Running for Office in Siberia: And the winner is….

Part VII in a series in the District #35 Novosibirsk City Council election

Election Day: The glorious days of 30 degree Siberian Indian Summer sunshine were over. It was 6 degrees and raining, the weather you do not want if your chances of winning depend on a large turnout. This was the case with Natalia Pinus in District #35. Nikita Galitarov, her major opponent, aggressively targeted pensioners, the certain voters in Russia. She was counting on inspiring a new group to become active. The big dare. A chance to prove the potential of grassroots democracy in Russia and build on the legacy of this community. Akademgorodok, the place where perestroika was born at the Institute of Economics across the street from the coffee shop that would serve as Election Day headquarters for Natalia’s campaign.

Two posters stuck on the wall were the only indication this was not your ordinary café.

Alla and Natalia in the Headquarters as the day begins.

One was a sign, “Headquarters for Natalia Pinus supporters”. The other, a chart, listed polling places and time intervals. Natalia was there along with Alla, her good friend, who was in charge of registering the voter count reported by observers every 2 hours from each of the 15 stations. Another man was hunkered down in the corner. Galitarov’s guy, he looked exactly like a thug sent by a construction company to intimidate you should look. At least in Russia because he was drinking tea and playing with a fancy phone and computer.

Galitarov’s guy in the corner.

Worlds were colliding at Headquarters highlighting the stakes. Was it possible a 29 year old candidate, who did not live or work here, whose only distinguishing characteristics were a pile of money and masterful dirty trick skills, could end up representing this community in the City Council? The only certainty was the weather and it was raining. For an election that had morphed from an eight- person race to a mythical battle between good and evil, this was not good.

Observers on the scene.

Initially, the polling stations had more official personnel than voters (election commission members, observers, police and doctors). If anything was really off, it would be noticed by allot of people.

By 10 AM, the Galitarov people had plastered a new batch of posters on my building, a clear violation of the rules.

Illegal Galitarov poster.

I got a call from a friend just as it started to hail. She was emphatic several days ago, “never for Natalia”. Now, she was outraged, “What is going on? What ugliness! A NIGHTMARE is happening!” She was going out to vote for Natalia. Maybe they had taken the step too far, not in this community, the Akademgorodok wagons were circling.

Hypothetically, anything over the official 24% turnout estimate would be in Natalia’s favor.

A Just Russia candidate stops by to say “hello”.

The 2PM count was good with 18.99%. Bets had been placed and Danil, a supportive presence throughout the campaign, took the high end position with 31%. Natalia was talking to the no chance, but nice guy, candidate from the democratic socialist A Just Russia party. They compared notes about the cell phone terrorism their teams experienced this morning.

Supporters were playing a building block tower game.

The objective was to remove a wooden piece without causing the structure to collapse. The perfect way to kill time, practicing the strategy and discipline that kept Natalia’s campaign from collapsing when she said “no” to United Russia after winning the primary. The Galitarov thug was gone when the tower fell. This reminded me of a quote by the recently elected, first female Mayor in Barcelona. “In the story of humanity, everything is impossible until it becomes possible”. Just like the building game, you will not know if you got the balance right until the block is completely removed.

Natalia and Leonid, campaign coordinator. (Photo by Sergey Kovalev)

By 6PM turnout was 27.3%. Natalia was out voting and delivering dinners to volunteers throughout the district. Leonid, campaign coordinator, is in charge talking to volunteers in the field and scanning the Internet for news. A 30 year old physicist at the Nuclear Physics Institute, politics is his hobby.

Natalia thanking volunteers. (Photo by Sergey Kovalev)

Meanwhile, a man I never saw before was holding court. He described how a Professor in Tomsk sold his vote and then outsmarted the buyer. He organized two pieces of black thread to look like a checkmark on the ballot, took the confirmation picture and then removed them. Since this man seemed to know everything about elections I asked, “What’s the deal with Galitarov? Why is this man so intent on representing Akademgorodok? “ According to Akadem’s version of Deep Throat, United Russia was really interested in Natalia’s primary performance. Nobody votes in primaries so they were impressed with the tiny number of votes she turned out (204), and even more with the gap between her and second place (65). Then, Natalia politely declined. In her account, the Party representative took the news calmly and wished her well. In Deep Throat’s account, that was it for her. They told Galitarov to take the 18 million rubles he was planning to spend in another district and use it to defeat Natalia. He estimates that Natalia’s surprising staying power forced the final cost of his campaign to 20 million.

The polls close.

Polls closed at eight but City Council votes are the last of four races counted. Sometime after midnight the official winner would be declared. Headquarters was staying open tracking results until the café closed at midnight.

Natalia was busy on the phone getting updates. Alla occupied the corner seat formerly held by the thug. She filled in charts drawn on Xerox paper using a magnifying glass to see.

The first result was from a school located in Natalia’s base territory. The news was promising, the size of the win significant. It gave her a 40 vote cushion to make up for losses elsewhere. I asked one of her supporters what he thought was going to happen. He said any attempt to influence the vote would happen before the ballots are counted because Novosibirsk doesn’t have a “system”. He defined a “system” as no accepted hierarchy with power to intervene. Breaking an election law procedure is a criminal offense. If there isn’t a “system”, no one will risk doing it. I asked how you know if there is a “system”? A friend of his was an observer in a neighboring region. A police officer ordered him to stand three meters away in a corner while they counted the votes. They would arrest him if he ignored the police order. That is a “system”.

The ballot count begins.

It was possible to make small adjustments during the count. Legally the commission is required to hold up each ballot and announce the name before placing it on a pile (think chads in 2000). Sometimes, experienced commission members speed up the process. They make piles first and then count the ballots but he expected an honest count tonight.

At 11:30 PM Alla was perched over her sheets, magnifying glass in hand, counting. Results from Galitarov territory were surprisingly good for Natalia. Losses were only by a few votes. In other news, Communist Party wins in territories Natalia carried as Deputy demonstrated the confused nature of Russian politics. Andre, the Director of and Akadem TV, was there. He pledged to shave his beard and share what looked like water in a beautiful corked glass bottle if she won. Closing time, Andre grabbed the mysterious bottle and invited everyone to continue the vigil at his office. Natalia went shopping for snacks. There was no sense of excitement, just time to move on. Out on the street Andre revealed the bottle was his personal recipe samogon (Russian moonshine), 50 proof. “You never had anything like it, no headache”.

Andre and his samogon

There is a unique atmosphere created when you switch on office lights in the middle of the night. That florescent intensity applies to whatever is going on because otherwise you would be home sleeping like everyone else. Alla was the first to settle in spreading her charts across the best desk and claiming the best chair. Natalia arrived and laid out a spread of delicacies that constitute the secret to Russians capacity to sop up alcohol (fish and meat, pickles and eggplant rolls, almonds and pistachios). They are also disciplined drinkers. There is a ritual to it. Nothing gets uncorked until there is something to toast, victory or defeat. The results already in should have been good enough to inspire giddy confidence among the campaign staff. There was none. I was sure they all knew what I learned tonight, 20 million rubles spent to defeat her. Someone must have a trick up their sleeve. Natalia worked the phones, Alla counted and recounted, the coordinator collected signed official tallies from observers while the rest made small talk. I wondered, if not the count, what will be the signal it is ok to start drinking?

Natalia’s phone rang. Whoever was on the other side was doing most of the talking. Natalia uttered short, somber replies ending with “Thank you” before clicking off. The gang stared at her waiting until someone finally asked, “who was that?” Natalia answered “Galitarov”, again silence until she added, “he congratulated me”. No one whooped, it was so anti-climatic I forgot to capture the moment on film. Andre started to uncork the champagne, the only one with a smile, as Alla said something about a missing signature and Natalia started to eat pistachios before returning to look at what she was working on. This was actually it. I turned on the video and got a business as usual scene while Andre worked on the cork so I decided to prompt.

Me: Natalia, who was just on the phone?
Natalia: My opponent.
Andre (laughing): MAIN opponent.
Natalia (slight smile on her face as she continues to pick at the pistachios) : Yes, main opponent, Galitarov.
Me: And what did he say?
Natalia: He said I congratulate you for the honest win and then some kind of thoughts about things I had charged him with…

She shifted focus back to Alla mumbling, ” I don’t remember accusing him of anything”. Andre emptied the entire bottle filling seven water glasses. Natalia turned around and asked, “Why did you do that?” I assumed she disapproved of the portions because she wanted to pace the drinking. It turned out she wanted just a sip of champagne for the traditional first toast. Then, move on to the samagon without risking a 50 proof headache. I continued to wait for behavior I associated with an electoral fairy tale ending.

Was it exhaustion, shock, Russian pessimism ever triumphing over victory? No, no one knew how to react. There was no precedent for this. The response to this victory should be different. Barbra Streisand’s version of FDRs rousing up-tempo victory song. “Happy Days are Here Again” as a contemplative, defiant ballad that acknowledges the fight is not over yet.

The third toast and I get the triumphant sound bite. A synchronized clinking of glasses, “To the FIRST victory!” and everyone laughs.

A toast “To the FIRST victory”


In the end, after all the promises, Galitarov’s “I do it now”, Heating/KGB Man’s “Warmth in your home”, Science man’s “Continue the work of Lavrentev the towns founder”, it was Natalia’s simple, “I love Gorodok”, that took the politics out of it and won. Another major factor, the Galitarov campaign strategists misjudged this community. Of the 31% of eligible voters who participated in Akademgorodok, 26.13% supported Natalia. Galitarov squeaked out second place with 16.77% to Science man’s 16.27%. The A Just Russia nice guy came in fourth and the invisible United Russia candidate fifth.

Last night of the campiagn before the election. Natalia was the only candidate out on the street meeting potential voters as her campaign film projects above.

Emotional Facebook messages made clear the meaning of her victory. They also acknowledged its source, an honest campaign, many describing it as beautiful. The techniques she used are well known, easy to understand, can be taught and replicated. More problematic, the qualities Natalia displayed as a candidate. They are rare, hard to understand and impossible to teach. Like trying to catch lightning in a bottle, but that is what makes them so powerful when they appear. She will need all of them, and then some, as a Deputy if she is going to achieve anything at all. The new 50 member Novosibirsk City Council met for the first time three days after the election. The Party count is: 32 United Russia, 12 Communist Party, 2 right-wing ultra nationalist LDPR, 1 social democratic A Just Russia, 1 neo-liberal (but who really knows) Civic Platform Party and two independents (including Natalia). I am confident of only three things. Natalia will try her hardest to get the results she campaigned for, it will be interesting to see what happens and the shoreline of cynicism has receded… at least in Akademgorodok.

Natalia’s first day at work as a Deputy 3 days after the election.