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Letter from Togliatti: ugly brides go to the polls

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The car-manufacturing city of Togliatti will this Sunday go to the polls for a second time to elect its new mayor. The choice is between an unofficial candidate from the ruling party and a cosmopolitan fomer regional minister for ecology. Valery Pavlukevich, a journalist from nearby Samara, travelled to the city to survey the local mood ahead of the vote

Valery Pavlukevich
16 March 2012

Entering the city Togliatti by way of the Southern highway, you notice an unusual monument. On top of a large pedestal stands a truck carrying construction materials to Russia’s central automobile assembly plant, the Volzhsky Automobile Factory (AvtoVAZ). Designed to assemble the Soviet “people’s car”, VAZ was, and remains the city’s main employer, though fear abounds about its future. Redundancies are a constant threat, domestic demand for the cars is under question and there is little sign of a new model that would rival the popularity of VAZ’s most famous output— the zhiguli (or Lada as it was known in the West).

Igor Kozubin is an engineer at the plant. He is first generation Togliattian, his parents having arrived in the city from Ukraine in 1966, just as the construction of the factory began. His story is fairly typical. He brings home a salary of 17,000 rubles [£366]; his wife, who works as a hairdresser, earns another 10,000 roubles [£215] to the family kitty. The combined salary is never enough to feed their family of four well in Tolgliatti, which is not a cheap city. Kozubin tries to stretch the family budget with fishing, which goes to the making of fish soup. Other times Kozubin’s family eats potatoes with macaroni, adding canned meat or cheap sausages a few times a week. The greater part of the family budget goes to the payment of utilities and electricity, as well as on the purchase of clothes for the children who are now studying in middle school.

'Togliatti, always one of the more independent cities in the USSR, had previously delivered a damning verdict on United Russia in the December parliamentary elections, comfortably pushing it into second place behind the Communist Party (28.3% vs 24.4%). The mayoral elections in Togliatti thus became a test for United Russia. A test that it could not fail.'

As elsewhere in the country, Togliatti held elections two weeks ago, on March 4. Not only were presidential issues at stake —the date also marked the first round of elections to elect Togliatti’s city mayor. Togliatti, always one of the more independent cities in the USSR, had previously delivered a damning verdict on United Russia in the December parliamentary elections, comfortably pushing it into second place behind the Communist Party (28.3% vs 24.4%). The mayoral elections in Togliatti thus became a test for United Russia. A test that it could not fail.

On March 4, Igor Kozubin voted early – he wanted take advantage of the public holiday to go fishing afterwards. He voted, openly, for the Communist candidate Andrei Serefimov. He remembers the Soviet period with affection. “Under the Soviet Union, the car factory was not working at half capacity as it is now, and the salary was enough for food and other new things. Now the factory works with Renault. For several years now the factory leadership is promising an increase in wages, but prices are going up and the salary stays the same. No one knows any of the bosses, nor believes them. The top management at VAZ receives a salary of 20,000-70,000 euros [£16600-58300] a month and an apartment allowance of 500,000 rubles [£10700]. My salary is a fraction of that — 17,000 rubles [£366]. During the Soviet Union, the managers salaries were barely higher then those of a simple engineer.”

Shakhov_Andreev_Togliatti

Two candidates, police general Aleksandr Shakhov and former regional minister for ecology Sergei Andreyev will fight for the post of Togliatti mayor in the second round of the local election. Russia in the regions has recently witnessed the emergence of local politics. 

When Kozubin learned that after the March 4 elections the results showed two winners – police general Aleksandr Shakhov, and leader of the social movement “December, Sergei Andreyev, requiring a second election – he decided that he wouldn’t vote a second time. “I won’t vote for anybody if they’re not Communist,” Kozubin said. There are many like Igor Kozubin in Togliatti.

The unofficial official candidate

The party candidate is sixty-two year-old Aleksandr Shakhov. Whether you could call him an official candidate is another matter: the former police officer and bureaucrat has done his best to hide any affiliation to United Russia. He made no mention of it in his public meetings, for example.

These meetings were interesting spectacles in themselves. One was held in a city school in early March. Teachers issued three-line whips to ensure maximum attendance. “It’s just like serfdom,” recalls Olga Petrovna, one of the parents. “We are all made to come to these political events in which for several hours they tell us how good it is to live under the government of United Russia. But why should I listen to Shakhov when he boasts about the median monthly wage in the Samara region being 20,000 rubles? [£430] My salary is 15,000 [£323]!!”

'The party candidate is sixty-two year-old Aleksandr Shakhov. Whether you could call him an official candidate is another matter: the former police officer and bureaucrat has done his best to hide any affiliation to United Russia.'

Shakhov made many promises at the meeting. The former police general said he would eradicate criminality in Togliatti, and make the streets safe enough for people to walk at night without fear of being mugged. He assured the crowd that Vladimir Putin would personally not allow the financial collapse of VAZ, that he would provide subsidies to low earners and would build new houses for key workers. “The people of Togliatti are running my campaign,” said Shakhov, “and all the bosses are bastards.” The audience asked no questions. The people were tired: all they wanted was Shakhov to finish talking so they could get back home to attend to domestic tasks.

At the end of the meeting, older students handed out Orthodox calendars featuring a picture of Shakhov on the cover. They then read out stirring poems about how Togliatti would flourish if Aleksandr Shakhov will be elected mayor. Next to me a pensioner whispered: “they talk about this guy like they would an ugly bride: they go on about all the attributes, but keep quiet about the faults.”

The challenger

The other mayoral candidate is Sergei Andreyev, 38-year-old leader of the “December” social movement. Andreyev is considered a democrat in Togliatti. He meets with his supporters — mostly young people and progressive businessmen — in the literary reading room of the city library. The location is cozy — there are erotic pictures of languorous female nudes in pastel tones, just as those depicted in Renoir’s canvases; there is a piano in the corner of the room, on which Andreyev occassionally plays romantic elegies and Beatles songs.

'The other mayoral candidate is Sergei Andreyev, 38-year-old leader of the “December” social movement. Andreyev is considered a democrat in Togliatti.'

I spoke to a Togliatti businessman, Oleg, who has high hopes for Andreyev: “I want business in Togliatti to develop much more freely than it does now. Andreyev promises to stop bribes among bureaucrats and to fight corruption. He talks about adherence to western values and that the most important for him is respecting human rights. Now I’m not sure about human rights, but I do want the bureaucrats to stop squeezing bribes out of us. It is easier for me to register a business in Warsaw or Prague then it is in Togliatti. When I wanted a business project approved in the City Hall of Prague, it took me all of half an hour. In Togliatti I’ve spent two years and close to 20 thousand dollars trying to get approval to open a business. And still I don’t have the permission!” Oleg says.

Andreyev has pledged to eliminate the car parking lot in City Hall and have all the bureaucrats ride to work on bicycles (in contrast to Shakhov, Andreyev rides around Togliatti without a police motorcade). In keeping with his former role as Minister of Ecology in the region, Andreyev promises to clean the Togliatti city beach of rubbish and and to improve the city with new greenery. But democracy for Andreyev is not without boundaries. When asked if he would allow a protest marches or opposition meetings, he prefers not to answer.

Just before leaving for Samara, I dropped by a Togliatti supermarket, where I saw a curious picture: a huge advertisement board switching between the portraits of Shakhov and Andreyev. Next to me were two elderly ladies who had been distracted from their shopping by the candidates’ competing adverts. One of the women asked the other: “Which one of them is Andreyev and which one is Shakhov?” To this, the other replied: “Who cares? We’ll get the one they choose for us anyway.” 

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