ST. PETERSBURG, Russia — Struggling to shake his image as a bumbling dolt before local elections on Sunday, the acting governor of St. Petersburg made a rare public appearance this past week to open three new subway stations that had taken six years and cost more than $500 million to build.
Residents, promised they would finally get a cheap and reliable way to reach the center of Russia’s second-largest city, crowded outside long-sealed subway entrances waiting for the governor, Aleksandr D. Beglov, to show up and the doors to open.
They never did.
Instead of providing a triumphant finale to the election campaign of Mr. Beglov, a longtime associate of Russia’s president, Vladimir V. Putin, the opening ceremony pointed to the slow unraveling of Russia’s social contract of authoritarian rule in exchange for efficiency, predictability and growing prosperity.
With 10 television camera crews controlled by the governor or his supporters and dozens of other, mostly tame, journalists on hand to record the event, the governor turned up late to announce that, because of unspecified flaws, it was not yet safe to open the new stations for passengers.
The last-minute upset added a rare off-message note to a carefully scripted election campaign that had at first seemed little more than a formality to confirm Mr. Beglov’s role as leader of Mr. Putin’s hometown.
Heavily backed by loyal news outlets and powerful tycoons like Yevgeny V. Prigozhin, known as “Putin’s cook,” Mr. Beglov is still expected to win the St. Petersburg poll, part of a nationwide series of municipal and regional votes on Sunday.
But political foes of the Kremlin — who were mostly barred from competing in the elections, spurring the first widespread protests in Moscow since Mr. Putin returned to the presidency in 2012 — took comfort from the governor’s subway agonies as a sign that not everything in Russia is going Mr. Putin’s way.
Dmitri Vishnevsky, a longtime Kremlin critic excluded from the ballot in St. Petersburg, said subway construction crews had been ordered to “work night and day” to get the stations ready for what he described as a “big campaign advertisement” for the governor as a can-do manager who gets things done.
Instead, Mr. Vishnevsky said, the event showed that Russia’s system, a rigid hierarchy of power built around Mr. Putin and loyal underlings like Mr. Beglov, does not work — at least not as described by fawning media outlets that constantly hail Russia’s revival as a great power after the weakness and chaos of the 1990s.
“People are starting to say more and more: Things are not right,” said Alexander Gorshkov, the chief editor of Fontanka, an independent news site in St. Petersburg. This sentiment, he added, is not limited to opposition activists, but is now extending to some residents of the city who generally support the authorities.
Elections “won’t change anything,” he said. “Real change needs to happen in people’s heads. And in the last few months, this has been happening.”
As the clock runs down on what is supposed to be the end of Mr. Putin’s final term in office, in 2024, the Kremlin has increasingly tried to bottle up public discontent by displaying the vast powers of repression at its disposal and vesting power in trusted loyalists like Mr. Beglov, who was appointed last year by Mr. Putin to govern St. Petersburg.
While presenting himself to voters as an efficient and apolitical manger above the hubbub of carping politicians, the 63-year-old construction engineer has had trouble erasing memories of his government’s failure last winter to clear streets of snow and buildings of dangerous icicles, the most basic duties of all municipal authorities in Russia.
As the piles of snow grew higher, the governor — whose name sounds like “Big Love” — gave his officials shovels, which quickly became known as “Beglov shovels,” and told them to start digging.
That fiasco prompted Meduza, an independent online news service that tilts toward the opposition, to describe Mr. Beglov as a “gaffe machine” who “just might be the Kremlin’s worst candidate in this fall’s elections.”
In trying to damp down on disruptive political quarrels in favor of bland rule by sometimes incompetent but always loyal functionaries, the Kremlin is reviving a model that Lev Lurye, a St. Petersburg historian and writer, compared to the system under Leonid Brezhnev.
That Soviet leader ruled from 1964 to 1982, a period now remembered as the “era of stagnation.” It was two years shorter than Mr. Putin’s time at the pinnacle of power.
A back-room functionary for decades who dislikes speaking in public, Mr. Beglov has appalled the intellectual elite of Russia’s cultural capital — a city that gave the world Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Alexander Pushkin and other giants of Russian literature — by mangling the Russian language.
Prone to bizarre malapropisms, he has described his city’s residents as “actively yucky people” and their multiple religious faiths as “multi-confectionarism.”
Whatever his shortcomings, Mr. Beglov has one undeniable asset — the trust of Mr. Putin. The Russian president worked with Mr. Beglov in St. Petersburg in the 1990s, later employed him in the Kremlin and last year named him as acting governor, the equivalent of mayor.
“Putin demands 100 percent loyalty, and he knows that with Beglov there will be no surprises: Better to have a fool than a traitor,” Mr. Lurye said. “He might be a cretin but he is not a psychopath, a pedophile or an alcoholic.”
In its push to squeeze out politics, the Kremlin seems to have all but given up on even its own political party, United Russia, which is now so unpopular that many of its members competing in Sunday’s elections, including Mr. Beglov, deny any connection to “the party of crooks and thieves.”
That tag was first applied by the anticorruption campaigner Aleksei A. Navalny, who last month released a video accusing Mr. Beglov of buying a large apartment in Moscow in 2013 that cost five times his total declared income over the previous five years.
The governor’s election in St. Petersburg has been somewhat more open than the vote in Moscow. Mikhail Amosov, a veteran opposition figure who has been allowed to run against Mr. Beglov, said the governor’s race in St. Petersburg “is a real step forward” and predicted that “next time will be even freer.”
He complained, nonetheless, that the playing field was far from even, with most news outlets beholden to the governor and the “administrative resources” of the state tilted exclusively in Mr. Beglov’s favor.
Vladimir Bortko, the Communist Party’s candidate for governor in St. Petersburg and a celebrated film director, last week dropped out of the race, declaring the elections a “farce” and “the whole system rotten and in need of change.”
In a blistering statement explaining his withdrawal, he said: “Let the authorities take away the fig leaf of ‘democracy’ and present themselves as they are: an authoritarian and undemocratic order that has usurped power for a clan of big bourgeoisie that has no connection with the interests and views of the working people.”
Mr. Vishnevsky, the excluded liberal candidate, said he agreed with much of that but doubted the director’s sincerity, saying he had almost certainly pulled out of the race as part of a deal with the authorities, who worried that his presence on the ballot would make it more difficult for Mr. Beglov to win in the first round.
Three days before he withdrew, the film director met with Russia’s culture minister and discussed a new television series he would like to make, presumably with money from the state.