From the editors:
Valentina Matviyenko, outgoing governor of St. Petersburg (2003-2011) is the archetypal Putin-era government apparachik. Loyal and disciplined, she rarely flinched from doing the Kremlin’s dirtiest work, for example suppressing opposition sentiment and demonstrations. Local media dependent on the city administration did their best to present her as good and efficient city manager, concerned about elderly, education, and conditions of roads. But her reputation among those who lived in the city was not good. Critics blamed her for the city’s critical ecological situation, and noted her lack of the crisis management skills when the city was hit by a harsh winter in 2010-2011. Most damaging to her reputation, however, was her lack of proper regard for the city’s rich historical heritage. During her tenure, many building of historical importance were destroyed to allow new construction projects supported by big business. The appointment of her only son Sergei as vice president of St. Petersburg bank in 2003 only added further charges of nepotism and corruption.
A lack of regard for St Petersburg's architectural history was one of the reasons that Matviyenko waswidely despised in the city (in picture, the proposed"Gazprom tower" project, which threatened to destroythe northern capital's prized skyline)
For the Kremlin, Mativyenko’s low ratings were reason for serious concern, with pollsters predicting she might not be able to secure a victory for the pro government party United Russian in this December’s parliamentary election. Matviyenko was told to go and leave her post for someone who could attract more support (rumoured to be Dmitri Kozak). But Matviyenko, unlike Moscow mayor Yuri Luzhkov has never had huge personal ambitions and ego, and on the contrary has always seen herself as totally loyal bureaucrat and member of the Putin and Medvedev government. She could not, therefore, be left without a consolation prize. Her new job, it was decided, would be the role of Senate Speaker: in protocol terms, a more senior position than governor of St. Petersburg, but in reality a largely ceremonial role without the huge political and economic resources of Russia’s second city. Matviyenko hesitated for a while, before accepting the offer.
According to the Russian constitution, members of the Senate are appointed by the regional legislative assemblies and governors. Initially, however, they have to be elected to hold seats in the local legislative assemblies. Matviyenko’s consent has therefore set into motion an electoral mechanism designed to secure her this seat in the Senate. The process has not been without farce, as officials initially refused to divulge the wards in which she would be balloting, for fear that Matviyenko’s opponents would field a strong candidate and campaign against her. As soon as the nomination papers were closed, the "lucky" districts where Matviyenko will be balloting were revealed to be the Krasnenkaya rechka and Petrovsky wards. The election, which should finally secure Matviyenko her seat, has been scheduled for this Sunday, August 21.
Krasnenkaya rechka, one of the two wards chosen to elect outgoing governor Valentina Matviyenko to Russia’s Federal Council [Senate] , has in the opinion of the local district head, Alexey Kondrashov, ‘drawn a winning lottery ticket’. Recognising that it has been entrusted ‘to carry out a task of federal political significance’, the district stands ready to guarantee a ‘peaceful election’ and ‘maximum turnout’. That latter task is proving particularly problematic, since the day of the elections — 21 August — falls on a Sunday. Many will be away at their dachas and some will have yet to return from their holidays. The district administration has come to the view it is necessary to take action to ‘make people stay in the city’.
Management from the Continent retail and leisure complex, the Maxidom DIY hypermarket and the French boulevard shopping centre have been brought in, and charged with putting together an entertainment and shopping programme to keep potential voters in the district. Local businessmen have also been instructed to inform the local administration if they see political activists of the opposing ‘Just Russia’ party distributing leaflets discrediting Matviyenko [‘Just Russia’ is aggrieved at the fact that their leader, Sergei Mironov, has been removed as Chair of the Senate — eds].
"We have a strategically important task ahead of us. We need to make sure this election campaign goes as smoothly as possible. We need the best turnout possible. If just 10% of voters turn up to elect the governor, that will look ridiculous. We need to make people stay in the city! We need to run markets, cultural events, heath days, promo events, lotteries, free lunches for World War II veterans. “Maxidom”, “Continent”, “Boulevard”, we’re expecting your support and suggestions before Wednesday!"
Aleksey Kondrashov, head of Kirov district administration (St Petersburg), speaking at the secret meeting
I managed to find out all of the above at a closed meeting intended for shopkeepers and volunteers at the local district adminstration. An unidentified well-wisher had sent information about the meeting into the editorial office. In his letter, he informed us that the meeting had been arranged for reasons of Matviyenko’s election.
Although dubious about the sincerity of this message, I nonetheless decided to cook up a story about working in a grocery store, and being sent by my boss, and set off for the local administration office at the designated time.
The business fortunes of son Sergei have left
Matviyenko open to charges of corruption and
I arrived at the district administration building at five minutes to ten. I asked the security guard how I could get through to the ‘trade inspectorate office’, where there was supposed to be ‘some sort of meeting going on’. The security guard said that there was a meeting ‘starting now, on the second floor’. Keeping to my initial line, I asked him where the inspectors usually ‘hang out’. Once I had an exact answer (thank you Mr Security Guard!), I went up to the second floor, and turned left into a hall filled with tables piled high with ‘United Russia’ posters. The posters were adverts for a friendly match between a Russia / USSR Star-11 and a Kirov district Star-11; an international championship in Greco-Roman wrestling; the final of an production collectives’ football tournament; and a lottery competition, with bicycle as main prize. The room was filled with middle-age people and pensioners, all clearly waiting for something to happen.
Plonking myself down on a chair in the second row, I asked a man sitting next to me if this was where the shopkeepers were meeting, he nodded his head, seemingly in a bad mood, before burying his head in a newspaper.
All around me I saw people that were ripe for journalistic profile, so I reached for my notepad. No sooner had I begun to feel like Anna Chapman, when a woman in brown suit slipped in and asked where I was from.
‘Kovalenko’s store’, I said, anticipating my imminent unmasking.
‘Ward 30?’, asked the woman.
‘Uh huh’, I muttered in a barely audible voice. The woman seemed happy with my answer and ran off somewhere. But a minute later, she had appeared in front of me once again.
‘Hmm, where exactly is this shop of yours located?’, she asked, sounding suspicious
‘Somewhere near Stachek ... Can’t remember exactly. My boss phoned me, she asked me to come here for her. And what’s the problem? I’m just the shop assistant.’ I begin to enter my imagined role now, helped no doubt by my Asiatic appearance, and my attempt to speak with an accent.
‘And you’re sure you’re supposed to be here?’
‘Well, I think so.’
‘OK, then. Put this up in your store’, said the woman said, a little calmer now, handing me one of the “United Russia” posters. ‘It’s a food store, am I right?’
‘Yes, yes’, I nodded, grabbing the poster and hoping that I wouldn’t have to lie any more.
A couple of minutes later, the brown suit returned.
‘All the same’, the woman began, ‘who is this boss of your’s ... Kovolenko?’
‘Her name’s Svetlana Sergeevna’, I blurted out, making out a face of profound sadness, and absorbing myself in some brochure about botanic gardens.
Getting ready to fend off the next question, I turned on my dictaphone. It proved an opportune moment, because at that very second, the head of the Kirov district, Alexey Kondrashov, entered the room. Explaining the purpose of the gathering, he was extremely brief and to-the-point: the Governor needs to be returned as a municipal deputy to continue her work in the Senate... Anyone who reads papers will know that she has chosen to ballot in our Krasnenkaya rechka ward.... which means we ‘have drawn a winning lottery ticket’.
According to Kondrashov, Matviyenko had ‘done a lot for the city’, and in the future the region could expect to get ‘preferential treatment’. ‘All the time, we find ourselves faced with a problem of lack of finance, which makes developing our district so much harder’, he declared.
‘We have a strategically important task ahead of us. We need to make sure this election campaign goes as smoothly as possible. Election day falls on a weekend, meaning many people will be at their dachas, on holiday. We need the best turnout possible. If just 10% of voters turn up to elect the governor, that will look ridiculous! We need to make people stay in the city! We need to run markets, cultural events, heath days, promo events, lotteries, free lunches for World War II veterans. It won’t cost all that much money — and it will pay itself back. “Maxidom”, “Continent”, “Boulevard”, we’re expecting your support and suggestions before Wednesday! You should send them into the Organisation Department.
Kondrashov declared the forthcoming elections a task of “federal political significance”.
Matviyenko was frequently cursed for her inaction
during last year's severe winter weather
‘If someone can’t support this, if they are categorically against, if ...” He glanced around the room, adding sarcastically ‘... if someone says “no, I’m with Just Russia” ... You do know what [Just Russia leader and Former Senate Speaker Sergei] Mironov and his friend Oksana Genrikhovna are up to, don’t you? You know how they are running a dirty PR campaign, trying to make all kinds of spurious accusations about Matviyenko?’
Holding a pause to the approval of the room, Kondrashov continued: ‘I want lists of all employees working in the Kirov region by Wednesday. First name, patronymic, surname, where they’re registered, you get the drift. It will be useful to have such a list ready for the parliamentary and presidential elections. We’ll need to work with these people again. When you have them ready, you’ll need to get your lists in to Natalya Sergeyevna. Write down her number: 966-01-81’
Returning to the theme of the ‘Just Russia’ campaign against Matviyenko, Kondrashov said shopkeepers were to ‘thwart such activities’ by phoning the ‘duty officer of the regional administration and the police’. Not to ‘incinerate and destroy’, just to ‘put the lid on them’.
The official tried to enliven his audience: ‘You’re sitting as if you’re in a Party Congress’, he said. ‘Next you will say that I’m like Pinochet!’
The Society of Veterans of the Siege of Leningrad were the first to respond, reporting that they were already in the process of calling all of their members. The elderly lady promised to continue the work, advising that ‘there’s not too many any more, and many of us are ill’, but suggested putting up notices about when the elections are to take place in communal areas. The Society for the Disabled and Children of War were in combative mood, at least if one were to believe the man who spoke for them. ‘Everyone’, he promised, ‘will arrive at the voting booths with one voice and in families to vote for Matviyenko!’ Some pensioners complained that they still don’t know where the voting booths will be located. Ever so thoughtfully, the organisers suggested that they write down the locations — ‘schools 261, 257 and 377’.
‘There’s little time left, and we haven’t managed to get anything up anywhere!’ continued Kondrashov. ‘We’ll start by put all the election material in the local paper and distributing a special edition in the post’.
The local business leaders, by the way, were fairly easily distinguishable — they left at this point, after just 15 minutes. The elderly volunteers, however, had to do overtime and listen to the instructions of Marina Leonidovna Filippova. Head of social security in the Kirov district, Filippova was a woman of real energy. She declared that Matviyenko had done Krasnenkaya rechka a great “honour” by choosing the ward as one of two where she would ballot for a place in the Senate. Krasnenkaya rechka would be competing with the Petrovsky ward, so it was important that they don’t disgrace themselves. The other place will have some 3000 frogmarched to the ballot box. ‘It is a matter of honour that we beat Petrovsky! We have to live up to the challenge!’, she said, turning on all her possible charm with this battle call.
‘We need to get the maximum turnout, because if they come, they aren’t going to vote for some little Marina Leonidovna! They will all vote for Valentina Matviyenko!’ she said.
‘I’ve been calling everybody I know since August 2nd, ever since I got out of hospital’, beamed an old lady. She had a nice face.
‘Phoning them isn’t enough’, interrupted Filippova. ‘What I need are results. Everyone knows that if I can call someone 33 times if I think we I need to. No, what I need is for you to make one control call four days before the ballot’. Was there to be any money to pay the phone “operators”? No, she said — 'it’s a citizen’s duty, after all!‘ — though they might be thanked. How exactly, she did not say.
‘You watch me. I’ll be there with my husband, whatever it takes!’ Filippova cried out. ‘If you’re going away to your dacha, well do as you will, but organize people. Phone them and tell them we have elections! Tell them they need to be there. Tell them your organisation could be wound up if you work badly!”
The apparachik did not hold back on her advice, and continued to offer all kinds “professional tips” to the assembled audience. She suggested ways of enticing people out, mentioning the 10% discount coupons that were going to be given out at the the Maxidom hypermarket between six and seven. Only once someone gets used to the idea, should an interlocutor add: “and it wouldn’t be a bad thing if you went to vote afterwards”. The official promised to list all kinds of cultural activities and entertainment that could also be used in such a conversation.
‘Leave your mobile numbers with them. Let them call you once they have voted. Designate a teller for each area. Make a list of all those who have said they’re going to vote.’ she said, clearly talking from experience. ‘Only then will you realise how two weeks of work did not go to waste’.
Working as a community organiser, Filippova said, is “real, hard work”. ‘The average pensioner is sitting at home drinking coffee, yet you are already out, and in the local district administration office at 10am!’
‘And what if the Chairman of your organisation doesn’t want to lend a hand? Well, we can always elect a new one. There are loads of you in the Children of War Society’, she said rather unceremoniously, before adding: ‘and there are 20 of you in the Blind Society!’
‘I want every one of you to vote. From the dacha, not from the dacha. It doesn’t matter.’
Filippova assured everyone that the Krasnenkaya rechka election would also have the now traditional handing out of food parcels to pensioners. This will begin on 15 August. She would naturally be at work all day on the day of the elections, indeed will only go on holiday after 4 December, that is immediately after the parliamentary elections.
Filippova suggested the next rendez-vous should take place on 16 August.
‘So what did you make of all THIS?’, I somewhat embarrassed, asked the old man sitting next to me, who at this point looked particularly sad.
‘I want ALL THIS to stop, and soon’, he answered.