Running for Office in Siberia

Part I in a Series on the District #35 Election for Novosibirsk City Council

The candidate Natalia Pinus

This is the first in a series of reports that will cover an independent candidate’s campaign for Novosibirsk City Council in the September 13th election. Every election and campaign is unique so no candidate experience represents the status of the democratic process in a country. It can provide insight on the people and opportunities available for them to be active and promote an agenda. I have chosen this candidate, Natalia Pinus, because win or lose it demonstrates the evolution of a person from working mother, to volunteer, to candidate hoping to represent a complex and legendary community, Akademgorodok, Russia.

I first met Natalia at a party around 6 years ago. We chatted and I was surprised she was genuinely interested in my work as a civil society development activist. Most people stare politely bored until they can escape. Natalia planted herself in a chair across from me and asked follow-up questions about NGOs and volunteerism. She also told me about her company that supplies lighting and other equipment to theatres in Russia. At the time she was the mother of two young girls, now 3 with the addition of a boy. Her husband is also successful with a big job at an international company. We exchanged contact information and I forgot about our talk until months later she called and wanted to meet. Her company was doing fine, she didn’t need to be there all the time and making money was no longer an interesting challenge. She wanted to do something to make the community where she, and now her children, grew up a better place, “Can you recommend an NGO where I can volunteer?”.

This phone call was one of the “green shoots” I had been waiting for since 1992 when I became an activist in Siberia. I know and work with hundreds of extraordinary women dedicated and sacrificing to address issues they are passionate about. This was the first time a woman expressed interest in becoming active because of a shift in priorities, a value shift from money and personal gain to community. I asked what field she was most interested in and listed numerous possibilities such as education, health, environment, children, the elderly. Her response was “all of those things, everything”. This now became a phone call that would make several people I knew excited. The Akademgorodok Community Development Foundation had been dormant for over a year because there was no one qualified to be Executive Director. Most grassroots NGOs in Russia start on a volunteer basis and even when salaries are possible they are rarely enough to provide a living wage. Finding someone who does not need an income and is capable of generating the results necessary for a community foundation to increase its stature and funding opportunities is difficult. In a community as diverse and complex as Akademgorodok, it was starting to look impossible, until Natalia’s call. The rest, as they say, is history and the latest chapter of that history will be the focus of this series.

Support for Tannhauser Meeting, “For Creative Freedom”, in Novosibirsk

The other reason this particular race is interesting is its location, Novosibirsk. The 3rd largest city in Russia, the results of the 2014 Mayoral race surprised many when the Communist Party candidate defeated the United Russia (ruling party associated with President Putin) candidate. That election was also notable for the way this happened when a couple of opposition party candidates withdrew from the race at the last minute to support the Communist and increase the chances of a United Russia defeat. The City has also assumed national notoriety as an epicenter for the conservative cultural movement. Highlights include the cancellation of a Marilyn Manson concert, nightclub blockade of the Polish death metal band Behemoth’s “Russian Satanist Tour” performance and the most significant event this spring when the production of Tannhauser was canceled and the Director of the Opera Theatre fired after protests from Orthodox activists. Another cultural moment came when the newly elected Mayor refused to give permission for Monstration , the creative class alternative to the traditional May Day parade, to march down the main street and insisted it be moved to a marginal location. This cultural backlash is like a dog whistle in a City where local theatre productions and artists are the recipients of countless national awards and that has produced such artists as 2014 Academy Award nominee Andrey Zvyagintsev (“Leviathon”), Yanka Dyagileva, the most famous female punk singer in the Soviet Union and the internationally recognized Blue Noses provocateur artists group. Natalia is unusual because she serves on government cultural committees and has been active in public meetings questioning government positions on the issues described above.

Akademgorodok, path to the Botanical Gardens

The 35th district that Natalia wants to represent is famous for science. Akademgorodok was established in 1957 when an academic, Mikhail Lavrentyev, talked Nikita Khrushchev into building a science center in Siberia. The plan included a university that would be associated with institutes where Professors do their scientific work and graduate students gain experience before leaving to apply their skills and knowledge at enterprises throughout Siberia. Only the third element in the model turned out to be a problem, no one ever wanted to leave. In order to entice scientific talent to abandon the more reasonable climates of Moscow and Petersburg they had to make Akademgorodok lifestyle attractive. Only the hotel was taller than five stories, a sandy beach was created on the shores of the Ob Sea (a water reservoir) and cross country ski trails wander through the woods that surround the town. Lavrentyev believed that walking to and from work through the birch tree forest was conducive to scientific thinking so trees were replanted after the cut down necessary to accommodate housing. While most people live in apartments, one scientist explained to me the reason he decided to stay in the 60’s, “The houses where the people in power live were not hidden behind high walls, everything was visible”. Others felt the distance from Moscow allowed for more creative and intellectual freedom. Proof of that came when the concept that would be the beginning of the end for the Soviet Union was born here, perestroika. Sociologist Tatyana Zaslavskaya and economist Abel Aganbegyan first introduced the term in relation to the reality that the agriculture sector was failing economically and needed restructuring . The confidential report was read and appreciated by Gorbachev and leaked to the Washington Post. So, if there are places worth watching for trends in Russia today, this is one of them.

The final reason I wanted to focus on Natalia is when I asked her why she was running one of the reasons was, “I want to run a modern campaign”. To western ears that might sound meaningless (politicians blah blah blah to check off a list of necessary rhetoric), trite (who doesn’t?) or scary (unlimited money, robot calls, keeping the vote down, stats and polls). In Russia, it is refreshing because it means old fashioned campaigning as in getting out the vote hand to hand, being as visible as possible on the street. This is pretty much an anomaly where in local elections the campaigns have consisted mostly of posters followed by one or two flyers in your mailbox. When I ran into her all aglow from a meeting with the Aikido Babushka Club I knew she wasn’t kidding and this would be interesting.

Aikido Babushka Club of Akademgorodok

The next installment of the series will look at Natalia Pinus’s development as a community activist.

Natalia and another volunteer spring cleaning in Siberia