Part One On the Russian Presidential Campaign Trail in Siberia: Ksenia Sobchak
The blessedly short 2018 Russian Presidential campaign season will end on March 18. Out of an initial pool of 34 candidates, seven men and one woman met the requirements to be officially registered. Alexei Navalny, the “liberal” candidate presented by some as leader of Putin’s primary opposition, is not allowed to run because of a conviction that is believed to be politically motivated. Navalny and many of his supporters consider these elections a stage-managed farce and are pushing for a boycott. Others, while considering it a sham and theatre, still see value in participation because of the mainstream media exposure candidates will get to promote alternative ideas and visions for Russia’s future.
Some Western experts say there are no real elections in Russia and the only reason Putin continues to be so popular is because the Russian people are stupid or pre-disposed to dictatorship. So, how is this certain outcome election unfolding? Four candidates made campaign stops in Novosibirsk, home to the third largest city in Russia and Akademgorodok, the science center of Siberia.
Ksenia Sobchak, the “liberal” opposition candidate, was the first to make a campaign stop in Novosibirsk. Sobchak is a 36-year-old, blond hipster. She is also the daughter of the first democratically elected Mayor of St Petersburg, the man who provided Putin’s entrée into politics. Most Russians got to know her as a host on the popular and scandalous “House 2” reality show for eight years (think Big Brother with more sex and fighting). She morphed into a journalist and has become a leading voice of the opposition. Based on her official financial disclosure form, she is the richest candidate running with an income of over of $1 million a year and she owns a Bentley. Sobchak branded her campaign “Against Everyone”, which includes Putin and anyone who has anything to do with the Russian government. But, she also includes herself on the list, suggesting a vote for her as a protest to the removal of the “against everyone” option that used to exist on the ballot.
Sobchak’s team scheduled three campaign events and one guerilla action in Novosibirsk. The first was a meeting with citizens in Berdsk, a town that is growing as it evolves from it’s profile as a home to factories and their workers. The community now includes a suburban mix of young families looking for cheaper, larger apartments and upper middle class who want water front properties. Despite its positive demographic and economic trajectory, Berdsk is the poster child for how far Russia still has to go to meet newly raised citizen expectations.
Bleak was not only a description of the weather, -25 and snowing. More daunting were the cement block buildings surrounded by ice I had to navigate until the lime green shock of the Sobchak headquarters sign was visible. Stepping inside, a leather skirted, cell phone tapping 20-year-old volunteer was manning the signature table by the door and I was transported into the atmosphere of a western “liberal” campaign: bright, shiny, aggressive, and accessible.
Colorful and expensive booklets with Sobshak’s platform “123 Difficult Steps” were available and young volunteers, including a slightly lost looking Italian boy studying Russian at the State Technical University, wore expensive shirts with the “Against Everyone” logo of colored stripes crisscrossing each other that also covered the walls. Every stripe featured something the Sobchak campaign was against, in addition to everyone: censorship (orange), lies (gray), war (red) etc.
They were clearly not against coffee and American junk food because there was a table slathered with bright yellow and rainbow-colored eclairs, doughnuts, cupcakes along with more muted, but no less American, cinnamon buns. It reminded me of the crafts service table at a movie I worked on in New York in the 80’s.
Media representatives took up one side of the small meeting room and chairs filled with pensioners lined the other three sides. A mix of young and old were left standing in the middle. 80–100 people would end up crammed together for what would turn out to be a two hour wait due to “weather and the road”. The young people busied themselves doing what they would probably be doing anyway, anywhere, texting.
Leaving it to a 70-year-old woman without a seat to take action and relieve the boredom, “Why don’t we use this time to discuss the issues ourselves?”. Her suggested topics were pensions and the moral degradation of Sobchak’s reality TV show “House 2”, but, she kicked it off challenging Step #54 on privatization, “How are you going to get oligarchs to give up what they got so easily?”.
Someone suggested “in steps” and the room exploded with pensioner complaints until the libretto moved on to the morality of “House 2”. This drove an attractive silver haired man in a parka with a seat to shout out, “She is the bravest woman in Russia, Jean D’Arc!”. And the pensioner battle raged on, “17 year olds”…”narcotics”… while the 17 year olds ignored them and continued texting.
The fracas ended when a dark haired, thirtyish campaign official came in, told everyone they were too loud, needed to tone it down and explained, “The producer of “House 2” is in the Duma, Ksenia was just a host, any questions about ‘House 2’, ask him.” More silence until a TV crew threw a microphone into the face of a seated pensioner who said she was for Putin because she would never agree to privatizing more. But she, along with almost everyone else, was there to listen, and to hear what the candidate had to say before they formed a final opinion.
The waiting game ended when the campaign official ran in and told us all to go outside and “Greet Ksenia”. No one budged. Several minutes later he returned and demanded we all leave the room and “GREET KSENIA!” Some of the young people moved out but the pensioners stood their ground mumbling, “What kind of democracy is this? We aren’t going anywhere.” More young people left along with the TV cameras while the rest waited until they returned in a wave that brought Ksenia Sobchak to us at last.
A bullhorn wrapped in red tape was handed to the candidate and she began, “Vladimir Putin is going to be elected the next President. I am running so I can be your conduit to government, you tell me what issues you care about”. A closed factory, housing, environmental waste, education… Sobchak responded to everything but dwelled on topics she was most interested in like corruption in the oil industry.
After going on about bureaucrats with big salaries offshoring money, she came back to her privatization mantra, “Only private property and competition will make it possible for our country to blossom…Maybe you don’t like that some people are richer than you, maybe some of you don’t like that I am richer than you but only when it is in private hands will a company grow.” Every question was asked and answered in an hour. She was smart, focused and articulate. But the politics or ideology, or whatever it is that politicians spout these days, is all confused and she was not inspiring, except for her energy level. Everyone left more impressed, even the woman I passed on the way out as she lamented, “She wants to give the rest of the 51% to private hands! How can you support that?”.
As the lone passenger in the press van I was surprised to find out our destination was not Technopark, a federally designed and funded project to promote technology and innovation, since we were over an hour behind schedule. The reality show aspect of Sobchak’s character came to life and we were off to visit the Berdsk hospital.
Sobchak stormed the building leading a pack of media wolves down the depressing corridor to a tiny room where she corned a Doctor and a patient demanding to know when the woman could expect a procedure she needed. The answer was reasonable, so we moved on to another room and another patient who was also unable to provide evidence of an abusive wait.
We thundered down the corridor until we found a woman waiting for an ultra-sound. Cameras rolling Sobchak asked, “How long have you been waiting?”. The woman replied, “I just got here”, so we moved on until we surrounded a frail woman in a hospital gown. “What do you think of the service here?”. The patient answered it was much better than the clinic in the town she lived in.
A man suggested we go to the x-ray room where at last Sobchak found a visual that would scandalize even more than our intrusion into these patients’ lives.
She made much of an older model x-ray machine but all cameras shot upward when she spotted water damage on the ceiling. We had what we needed but got a bonus in the hallway on our way out. Poster board was taped on the wall, cameras rolling she ripped it off and got the money shot of exposed pipes that would make the news.
Back on the van I chatted with Genya, the 30 something driver. He owned the van along with four more and three buses.
He wasn’t sure who he would vote for but not Putin because, “The government wants to take over everything”, there is not enough State support for business and too many regulations. He lived in Germany for a while but came back because the Germans had a different mentality, “Being late there is a big deal.” When his two young daughters finish school, he will either emigrate to some place like Australia or move to the Russian taiga.
Yet another side of Sobchak appeared when we finally arrived at the super modern main Technopark building and entered the restaurant. This candidate is a daughter of privilege who was hungry and going to eat while talking to a couple of local leaders. The 25–30 mostly young people, who were waiting in the main hall of the building, would just have to wait longer. I chatted with one of them. Alex, a third year Physics student at the University, was considering a career change, “Maybe a hairdresser”. He is a big Sobchak fan, “She is new and exciting, something different”. When I asked what in her platform he liked most he said, “Anti-racism, homophobia”.
The candidate finally emerged for a tour of the building and a model of the Technopark complex. She was uncharacteristically quiet as her hosts described something that is actually interesting and semi-hopeful. Then back to more familiar territory with a quick question and answer period. The answer to, “Where will you be in 3 years?”, made the grand strategy clear. The goal was the Duma and running for President would give her a chance to attract attention to issues she cared about while cultivating the appropriate image to become a major political player. Alex got a selfie with his heroine and we were off to the last stop of the day.
I was upgraded to the Black Chevrolet Suburban security car carrying two security personnel. The very hungry and exhausted media manager jumped into our car when we were stuck in a traffic jam and asked me if there was time for her to get out and have a cigarette. There wasn’t and I asked how she thought things were going. She was pleased and somewhat surprised by the national coverage from the previous day’s visit to a shockingly bad medical facility in Omsk. She asked the guys if there was anything to eat, opened a styrofoam container, ate the biggest, fattest sausage I have ever seen a woman dressed that fashionably consume, asked me to forgive her and went to sleep.
The man sitting up front asked if I heard of Noam Chomsky and pulled out a Russian version of “Hegemony or Survival”. He was recently turned on to Chomsky watching the 2016 Viggo Mortenson film “Captain Fantastic”. The movie is about a father who flees the materialistic world with his children and raises them on Chomsky in the wilderness, basically the opposite of everything his candidate stands for.
We arrived on time for the Hotel Marriot event where a standing room only crowd of over 300 filled the banquet hall. Sobchak appeared and spent the next 90 minutes answering questions that were more global in scope but she began as always declaring that, “Vladimir Putin will win but…”. In response to questions, she offered her take on the dramatic turn- around from the tragic economic policies of the 90’s, Putin got lucky with the oil price, “Yeltsin didn’t have that”. She went on to praise China for getting it right by starting with economic growth before becoming an international player, “We always do it the other way”.
There were two moments that evening when Sobchak demonstrated the best that she could be if she can overcome her privileged, reality show instincts. A man got up and after proudly introducing himself as a Doctor of Sciences and member of the liberal 90’s intellectual Yaboloko party asked, “Do you mind talking to idiots all day?”. Sobchak did not miss a beat, “That is why Yabloko is getting .06% of the vote, because you consider some people idiots”. A little later she stopped security guards from removing a mentally unstable man, “Everyone has the right to be here but you must let us continue”. Overall was an engaging evening, the perfect end to a very long day on the campaign trail only it wasn’t over yet.
Sobchak and her crew were off into the night for the treacherous 4-hour drive to Tomsk. The next day the local media coverage was impressive. The most popular on-line video of the “Against Everyone” Siberian tour, with almost half a million views, is from a -40 degree night event in Tomsk. The candidate is blessed by an Orthodox priest as she takes the traditional Epiphany dunk into a hole cut in a frozen pond.