: accept or reject all amendments.
Lobbying for either option is officially banned, but the leaflets posted on Moscow’s apartment blocks asked people to vote for “the” amendments instead of “them.”
A much smaller counter-campaign put stickers on Putin’s face around the city asking Muscovites to say “No”.
Will the pandemic affect voting?
A short drive from the capital on the outskirts of Podolsk, voters were invited to a tent in a parking lot to make their choice.
Election officials with facial visors, masks and white suits were a reminder that this vote across the country was being held amid the coronavirus pandemic.
Postponed from April, the Kremlin was willing to reschedule as soon as possible.
A survey by the independent Levada Center in early May recorded a drop in Putin’s approval rating to 59% – the lowest of all. The ongoing Covid-19 crisis is unlikely to make things better.
So the authorities did everything possible to get people to vote.
An electoral official in Omsk, Siberia, made national headlines when he won an apartment in the draw. Her protest that she was “just another voter” had a deeply skeptical response.
There were no prizes in Podolsk, but many enthusiastic pensioners.
“Any changes please me!” Galina said, placing her ballot slip in a clear plastic folder decorated with a double-headed eagle.
“Linking retirement rates, the right to study, work and live,” she listed as her favorite, although the last few are not explicitly covered by this reform.
“I like the idea that marriage should only be between a man and a woman,” said Elena, selecting her main amendment.
In her thirties, she also had no problems with Vladimir Putin as president. “It suits us for now,” she said.
Is there a lot of opposition?
In the city center, under a tower block decorated with Russian flags, some younger voters despised the vote.
“What’s the point? Putin will stay forever in any case,” a girl shot over her shoulder.
Maxim said he and “many friends” voted against it.
“We had a president for 20 years and could Putin do another 16? I think our country needs something new,” he said.
Russia’s most prominent opposition figure, Alexei Navalny, published a stream of posts on social media that mock the impromptu nature of the vote and highlight irregularities.
They include pressure on some to vote and others who discover that their ballot has already been released to them.
The influential blogger Yury Dud described the vote as “shameful” in an Instagram post liked by more than a million people. He quoted Vladimir Putin himself in 2008, insisting that it was “absolutely unacceptable” to remain in office for life.
But the blogger had not decided to boycott or check the “No” box.
In fact, this vote is not required by law: reforms to the constitution were approved by the Russian parliament in March.
The Kremlin is said to want high participation and 70% support in this vote, as a popular mandate to be appointed in the future.
An already published exit poll – something that is banned in a normal election – suggests it is well on target.
Anyway, the new constitution has already been printed and is for sale in bookstores.