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The Iron Lady of Siberia How an indigenous, female opposition candidate became Russia’s most popular mayor

Source: Meduza
Alexey Vasiliev for Meduza

On September 9, 2018, the eastern Siberian city of Yakutsk was the only regional capital in Russia to elect an opposition mayoral candidate. Forty-eight-year-old Sardana Avksentieva defeated Alexander Savvinov of the nationally dominant United Russia party to become the first woman ever to lead the city. After taking office, Avksentieva launched a campaign to implement what she says is her “popular mandate”: cutting spending on City Hall, firing shady officials and contractors, and selling off the luxury cars registered to the mayor’s office. As a result, Avksentieva has already gained national prominence, and her popularity online even has the Kremlin’s political strategists interested. Meduza’s special correspondent Taisia Bekbulatova visited Yakutsk to learn more about Avksentieva’s surprising victory and what awaits her as the city’s mayor.

On August 3, 2018, five weeks before the city of Yakutsk was set to hold mayoral elections, Sardana Avksentieva got a phone call. The voice on the other end announced, “Well that’s it, momma, you’re the mayor.”

The caller was Vladimir Fyodorov, a businessman and regional parliamentary deputy in Yakutsk. Until the morning of August 3, he had also been a favorite to become the city’s next mayor. A few days before he called Sardana Avksentieva, he was the one who told the 48-year-old to join the race, telling her that he might be unable to run himself.

Vladimir Fyodorov had already run for mayor in 2012 as an independent candidate. He finished in second place with 25 percent of the vote behind United Russia’s Aisen Nikolaev. In the following round of elections in 2017, Fyodorov supported Nikolaev in hopes that the ruling party’s candidate would soon be promoted to lead entire the Republic of Yakutia, leaving the mayor’s seat open for Fyodorov himself.

That hope did come to fruition, but not in its entirety. Aisen Nikolaev did become the head of the Yakutian regional government, but regional officials did not transfer their support in the Yakutsk mayoral elections to Fyodorov. Instead, they chose another United Russia candidate, Alexander Savvinov, the 58-year-old speaker of the city’s legislature.

“It’s obvious: he was understandable, predictable. They knew what to expect from him, and that’s nice and comfortable. [If Savvinov had been elected,] everything [would have been] different, not like it is now,” an election official in the region told Meduza.

In the 2018 elections, Vladimir Fyodorov ran for the Motherland party, but that choice soon backfired. In the heat of the campaign, the party’s leadership began demanding that he step out of the race, and regional authorities offered him prestigious administrative positions in exchange for leaving the election. Fyodorov, who has said himself that he has had his heart set on the mayor’s position for ten years, refused to end his candidacy, but he did begin setting up a political safety net in case authorities ended it for him. One element of his plan B was encouraging Avksentieva to run.

A chip on his shoulder

On the morning of August 3, Yakutsk’s Election Committee was scheduled to distribute confirmation documents for each candidate’s registration. Two hours before the meeting, Fyodorov got a call from Alexey Zhuravlyov, a State Duma deputy and the leader of the national Motherland party. Zhuravlyov once again demanded that Fyodorov leave the mayoral race because the party had struck a deal with Yakutian government leaders — a deal that had been approved by the Kremlin itself. “You won’t win anyway,” Zhuravlyov said, according to a journalist for the newspaper Kommersant who happened to be in the room. Fyodorov refused once more — and was recalled by his party that same day.

Fyodorov was recalled when he was already sitting in the Election Committee’s meeting room waiting to receive his confirmation documents. “You know, there’s this voice: ‘The candidacy of Vladimir Fyodorov in the mayoral election for the city of Yakutsk has been confirmed,’” he recalled, “and then that kid they imported from Moscow stands up and waves his arms around: ‘No! No!’ He was practically running: ‘No, we’re recalling him, we’re recalling him!’” The election committee simultaneously removed Motherland’s candidate list from the elections for the Il Tumen, Yakutia’s regional assembly. Fyodorov had been the first candidate on that list.

A political strategist with experience working in Yakutia said he is convinced that the events that followed were shaped by that nearly bungled recall and Fyodorov’s reaction to it. “He’s just that kind of person. He’s got a chip on his shoulder, and he already had personal motivation to act in this case,” the strategist told Meduza.

“Naturally, I understood perfectly that if I were polling better than my opponent, they could do anything they wanted to me — take me off the list, provoke me, and so on,” Fyodorov said. “And naturally, I was ready for it.” Sardana Avksentieva’s name appeared on the candidate list just a few days before the Election Committee’s meeting. In Fyodorov’s words, her job was to “take up the standard if they knocked it to the ground.”

Mulder and Scully

Sardana Avksentieva is a slender, dark-haired woman with a soft smile, and the residents of Yakutsk got to know that smile well in the weeks before the election. Over the course of a month, her face watched them from the backs of a herd of trucks that had been parked throughout the city. The trucks, which became a kind of brand for Avksentieva’s campaign, were a necessary innovation: the owners of ordinary billboards refused to display her ads.

Avksentieva was born in the village of Churapcha and has lived in Yakutia for her entire life. Her first degree is in history education, and her second is in government and municipal management. Even before she ran for mayor, Avksentieva had experience in local and national government offices: in the 1990s, she worked in an administrative department in Yakutsk that handled matters related to sports and the city’s youth. In 2000, she became an aide to State Duma deputy Vitaly Basygysov, and in 2007, she was named one of Yakutsk’s deputy mayors and worked in that position for five years —until Aisen Nikolaev was elected to the city’s top post. Avksentieva explained that she left the mayor’s office because she married one of her colleagues, first deputy mayor and United Russia member Viktor Avksentiev. In recent years, she has managed the Aerotorgservis commercial complex in Yakutsk’s airport.

Yakutsk, May 16, 2018
Alexey Vasiliev
Yakutsk, June 5, 2018
Alexey Vasiliev

On top of her administrative experience, Avksentieva is no stranger to political campaigns. She was a campaign director for Nikolai Mestnikov, the general director of Yakutsk’s airport who decided to run for the Il Tumen as a United Russia candidate. In July of 2018, not long before Avksentieva began her campaign for mayor, Mestnikov was arrested on charges of accepting a massive bribe. During her mayoral campaign, Avksentieva’s opponents repeatedly brought up that fact, but she maintained that she had no connection to Mestnikov’s alleged crimes and that she herself was shocked by his arrest.

Regardless, her experience campaigning for a United Russia candidate certainly helped Avksentieva during the election. “Now I understand that working with a candidate did allow me to go through a certain kind of training,” the mayor explained. “Polls, interviews, going door-to-door, talking to people in the street, all the events we organized helped me prepare. But I had never been a candidate, and to be honest, [running myself] was a bit of a screwball move.”

Avksentieva does not hide the fact that she decided to make that move thanks to Vladimir Fyodorov after he realized he might be ejected from the elections and might need a backup candidate. The two organized what they called a “blistering” election campaign in tandem. The city’s residents started calling them Mulder and Scully in part because Fyodorov vaguely resembles X-Files star David Duchovny.

“You have to give him credit for being a fighter. Someone else might have gone off to the woods to rest or gotten angry at the world, but he [acted] very swiftly,” Avksentieva said. Unlike Fyodorov, she did not meet any obstacles at the registration stage — at first, few officials were willing to take a female candidate seriously — and she quickly initiated an active campaign once her registration went through.

“I had guessed that [Fyodorov’s removal from the campaign] might happen because I’m a seasoned warrior, and I understand the kinds of methods they use,” Avksentieva explained. “Both the favorite in the race, Mr. Alexander Savvinov, whom I respect, and Mr. Vladimir Fyodorov are two very strong candidates, two alpha types. I knew that the contest between them would be wild and that it might cause certain negative consequences. [And that meant] I had a chance, and I just had to wait.”

The creativity of the northern peoples

“After Fyodorov was recalled, there was about a month left for [Avksentieva] to make her name,” said political strategist Ilya Paimushkin, who worked with Fyodorov and Avksentieva. “The campaign was pretty standard: every day, there were meetings with local residents and organizations, and we worked hard on the social media side, WhatsApp included.” The social app is extremely popular in Yakutia, and Savvinov even used it to announce his candidacy. Paimushkin said the Avksentieva-Fyodorov campaign bought targeted ads on Instagram as well.

Avksentieva herself does not consider her campaign to be standard. “I say what got started then was really the creativity of the northern peoples. We are simply terrifying when we improvise,” she joked. When it became clear that the city’s billboards would not accept her advertisements, the aforementioned trucks appeared. Fyodorov said his friends and other entrepreneurs gave them up easily and at astonishingly low prices. “At some point, we said, ‘Okay, guys, enough. The whole city is already swarming with Sardanas,’” Fyodorov recalled.

The campaign also faced obstacles when Avksentieva tried to rent spaces for town hall meetings with voters. She decided to hold them outside instead. “[The meetings took place] in people’s yards, in apartment building lobbies, in small workers’ collectives where people showed initiative and invited me themselves,” Avksentieva said. “That’s why they were so genuine. There might have been five or six people at most of them. The meetings were small, but there were a lot of them.” Avksentieva believes those meetings carried her to victory.

Avksentieva realized that she had a shot at winning about two weeks before election day. She said the tone of her meetings started to change, and people began giving her specific requests: “That is, people stopped saying ‘Yeah, great, you go, good luck,’ and started saying ‘You should do this thing; don’t forget about that thing.’ They were counting on me.”

Fyodorov also campaigned for Avksentieva and met frequently with city residents. The two often came to campaign events together. “Until 6:00 PM, she would meet with her people and I would meet with mine. And then [in the evening], we would go to the toughest areas together. We would sleep four or maybe six hours, and then at 9:30 AM, the whole team had a planning meeting, and then all of us went off — everybody to the field,” Fyodorov said.

The politician also believes that as a team, he and Avksentieva played the best game demographically and managed to connect Yakutsk’s Russian and Yakutian electorates. Fyodorov calls himself “the local Slav,” and Avksentieva emphasized Yakutian traditions. She used images of sardanas, a local lily species, in her campaign materials, and she gave her first interview after the election in the indigenous Yakut language.

A source familiar with the campaign said the Perm-based strategist Stepan Podaruyev also worked as a surrogate for the campaign. “They needed someone who wouldn’t be afraid to sue Savvinov and expose the skeletons in his closet, go to debates, and all the rest. A local wouldn’t do stuff like that,” the source told Meduza. “But Podaruyev did a great job suing and getting the results published in the news and on social media. It’s a small city, and everyone saw everything.” Op-eds and campaign materials were even published with a modified image of Podaruyev’s face that made him look more like a native Yakut — “so that he wouldn’t stand out too much.” Meduza’s source estimated that Podaruyev’s efforts may have cost Savvinov up to 10 percent of the vote, which would be enough to decide the result of the election.

Stepan Podaruyev himself told Meduza that his goal was to “bring all of Savvinov’s problems into the public sphere.” “When they registered him, they were letting through an enormous number of ethical violations. They would never have registered him if he were an opposition candidate,” Podaruyev said. “He took advantage of his position throughout the election campaign. That’s what I was trying to demonstrate in court. I wanted to tell the residents of Yakutsk who people are trying to shove down their throats. The problem was that in Yakutia, no one but an outsider can say something like that in public.” When asked whether he supported Sardana Avksentieva, Podaruyev said he “supported the residents of Yakutsk.”

“And then we just go off and vote”

One strategist with experience in the region has argued that Savvinov’s loss was also the result of a poorly planned campaign. “In theory, [Governor Aisen Nikolaev] could have stopped this from happening. He would have had to take into account the weaknesses that Savvinov had from the very beginning: weak public speaking, occasional bashfulness, an inability to speak up when faced with pressure from opponents. [Nikolaev] could have made sure his opponents couldn’t take advantage of those weaknesses,” the strategist explained. “[Savvinov] didn’t have to go on TV so often in the first place.” Yakutsk’s mayoral debates, during which Savvinov expressed support for Russia’s unpopular increase in the national retirement age, played right into Avksentieva’s hands, the strategist argued. For her part, Avksentieva supported the Russian Communist Party’s initiative to hold a referendum on the pension reform plan and encouraged local residents to vote on the proposal until the Communist Party itself gave up on the idea. “The debates were a turning point in the campaign,” Fyodorov agreed. “Sardana definitively came out as the very clear winner.”

Avksentieva said about 8% of Yakutsk’s voters supported her at the start of the campaign simply because she was the only woman on the list of candidates; her gender was “a good start for name recognition.” She also believes her opponents “didn’t go too hard” on her for the same reason. Fyodorov disagreed: he said their team faced “information warfare throughout the whole campaign” but that he and Sardana are “made of Teflon,” and the dirt didn’t stick to them.

Yakutsk, May 16, 2018
Alexey Vasiliev

Meduza’s sources in Yakutia believe Avksentieva’s victory also built on an existing sense of dissatisfaction in the region that emerged from an economic downturn and the increased retirement age. Avksentieva affirmed that idea. “You know how Grudinin did here,” she said, referring to Russia’s most recent presidential elections. Communist Party candidate Pavel Grudinin received 27.5 percent of the vote in Yakutia — his highest result in any Russian region — while Yakutia gave Vladimir Putin his lowest vote count at 64.3 percent. “Even back then, it was clear that our people have their own opinions, and they’re not afraid to express them one way or another,” Avksentieva argued. “We Yakuts are a somewhat melancholic nation, we’re northerners, we’re always in energy-saving mode. We rarely argue, we just sit here quietly, we’re very conflict-averse — and then we just go off and vote.”

The Yakutian deputy Fedot Tumusov, who represents the Fair Russia party in the federal State Duma, believes Avksentieva’s victory is a manifestation of a nationwide trend. “First — this is an antiestablishment wave that has swept through Russia, and it’s still growing. Second — there’s Sardana Avksentieva’s personality,” he said. “Because she didn’t just fall from the sky: she worked in her time as a deputy mayor, so she knows the city’s problems exceedingly well. And third, of course, there’s everything else: a good team, a well-planned campaign strategy.” Tumusov believes Fyodorov’s support was one of the decisive factors in Avksentieva’s victory: “He’s a very well-known figure himself. He has the media reach, the financial resources, and the organizational tools you need for an election campaign.”

Ultimately, Avksentieva won the election with 39.9 percent of the vote and became Yakutsk’s first female mayor. Alexander Savvinov placed second with 31.9 percent. Vladimir Fyodorov became Avksentieva’s first deputy mayor, a position that focuses on the city’s economy.

Fyodorov has said that he had no preexisting agreement with Avksentieva regarding his role in the new city government. One source familiar with the campaign told Meduza otherwise and said Fyodorov’s current position demonstrates Avksentieva’s willingness to keep her promises even to the dissatisfaction of the regional government. The source said, “They asked her not to appoint Fyodorov, but she appointed him. You’ve got to give her credit — she answers for her words and doesn’t respond to threats.”

The way Avksentieva came to power has spurred rumors that Fyodorov is really the one in the driver’s seat, but those rumors are more popular in Moscow than they are in Yakutsk. Fyodorov himself rejects the idea: “[As deputy mayor], I work in my own field: I’ve got 30 different spheres of authority, death penalty cases, housing and commercial services, [stray] dogs, garbage collection, and so on and so forth. Would you call that managing Sardana?” However, the deputy mayor said, Aisen Nikolaev did call him before he called Avksentieva on the night of the election. “[He] thought I’d just sit on the throne and start ordering Sardana around, come out with guns blazing. He was wrong. We are a team, but there is a system of subordination and hierarchy.”

Avksentieva said the rumors don’t offend her. “First of all, I know that it’s an odd situation. I think everything will settle into place with time,” she predicted. “And second, we really did get here together, and I trust [Vladimir Fyodorov] very deeply, so he has a pretty serious portfolio.”

The Terminator

In the winter, temperatures in Yakutsk often reach -50 degrees Celsius (almost -60 degrees Fahrenheit). Before she goes outside, Sardana Avksentieva typically puts on a pair of thick knee-high boots known as unty in Russian and mukluks or kamik in English. It seems that every government official in the city has a pair sitting by their closet. “Without ski pants and boots like these, you can’t get anything done in this town,” said the mayor’s press secretary Alexey Tolstiakov, reaching for his own pair.

The mayor walks quickly, as though she is afraid of wasting even a single minute. She rides around town in a white Toyota Camry. The mayor’s office owns several luxury SUVs, but immediately after Avksentieva was elected, she fulfilled her campaign promise to auction them off. When she was told that the SUVs were necessary because the city’s often unpaved roads tend to damage cars, Avksentieva responded, “I think if the roads are so bad that they break down cars, we have to fix the roads, not buy SUVs.”

Avksentieva has assured voters that she does not hire consultants to fine-tune her image, but in the public sphere, she acts like an ideal populist politician. She refers to the city’s residents exclusively as “our employers,” and when she greeted a cafeteria worker who was delighted to see the mayor “in real life,” Avksentieva immediately asked, “I haven’t disappointed you so far? Are you satisfied with me?”

Immediately after her election, Avksentieva announced that she would be making efforts to economize the city’s budget by canceling “inaugurations, cushy receptions, and corporate parties” along with “business trips abroad.” When Avksentieva went on an official trip to Japan in December, she had to explain that she was acting on orders from the regional governor. She also noted that by that point in her tenure, she had canceled four international trips and decreased her travel spending enough to save the city several million rubles (at least tens of thousands of dollars).

In her first few months on the job, the new mayor managed to withdraw from a deal with a contractor who had laid asphalt on top of snow-covered roads, fire an official who ordered a million-ruble banquet for the mayor’s office, and refuse to pay for a Moscow fur coat designer to travel to a winter festival in Yakutsk, redirecting the funds involved to purchase air purifiers for elementary schools. She also decreased city bus fares to two rubles (3 cents) and signed an order decreasing fares for suburban bus routes as well. She said suburban fares, which currently stand at up to 100 rubles ($1.50), would reach an average of 20 rubles (30 cents) by April.

Avksentieva recognizes that she will eventually have to turn from innovations that inspire near-universal approval among Yakutsk’s residents to more unpopular decisions. For example, she may have to turn off outdated gas lines to make them available for repairs, fight against so-called “lie cafes” that sell alcohol overnight, and confront the prevalence of old wooden homes that have not yet been officially named dangerously unstable. She will also face problems that have no clear solution. “The waitlist for housing in the city—well, there’s just no municipal housing. People have been waiting since 1963 or 1967. I hadn’t even entered this world, and people were already on the waitlist. How can I deal with that?” Avksentieva wondered. “I’m somehow supposed to come up with 30,000 plots of land, and there’s just not enough land for that in Yakutsk.”

The new mayor will also be unable to make drastic changes to the city’s budget: the majority of its funds, more than 80 percent, are set aside for education spending. “Practically our entire budget goes to schools and daycares, and there’s nothing you can do about that,” Avksentieva said. That said, she does not plan to leave the education system alone: “I’m encouraging them now to decrease the number of administrators in the schools and then use the salaries that are freed up to increase salaries for psychologists and social workers. Psychological help in school, especially for adolescents — I believe that’s a very important thing,” she explained. When asked whether the city’s schools will agree with her, she laughed: “And what are they going to do? I told them once, twice. I said, figure it out yourselves, or I’ll figure it out for you.”

Yakutsk, January 22, 2019
Alexey Vasiliev
Yakutsk, January 22, 2019
Alexey Vasiliev
Yakutsk, January 22, 2019
Alexey Vasiliev

Avksentieva wears feminine clothing, says she is not a feminist, and even takes pleasure in explaining that “nature itself created [women and men] to be different.” She says women are “emotionally superior” but deal less effectively with rational decisions and strategic planning. Nonetheless, the mayor herself seems to be a living refutation of those stereotypes: she can memorize a massive quantity of plans and statistics in various divisions of the city’s economy. She answers her opponents sharply, makes decisions quickly, and hates wasting time. After mentioning “women’s nature” once again, she started laughing: “My husband always tries to teach me not to lean on phrases like ‘I think,’ ‘I don’t want,’ and ‘I want.’ He says, ‘You shouldn’t talk like that. You’re not a little girl anymore — you’re the mayor.’”

“Among all these men, we have a woman who can bring any man to his knees. Who is it? Three guesses. It’s Sardana. During the election, people called her the Terminator and the Iron Lady,” Fyodorov said. “She really is made of iron. She just plows through like no man can dream of. Once, she landed on a redeye flight from Moscow, she got out of the plane at 5:00 AM, and I told her, ‘I can lead this city planning meeting at 8:00.’ No, she was sitting on that plane for seven hours, and then she got here and went straight to the meeting.”

Fyodorov assured Meduza that he has no hard feelings about the fact that Avksentieva got the mayor’s seat and not him, but he admitted that he still harbors mayoral ambitions. “I am entirely satisfied with my job. I’m doing what I wanted to do: economics. Right now, my position is definitely enough for me,” he said several times during an interview. “And in terms of what will happen in the future, I have never kept my ambitions a secret, and I still have them — I want to be mayor.” Later, catching himself, he added, “If Sardana wants to stay for another term, be my guest. We’ll figure it out together.”

Avksentieva herself reiterated that Fyodorov’s support was “absolutely essential” for her campaign: “Neither I nor Fyodorov can say how many [voters] were his and how many were mine.” Nonetheless, she does believe that the “softer nature” of her relationship with the regional governor enabled her to win and that the campaign would have been much more difficult otherwise. “What can I say — they’re men,” she said. Fyodorov himself agreed with that assessment: “Sardana and I are different, and the way men build relationships with each other is different. If I had won, they would have started cracking down on me as much as they could.”

Yakutsk doesn’t forgive mistakes

Regional governor Aisen Nikolaev likes to say that Yakutsk is the biggest city in the world where the ground is frozen year round. That didn’t stop him from establishing the Orthodox tradition of taking a dip for Epiphany in the city, though doing so on the thick frozen layer that covers the Lena River required installing a large heated tent around a hole in the ice. The Epiphany ceremony is a solemn affair: the governor is the first to dive in, followed by officials one rung lower in the regional government.

Sardana Avksentieva also planned to participate in the ceremony, but she ultimately caught a cold and had to back out. Vladimir Fyodorov prefers to seek out a different baptismal font. “I don’t like coming here, this is just a show,” he said. “I have my own font outside the city. My friends put it together, and I’m going out there with the guys today. We’ll each take a dip, drink a little something, eat a bit of stroganina [Siberian frozen fish]. You know, simple, like normal people, not in front of the entire city.”

Unlike Fyodorov, who can afford to take a few jabs at the head of his republic’s government, Avksentieva always speaks about Aisen Nikolaev in a distinctly respectful tone. During her first annual state of the city report, she pointed out that because she had only been on the job for a few months, Nikolaev should be credited with most of the city’s accomplishments. In an interview with Meduza, Avksentieva emphasized that there are no tensions between her and Yakutia’s regional leadership, saying the city’s finances can already speak to that fact. “I am grateful to him for the fact that he took things so wisely, and even though I won and the candidate he supported did not, he decided to change his attitude toward the city somewhat,” she said. According to Avksentieva, the financial resources allocated to Yakutsk even began to increase after her election. She told Meduza that she and Nikolaev are “on very friendly terms”: she knows she can call him at any time or message him on WhatsApp.

After he won the regional governorship with 71.5 percent of the vote, Aisen Nikolaev himself congratulated Avksentieva on her victory the night of the election, when the direction the mayoral race was taking became obvious. Vladimir Fyodorov argued that the governor had no other choice because every precinct had election observers who were ready to “raise a big fuss” if they noticed any violations, and there were “journalists all ready to go” alongside them. “I think that gesture showed his understanding that everything just happened the way it happened. And now, stirring up conflict like other regional governors have done would be a road to nowhere. Nobody needs that,” Fyodorov said.

Immediately after the elections, Aisen Nikolaev gave an interview in which he practically warned Sardana Avksentieva not to order investigations of her predecessors, including himself. “Now Sardana Avksentieva is getting into subpoenas. Everything will depend on what path she chooses: if she starts ordering audits, if she starts fighting windmills, then… Yakutsk doesn’t forgive mistakes,” he said. Avksentieva got the message. “We understand that not as a threat but as an invitation not to deal with trifles. There is nothing at all to be said about a conflict between the municipal administration and the regional government,” she assured Meduza.

In his own interview with Meduza, Aisen Nikolaev argued that “you have to respect the people’s will” and said he has “no conflicts at all” with the mayor of Yakutsk. “I have known Ms. Avksentieva for a very long time, from the time I was leading United Russia campaigns on the regional level while she was doing the same on the municipal level,” the governor said. “We get along marvelously when it comes to questions of urban development in Yakutsk. The main thing now is for the expectations that have formed around her work to turn into real progress.” Nikolaev added that “those who wish to provoke conflict, those who would like to say that Avksentieva is more popular than Nikolaev and Nikolaev puts pressure on Avksentieva—there’s a mass of those people.” Nonetheless, he is certain that “those wishes will remain just that — wishes.” The governor pointed out that during Yakutsk’s last election, he “earned more votes than Sardana and Savvinov put together.”

“Fyodorov’s involvement in Avksentieva’s team frustrates Aisen, of course, because he’s a well-known, experienced politician who has his own reliable sources for political information,” said Paimushkin, the political strategist. “Nikolaev is afraid that his work will be audited. And that the new [mayoral] team will be more popular than his, which is the case right now. For now, the subpoena stuff isn’t all that important, but a really hardworking team is bracing itself in the mayor’s office for whatever comes next. His jealousy is the main obstacle facing Sardana,” Paimushkin mused. “He understands that if something happens in the republic, then the next candidate to become governor might be Sardana. That’s why he pushed for such a weak mayoral candidate who was already at retirement age. Ideally, if Aisen is a strategic politician, he’ll try and push her toward the State Duma [in Moscow].”

Yakutsk, January 22, 2019
Alexey Vasiliev

For her part, Sardana Avksentieva said she has no plans to run for governor. “He [Nikolaev] knows perfectly well that I have no such ambitions. I’m not breathing down his neck, and I never plan to,” she insisted. “The reason is that I understand that after five years of hard work — it takes two years off a man’s life for every actual year, and for me, it’ll probably take off three — I’ll be a very tired woman with a single desire: to lie down and stay that way for a while. So no, I have no ambitions. There’s men’s work, and then there’s work that’s not for women, so to speak.”

Is this really happening?

Sardana Avksentieva admits that she was frightened at first by the wave of attention that began pouring onto her. “I’d just be sitting and eating, and people would be taking pictures of me. I’d walk somewhere — pictures. But [my husband] and I agreed that we wouldn’t change our lifestyle,” she explained. “And so I go shopping just like I always did, for groceries, for household essentials, I go to the movies, and my husband and I go out for lunch or dinner if I haven’t had time to cook something. Getting out of my comfort zone was hard, of course. But then I thought, ‘Well, so what if I go out for dinner or go buy something? What’s wrong with that? Everyone does it.’ And that helped me let it go.”

In her first four months in the mayor’s office, Avksentieva has become a real Internet phenomenon: each of her decisions sparks a burst of news reports and social media posts, and pictures with information about her are reposted en masse even outside Yakutia. Posts about her always draw an enormous number of comments. Some commenters say they were thinking about emigrating from Russia but are now considering a move to Yakutsk instead. Others write that there either must be some kind of catch to the whole story or Avksentieva, as an honest mayor, will soon end up behind bars. Avksentieva has become the subject of Twitter jokes and motivational Facebook statuses; people call her “the healthy man’s mayor” and compare her to Wonder Woman. On the popular Russian social site Pikabu, she even has her own hashtag, although Avksentieva herself first heard of the site only recently. “It’s not clear how I ended up on there,” she said, “but it all looks well and good to me. I don’t always have time to read, of course, but I look at it sometimes — I really like it when people have a sense of humor. Sometimes, people post these incredible comments that just make me burst out laughing. I end up thinking, ‘Goodness, is this really happening to me?’”

Avksentia sees Internet posts as “a real national art.” She said the mayor’s office doesn’t spend a penny on its social media presence and that she runs her own Instagram account. “[During the campaign,] it wasn’t that popular for whatever reason. And then, pow! It just took off after the election.” Avksentieva’s account now boasts more than 74,000 followers.

Avksentieva added that she is “very grateful to people on social media.” She said, “Everyone has their moods. Sometimes you sit there and think, ‘Will any of this really work out?’ And then I look at my account: ‘Sardana, don’t give up, you got this!’ And I start thinking, ‘Yes, of course — why did I doubt myself?’” The mayor’s desk features a single present to Avskentieva: a roly-poly doll. “So that I keep standing back up,” she explained.

One of Meduza’s sources in the region confirmed that Avksentieva’s online popularity is driven by her actions, not paid consultants. “Nobody intentionally made that happen. They get frustrated with all the attention themselves. Even the president’s administration has started wondering whether anyone does their PR,” the source said. “On the contrary — they run away from PR at every opportunity to avoid provoking Nikolaev.”

Avksentieva would like to see other Russian cities return to a direct vote in their mayoral elections. Only seven of the country’s 83 regional capitals currently use a direct system. “The thing is that local self-determination is, if you’ll excuse my pathos and grandiosity here, what government is built on. Look at Yakutsk — is this bad for anybody? I’d bring it back. But no one’s asking me.”

The only one

There has already been a case in Russia in which a woman came to power in a regional capital with support from opposition forces. In 2013, Galina Shirshina became the mayor of Petrozavodsk with help from the Yabloko party. The similarities between her story and Avksentieva’s stretch well beyond their gender: Shirshina became mayor after the central opposition candidate was forcibly removed from the campaign, she canceled her expensive inauguration ceremony, and she decreased fares for public transport. At first, Shirshina also insisted she would do her best to maintain friendly relations with the regional governor, but that didn’t prevent tensions between them from reaching the airwaves within a year: the mayor ultimately stated publicly that Governor Alexander Khudilainen “is incapable of maintaining a functional working relationship” and put pressure on her by bringing criminal cases against her subordinates. An initial investigation of Shirshina herself revealed no signs of wrongdoing, but in 2015, the city council decided under Khudilainen’s leadership to remove the mayor from her post under the pretense that her work was unsatisfactory. After Shirshina’s tenure, Petrozavodsk no longer held direct elections for the mayor’s seat.

Yakutsk, January 22, 2019
Alexey Vasiliev for Meduza

Sardana Avskentieva is not planning to repeat her predecessor’s experience. In November 2018, she entered the ranks of “Supporters of United Russia,” an organization affiliated with United Russia that does not require its members to join Russia’s ruling party officially. “I know that I’ve fallen away a bit from a relatively pleasant sense of order, and I understand that I should do everything I can to make sure that doesn’t hurt Yakutsk,” she explained. “I had to make it clear that Yakutsk is not an opposition city and I am not an opposition mayor.” Avksentieva calls herself “a constructive part of the city that wants to bring about change within the current structure, without conflict, without revolutions or protests in the town square.”

The mayor remembers what happened to Shirshina, but she hopes the same will not happen to her.

“I think she was unlucky: she was a little bit ahead of her time. You can’t compare her situation back then and my situation now because now, a very serious sense of popular demand has come to fruition,” Avksentieva argued. “And now, all our power structures understand, they feel that demand. I dare say that until I fully satisfy my employers, no one will let anything happen to me. I mean, who exactly am I bothering? I’m the only one out here.”

Taisia Bekbulatova, Yakutsk

Translation by Hilah Kohen