‘The Technology of Tushino’ – A Look at Grassroots Campaigning the Russian Elections

This is the translation of an article that appeared in the liberal Russian newspaper, Novaya Gazeta on the 9th of August about the election campaign of the progressive Duma deputy, Dimitri Gudkov. This year’s Duma election results may be more interesting than 2011. Last time round, deputies were elected from a single national list with a high threshold that meant that only four, largely Kremlin-controlled parties where represented in the Duma, and there were very few truly independent deputies. This year, half the deputies will be elected from a national list, but half will be elected from single-member constituencies. This opens up many more possibilities for small and independent parties to achieve representation. One of the candidates running in one of the seats is one of those few independent Duma deputies, Dimitry Gudkov (there’s a very good Moscow Times profile of him here). Originally elected in 2011 for the nominally left leaning ‘A Just Russia’ party (nowadays no more than a Kremlin front), he was expelled in 2013. Now he is running on the ticket of the liberal Yabloko (the Apple) party.

There are few things to say before launching into the actual article. Firstly, my Russian isn’t terribly good, and there are bits of my translation that aren’t very clear or most likely just wrong. I’ve put a question mark surrounded by square brackets around those phrases I’m not sure I’ve translated right. If you do notice an error in my translation, please do tell me and I’ll amend it. Secondly, the article talks a lot about yards. In Russian tower blocks, where most urban Russians live, there is almost always a communal yard in front or within the building. Gudkov’s campaigning strategy is to talk to meetings of residents within these yards, circumventing the Kremlin controlled media and talking directly to his voters. Thirdly, some of the sentences I have translated are a bit clunky and don’t read very well. I think you’ll be able to understand what’s being said, but I apologise for the poor translating anyway.

I like to think that what’s being reported in this article is a new dawn for Russian opposition politics as it learns to develop community-based activism that is able to win victories against the Kremlin even in the oppressive atmosphere that exists in Russia today. Having anti-Putin deputies in the State Duma almost certainly won’t change government policy, but it will legitimise the opposition movement and hopefully help it build organisational capacity. On the other hand the Kremlin might (and most likely will) employ its usual tricks of electoral fraud and intimidation, meaning that Gudkov and people like him won’t be elected. We shall have to see. Whatever happens, I believe that campaigns like the one currently being run in the north west of Moscow (especially with help from people who were on the Sanders’ campaign) are Russia’s best chance for reform. What happens in the grassroots has mattered very rarely throughout Russian politics, but this may just be changing.

The Technology of Tushino

Novaya Gazeta’s correspondent spends one day with Dimitry Gudkov, candidate for the State Duma for ‘Yabloko’.

Gudkov’s single mandate constituency includes the Moscow districts of South Tushino, Shukino, Strogino, Pokrovskoe-Streshnevo and Mitino. As the elections loom here it’s heating up: from United Russia, the former head of the Sanitoriums of Russia, Gennady Onishenko is running, KPRF has put forward the heavyweight Sergei Baburin and Patriots of Russia is running the odious writer Eduard Barirov.

A small flock of primary school girls take their seats in the children’s square, sitting cross-legged and waiting for the candidate to the State Duma. White chairs have been placed for the adults on the edge of the square. There are banners with the candidates name on, Russian flags, music – Dimitry Gudkov’s campaign is repeating the format that emerged in Russian politics from the mayoral campaign of Alexei Navalny [one of Russia’s most famous anti-Putin and anti-corruption activists who ran for Moscow mayor in 2013]. Except instead of piped music, there is a flesh and blood guitar player attracting the residents of the block.

“Why live music? We’re on the side of truth. Therefore everything we have need to be natural and genuine.” says the smiling elderly Nadejda, local resident and volunteer for the campaign. These volunteers, “doorbell chiefs”, now numbering 2367 people, help organise meetings in their blocks and ask their neighbours to come (this is more effective than if the buildings were canvassed[?] by non-residents).

The candidate himself comes out – without formalities, in jeans. “In 2011 I was successful at the elections with one party”, he says referring to A Just Russia, “That party promised changes, to struggle against corruption but by the end of the legislative session they had started voting like United Russia. Here our paths diverged, because I continued to vote for what I believed.”

Now Gudkov is running on Yabloko’s ticket. He has also distanced himself slightly from this party: all his branding is his own, not the party’s. One of the residents is even confused “Why did your volunteer tell me that you’re running with Yabloko?”. The candidate explains that it is thanks to the rules[?] of the sixth convocation of the Duma, collecting signatures by himself is impossible and further reasures her that, if needed, he has already had experience of confrontationation with one party. And anyway, he is sure in the party he is running for: he lists of Lev Shlosberg, Vladimir Ryjkov and Evgenii Vitishko.

Meetings with the candidate number five per day: from 11 in the morning to 7 at night. At each he repeats that 30% of the country’s budget goes to the Siloviki [the Russian word for members of the security services, and used generally to mean the security appartus], but that education and healthcare get five times less. “Each day the war in Syria costs 150 million rubles. That’s the annual salary of three hundred teachers. We need to fund life here rather than death in someplace else”.

This is one of the points of Gudkov’s manifesto, in addition to this the candidate lists others. The president should be elected for only two terms, so that no one can alternate the post and they should not have the right to appoint federal judge so that the courts can become truly independent. For the fight against corruption he would adopt a law on parliamentary control and would ratify the 20 article UN convention against corruption, according to which civil servants who did not explain the origin of the their wealth would be tried.

“Your talking nonsense” an elderly lady suddenly interrupts. If a person interrupts and then doesn’t listen to the answer, then they are a provocateur, which the staff have become used to dealing with.

In the car as the candidate moves from meeting to meeting, his political consultant Vitaly instructs him: in general he shouldn’t react to provocation, his job is instead to put forward his ideas, and so he needs to look in a different direction, to ignore the provocateur and carry on.

“I have noise cancelling headphones, maybe they’ll help” Gudkov says smiling.

Vitaly Shklyarov is from Belarus, and has recently returned from the States, where he worked on Bernie Sanders’ campaign, another anti-establishment and longtime independent politician, who attempted to get elected President on the Democratic ticket. “When it became clear that he would not get the nomination, part of the team left for Hillary, but I was called here” Vitaly recounts “Being here is far more important for me”

For food, rest, talks with the staff and everything else the candidate only had one hour left. During that hour it was necessary to spend time calling the “doorbell chiefs” to personally thank and motivate them on the job. Staffers receive a salary and so more can be asked of them. Volunteers however need moral support. The car pulls up by a MacDonalds, there is very little time left until the meeting, and the experience of the candidate comes in handy here. In the same second that the phone is picked up on the other end, Gudkov is able to say clearly and amicably with his mouth stuffed with French fries “Hello, this is Dimitry Gudkov, deputy of the State Duma!”

The candidate looks out of the car on the stage where in a couple of minutes he will speak: standing in the shadows or in the sunshine. He smudges sun cream on his face so that he doesn’t burn. The driver, turning from the front seat, jokes “On the 18th September [the date of the election] they will ask you: where where you to get so tanned? Did you go on holiday?”

It’s already five pm and the queue in the yard is big, about fifty people. A woman in a silk tunic is trying to force the candidate to inspect the entrance, which has been needing repairs for a long time (the candidate immediately steers here to his assistant – in this case sending a deputy’s request[?]). A young man in an office suits asks why Russian democrats can in no way agree. “Putin never hit them… Do you they want a war or something?” grumbles a chubby old woman, moving from one of Gudkov’s white chairs to her home yard’s bench.

Here as well provocative questions are asked about gay marriages – not single day goes by without them. However, the provocateurs know little about the subject: a woman in a flowery suit asks about Alexei Navalny, calls Gudkov’s chief of staff Maksim Kats “your boss Kats”, and one elderly woman causes laughter as she brings forth complaints such as “You talk about the struggle against corruption, but your name is on the lists!” [presumably of corrupt officials] The listeners start to heckle the provocateurs so that Gudkov sometimes steps in “There’s freedom of speech here!”

“Provocateurs will make more noise than I do, but the noise lets everyone see what’s going on” Gudkov explains to me between meetings. For the daily questions about gay marriages he has an answer ready: “We shouldn’t discriminate against people, regardless of who they sleep with, what god they believe in, what stamp they have on their passport. The state should not heavily interfere in people’s lives. Up until 1979 women in Iran went about in short skirts, but then after that the government started to oppress one, then others. It ended up that women all wear burqas there. Do you want us to go down that route?”

It turned out the talk about gays was depleted, and the candidate was asked when changes would come to Russia.

“I was with the 25 of Valeri Zubov (one of the few deputies that voted against odious laws-Ed) and I asked him “Will we have to wait a long time for change”. He said “If we wait, it will be long”. I will wait for them for as long as you vote for these people that we’ve seen on the TV for 10 years. I offer you to fight instead. To try and change public opinion around you.”

A girl in lace and her friend ask to take a photo with the candidate. A man in a suit asks how to sign up to become a volunteer. A young father with his baby in his arms approaches to get a photograph while at the same time expressing doubt that the candidate had managed to convince some people there.

“No-one” motions the candidate “is excluded from this education. Our campaign is part campaign, part educational programme.”

When we leave, the yard continues to bubble away: people continue to discuss the same previous problems with each other.

After the meeting the candidate goes to his HQ. By a girl on a pink table there is a bouquet given for some reason to the candidate by a listener, flowers that Vitaly the consultant picked up to keep the spirits of his colleagues up. The chief of staff Maksim Kats has already organised one, even two or three polished election campaigns[?]. “When people are experienced, they all work calmly and without hitches” he says.

On the top floor of the HQ Dimitri Gudkov plays Nirvana on the guitar – this is how he relaxes. “I used to play in a band” the candidate says with pride “but more often than not I don’t know the notes.” Tomorrow five meetings await him. He finished today with his 64th meeting, but the grand total will be 220, the maximum there is time for before the elections.