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How a Russian cleaner accidentally won an election

Illustrated by the author

Three hundred and thirty miles northeast of Moscow is the rural settlement of Povalikhino. Its 242-strong population is a significant increase from 215 a decade prior, which, in turn, is a tumble from two years before when it had 248. What happened, you ask? Who knows — cars with dashcams driving past in 2008 were busy getting a taste of the lowrider lifestyle in a pothole.

Like a toy village, Povalikhino is speckled with modest, colorful, wooden buildings. It’s also not unlike a toy village in that there isn’t a Wikipedia page for it in English. Even the Russian one only provides population data, its administrative hierarchy, and that it sits on the Vocha River.

Street View is unavailable on Google Maps. A hospital aside, the only business listed is a church in the bush that appears well out of commission since Putin took power over a hundred and fifty years ago. Otherwise, the area is densely wooded, with a few other old churches and ruins dotted about, many woven back into the weeds.

Two Google reviewers engaged in socially distanced conversation on one of them. “I certainly don’t know what this place is,” said the first review, “but I think it’s wonderful.”

“Me too incidentally,” said the other, about a year later.

It’s easy to argue there isn’t much going on in Povalikhino. But it’s enough to have a pretty decent government website, enough to be the administrative seat of thirty villages, and it’s enough to make world news.

Illustrated by the author

Building the party of power

In 1999, then-President Boris Yeltsin was suffering from unpopularitis, which is only cured in Russia by death and vodka. In his case, Yeltsin took the vodka but beat the odds. For almost eight years, anyway.

The December elections weren’t looking so hot for his party. Moscow mayor Yuri Luzhkov led the Fatherland-All Russia, or OVR party, which surged as it rode Yeltsin’s deteriorating approval. Between announcing to Swedes that their top tennis player Bjorn Börg’s face reminded him of meatballs to being found drunk in his underwear on Pennsylvania Avenue trying to hail a cab to get pizza, it wasn’t much of a challenge.

To have a hope in hell, Yeltsin supported forming the Unity bloc to counter OVR. Unity rose quickly. Dozens of governors provided robust backing by signing on in the wake of sweeping political discord and infighting. With Putin’s endorsement of this new party and his soaring popularity compelling Yeltsin to designate him as successor, Unity received almost twice the votes of OVR — just one percentage point shy of the Communists.

Since they couldn’t beat ’em, Luzhkov and many others from OVR joined Unity by April 2001, and the new party snowballed through time into the behemoth that still dominates Russia now. With Putin as a de facto leader and 336 of the 450 State Duma seats today — similar to the US House of Representatives in scope and role — that party is United Russia. It catapulted politics beyond ideology into a platform that was simply power.

Back in Povalikhino, in a cozy wooden office with a photo of young Putin hanging behind the mayor’s desk in September 2020, former policeman and United Russia party member Nikolai Loktev was up for reelection.

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The hunt for opposition

But incumbent Loktev had a dilemma: he was running unchallenged. While an automatic win elsewhere, there must be a legal minimum of two candidates in Russia to ensure an election.

When a candidate is unopposed on the ballot, voters choose between for or against all. The latter result entails a new election in three months. The intent is to thwart election fraud, but an against all outcome risked being a financial and logistical headache that Loktev could avoid by persuading anyone to run as a rival. Anyone.

He asked his assistant. They refused. He asked a Communist Party member who had a healthy previous track record of losing. They clearly weren’t enthused to continue it.

But a month before the election, he found a willing dummy rival.

35-year-old Marina Udgodskaya lives a hundred meters from her job with her husband and their two teenage children. They keep geese, rabbits, and chickens. Like many neighbors, her husband relies on intermittent work in Moscow due to high unemployment in Povalikhino. Udgodskaya is one of the lucky residents to have a job — and one of the 10% to work in town.

She cleaned Loktev’s building for nearly five years.

In her own words, she “never had any business with documents,” but had gone to a vocational school and served on the village council. Still, she accepted the task because she “wanted to help,” and Loktev was a shoo-in anyway.

And so the wholesomely-named Russian Party of Pensioners for Social Justice threw their hat in the ring and provided backing. It was official: Udgodskaya was a candidate.

The clean sweep to victory

Neither Loktev nor Udgodskaya bothered campaigning. Posters? Nah. Brochures? Townhalls and meet and greets? Residents are the first to say it’s all pointless — Povalikhino is so small that everyone knows each other, Loktev and Udgodskaya included.

Plus, this wasn’t a contest. It was a convenience masquerading as one.

So Udgodskaya continued cleaning. Loktev continued Putining. And they continued cleaning and Putining as they had for years while 130 locals cast their predictable votes.

But a plot twist was only 80 votes away. Loktev wouldn’t even slip through with a hairline win — Udgodskaya swept him out the door with 62% of the vote.

Illustrated by the author

Some conclude it was a sign of United Russia’s declining popularity, with notable opposition figures like Alexei Navalny pushing a new strategy. Loktev himself claimed that he did nothing wrong and the village was problem-free, but, like Irina, a shopkeeper in Povalikhino, residents cite unemployment and poor infrastructure. She maintains they would have voted against all if a challenger wasn’t found.

“But we had the option to vote for Marina,” she said. “So we did.”

Back in Loktev’s office, the mood was less than celebratory. Possibly.

“I was upset that I lost,” Loktev said.

“I’m not upset,” he was also quoted as saying. Whichever it was, he conceded and embraced Udgodskaya’s prior role as the building’s cleaner, explaining that it meant “she knows her way around.”

But Udgodskaya admitted inexperience. “In general, I have no idea what the duties will include. And what next, no one knows.”

Irina said that the village would help support Udgodskaya in her new role. Even Loktev offered to help bring her up to speed. Frankly, the town couldn’t afford her rejecting the position — the Russian Party of Pensioners for Social Justice would have to pay for a new election. No one has the heart to do that to their grandmother.

“No, I will not run anywhere.”

In February 2021, when TASS, Russia’s largest news agency, asked Udgodskaya about her future ambitions, she denied any.

Her backers might have their fingers in their ears. According to TASS, the Russian Party of Pensioners for Social Justice considers her the face of their evolving party and intends to back her in State Duma elections this fall.

In their “Party of Pensioners — a strategy for all generations” conference in February, they laid out their new strategy. According to a party spokesperson, they are settings sights on “voters who are disillusioned with the state” and who see themselves as “forgotten.”

However, journalist Andrey Pertsev is wary of praise surrounding dummy candidate wins like Udgodskaya’s. He opined on that “technical candidates” further the Kremlin’s agenda, with pundits parading her on television and even Putin celebrating her success.

“[They] vindicate Russia’s flourishing democracy,” he argues. “The Kremlin loses nothing in this arrangement.”

Whether a hero of democracy or unwitting Kremlin pawn, Povalikhino’s new mayor has plenty to do, and Udgodskaya is hopefully making good on her promise to bring much-requested streetlights to the village. Former mayor Loktev may join his fellow residents in widespread unemployment, but he is paid a pension of 20,000 rubles a month (around $270). It’s considered generous for the area — only nine thousand less than his successor’s salary — so it may fund some downtime before assessing future moves.

Until then, the results are in, and it’s not a meme: in Russia, election elects you.

Illustrations by the author.

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