Rosenberg's Russia: On the election trail
Russians will elect a new president on 4 March, in a poll that former president and current Prime Minister Vladimir Putin is widely predicted to win. In his second report in series ahead of the poll, the BBC's Steve Rosenberg meets pro-Putin factory workers in Russia's industrial heartland.
THE TOWN OF TANKS, STEEL AND SMOG
As we approached the town of Nizhny Tagil, our driver issued an unusual warning.
"Don't be surprised if we break down," he smiled, "cars sometimes conk out here because of the lack of oxygen."
Our vehicle didn't have any problems. But I understood what he meant about oxygen. As soon as we entered the town, I began coughing: a nauseous odour had wafted into the car.
In Nizhny Tagil, industry is tsar. Everywhere you look there are factory chimneys spewing thick clouds of smoke into the sky.
The snow here, soiled by dirty air, looks more like sand. Pollution is a major concern.
But people's lives depend on the factories. For the workers the priority is keeping their jobs and praying for stability.
At the Nizhny Tagil Iron and Steel Works, I put on protective clothing and took a tour of the factory.
- Ahead of March's presidential election, the BBC's Moscow correspondent Steve Rosenberg will be writing regular updates from the campaign trail.
Engineer Yevgeny Kozlov showed me around the giant coking plant.
Yevgeny has worked at the steelworks for 50 years. This year he's set up a "Workers' committee for the support of Vladimir Putin".
"The anti-government protests in Moscow don't reflect the mood of the whole country," he assured me. "Working people don't want revolution. We need stability, jobs, regular pay packets. That's why we're backing Vladimir Putin for president."'Sorting out protesters'
At the tank factory up the road, they pledged their loyalty to Vladimir Putin live on Russian TV.
When Mr Putin held his annual televised phone-in last December, there was a live link-up with the plant (it, too, has set up a Putin supporters committee).
One of the workers told Mr Putin that he and his mates were ready to come to Moscow to "sort out" the anti-government protesters, if police weren't up to the job.
The factory workers of the Urals are not marching on Moscow yet.
But they have been active in their support of Vladimir Putin.
A couple of days after my tour of the steelworks, I met up with Mr Kozlov at the Nizhny Tagil railway station.
He was taking hundreds of workers from his factory on a special train to the regional capital Yekaterinburg. Factory workers from across the Ural Mountains were travelling there to take part there in a pro-Putin rally. I went along for the ride.
In Yekaterinburg, where it was -20C, a crowd of about 5,000 people gathered on the square outside the station.
The event was conceived as a direct response to the young and middle class Russians back in Moscow who have been protesting against the government; an attempt to show that away from the capital, Russia's working class still has faith in Vladimir Putin.
Some of the people there were clearly fans.
"Putin pays our pensions," Nikolai told me, "he gives us bread and cheese, that's all we need."
One man in the crowd burst into song: "Putin is always here! Putin is always near! Putin every day - Putin here to stay!"
But not all factory workers in the Urals are so excited at this thought.
There were fewer people at the rally than organisers had predicted. One of the workers admitted he had only come because his boss was giving days off work to whoever took part.
Another man said his two sons had signed up for the rally to get a free trip to Yekaterinburg to do some shopping.
There is little doubt, though, that Vladimir Putin will win votes in Russia's industrial heartland; more, I sense, out of a fear of change, than any genuine belief he can make their lives better.
Many of the people I spoke to here told me they saw no alternative to the man who has run Russia for the last 12 years.
"People don't want to risk," one worker explained. "If they elect a new president, that's a risk. People are worried about losing what they have now."