‘They told me to get a job’ How convicted nationalist agitator Dmitry Demushkin left a prison colony for a gig as the mayor of a Moscow suburb
In May of 2019, the Russian nationalist Dmitry Demushkin was released from Russia’s prison colony system and almost immediately became the mayor of Barvikha, a wealthy suburb of Moscow. He had to do the job remotely: municipal consolidation efforts in Moscow Oblast have threatened to merge Barvikha into the Odintsovo Urban Okrug, and the district government considers Demushkin’s appointment illegal. Nonetheless, the town’s communist activists, who took over the local government in 2016 and then invited the nationalist to lead it, don’t intend to give in without a fight, and Demushkin himself plans to try and take over the entire district next. Meduza set out to tell the story of how Barvikha, where some of the richest people in Russia have homes alongside the president himself, turned from a symbol of capitalism into a “red town” with an avowed Russian nationalist and convicted extremist at its head.
Dmitry Demushkin is holding office hours for residents of Barvikha. He’s sitting in the empty back room of a café near his apartment in Brateyevo, a different Moscow suburb. All of his meetings are held remotely: Demushkin’s smartphone is running a livestream from the local television station in Barvikha, where former mayor Sergey Tenyayev speaks with the people.
Because they know Demushkin is watching, the locals turn to him from time to time to ask a question. Will he, for example, be fighting against illegal immigration in Barvikha? (He will.) What does he think of Barkhiva’s chances of restoring its independence to avoid being absorbed into the Odintsovo Urban Okrug? (He’ll be making every possible effort.)
Demushkin, a known activist for the Russian nationalist movement, is the third mayor to take over Barvikha’s government-in-absentia in the last month. He was appointed to the seat on May 8, and on May 13, he officially took over the mayor’s duties.
Until recently, the government of Barvikha was structured as follows: 10 town deputies chose a mayor from among themselves. They also held a competition to select and confirm the local government’s chief of staff. That system is based in Russia’s local governance laws. Until 2015, it was fully operational.
However, the deputies soon entered a period of conflict with then-town mayor Alexander Vorozhbit, whom they called a henchman of Moscow Oblast governor Andrey Vorobyov after Vorozhbit’s administration began selling local lands under its own power. The municipal legislators responded with a sly legal ploy: in October of 2015, four of them resigned and managed to have the municipal council, which no longer had a quorum, deemed illegitimate in court.
In the early elections that followed, candidates from opposition politician Alexey Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation unexpectedly ran for office. Russia’s Central Election Commission canceled the results due to what commission head Ella Pamfilova simply called “violations.”
The next elections only took place in September of 2016. Half of the town council’s seats went to members of the Russian Communist Party, and Sergey Tenyayev became Barvikha’s mayor.
In response to the communists’ victory in what seemed to be Russia’s most capitalistic town, Tenyayev joked, “The oligarchs just got so tired of the current government that they decided to kick it out.” His colleague Konstantin Gavrikov had more serious comments to make: “The population here is just 7,000 folks, and everyone knows everybody else. The oligarchs live here, but they’re not registered here, so most of the voters are ordinary people. And they vote for the person, not the party. They can see who’s corrupt and who’s not.”
While the elections got underway in Barvikha, Odintsovo district head Andrey Ivanov used his position to appoint Herman Potapchuk as the town’s chief of staff. At around the same time, Moscow Oblast governor Andrey Vorobyov announced a plan to consolidate the region. The plan called for many town councils, including Bavrikha’s, to be dissolved. In November of 2018, town hall meetings were held in 16 municipalities in the Odintsovo area, and in 15 of them — all but Barvikha — those present voted in favor of the consolidation proposal. Barvikha’s representatives were unanimously opposed, but they couldn’t stop the process from getting underway.
In February of 2019, the municipality of Barvikha was dissolved and absorbed into a new administrative unit: the Odintsovo Urban Okrug. The leader of the okrug’s government will be chosen on June 7 when a new council of deputies confirms the results of a competition for the position. Only then will the mayors of the individual towns in the okrug lose their authority.
Sergey Tenyayev, who has taken charge of the local resistance to the reforms, used that temporary rupture in power to take action.
In late April, the mayor’s role was set to shift to the chief of staff, leaving the former mayor to take a seat as an ordinary municipal deputy. On April 19, Tenyayev fired Potapchuk from his role as municipal chief of staff and appointed Konstantin Gavrikov instead, leaving Gavrikov poised to become the mayor. When Gavrikov went on sick leave, he left the job to Andrey Khodyrev.
When Khodyrev took unpaid leave himself, he appointment Demushkin in his place. “Only the council of deputies can undo this decision. And there is no council of deputies!” Tenyayev explained.
Herman Potapchuk has continued to work out of the local administration’s building and call himself its legal leader despite the apparent turnover. Demushkin said that doesn’t mean a thing: “We’ve got the letterheads and the official seal — he can’t even sign a single paper.” Nonetheless, Demushkin declined to show us the seal himself.
Meduza was also unable to enter the city’s administrative building to visit Potapchuk: the doors to the building were locked, and a pass was required to enter. “You will have to wait for an official response to your request,” Potapchuk told us over the phone while we stood outside the building where he was located. Meduza’s request for an interview remains unanswered.
“In Barvikha, people expected me to show up with a bunch of strongmen and storm the building, put together some kind of spectacle,” Demushkin said, calmly sipping his tea in Brateyevo. “But on my first day, I came in, met with my comrades, and told them that everything would be done peacefully here. We got set up in Barvikha in a three-story building owned by the local TV station so that we would have a place to meet with local residents. We solve problems. And that guy can just keep sitting there in his administration. We won’t be far away. He never comes out of there, not even to take a shower — it’s like he’s one of the guards! I’m going to the State Duma today, which is why I’m not in Barvikha. Otherwise, I’m there every day. I meet people. In the State Duma, they’ve organized meetings for me so that we can solve the consolidation issue.”
From Russian March to mayor
Demushkin has good reason not to get into any fights. On February 20, 2019, the Petushinsky District Court of Vladimir Oblast granted him an early release from the region’s Prison Colony No. 2. Demushkin was jailed on October 21, 2016, while submitting documents for that year’s Russian March, an annual event that has united various Russian nationalist movements since 2005. Half a year later, Moscow’s Nagatinsky District Court sentenced Demushkin to two and a half years in prison for inciting hatred under Article 282, an extremism statute that was partially decriminalized in October of 2018. On top of everything else, Demushkin was charged for reposting a photograph from the Russian March featuring a banner that read “Russia Needs A Russian Government.” (Russkaya, the word used on the banner, refers to Russian ethnicity, not citizenship.)
Demushkin himself said he doesn’t want any more problems with the law. Memories of the Vladimir prison colony are still fresh in his mind. “That was the harshest zone around at the time,” the ex-convict said, using a common slang term for Russian prison colonies. “I spent eight months of my term in High-Security Center A, which can be abbreviated [in Russian] as SUKA,” he continued. Suka is the Russian word for “bitch.”
The nationalist activist said he spent his days in prison standing up in silence. “There were people who had to spend three weeks there who lost their minds,” he argued. “And I was there for eight months. But I have a master’s in psychology. I immediately prohibited myself from talking to myself in my head: I just observed myself as though I was watching from the outside. Maybe I changed somehow, but it’s easier to tell from the outside.”
Demushkin received the offer to lead Barvikha’s government from his acquaintances there: “I don’t want to name names, but these are people who have no ties to the nationalist movement. Wealthy people, people who have a lot of influence in Barvikha.” One of Demushkin’s predecessors, Konstantin Gavrikov, said the idea of inviting Demushkin came from “good, ideologically engaged” residents of Barvikha — specifically, he said, the idea came from Alexander Seregin.
Seregin is known for claiming to be an illegitimate son of Fidel Castro and for authoring an initiative that he intended to become “a new framework for society”: a five-volume collection called Project Russia. “I’ve known Demushkin for 15 years,” Seregin explained. “We met when I was working on a project for recreating folk trades. I don’t agree with him on every political question, but we have a lot in common. I think that, together, we’re moving in the right direction.” Seregin has not occupied any official government posts in Barvikha.
Demushkin said he received a formal contract and negotiated a salary for the mayor’s job: “The money isn’t much, but I’m not looking for money.” The new mayor said he still has several businesses that contribute to his income; the largest among them, he claimed, are a Russian martial arts school, a knife fighting school, and even a Russian March women’s clothing brand. Russia’s SPARK business records system indicates that Demushkin only has one active independent contracting business, which owns the Russian March commercial brand. The business is listed as a clothing retailer and producer. Three manufacturers for the business were confiscated by Russian courts in 2017 and 2018 to cover tax debts “due to the impossibility of pinpointing the debtor’s location.”
“While I was in prison, I accumulated several million rubles in tax debt,” Demushkin affirmed. “The managers didn’t keep up with it. Now, I’m going to deal with all of it.”
The Russian March organizer’s relationship with nationalism, however, is over, he said: “Nationalism has been crushed. Everyone I started with is either in prison or in exile.”
Demushkin argued that his job performance so far has satisfied practically everyone in Barvikha. “I’m going to fight against illegal immigration — well, that’s the law! And I don’t have any enemies. I’ve heard that even in the Jewish center here, the leadership has said things like ‘better Demushkin than all those crooks!’”
Rabbi Alexander Boroda, who serves in the Zhukovka Jewish community center located in Barvikha and as the president of the Federation of Jewish Communities of Russia, denied those rumors. “I haven’t said anything like that,” the rabbi told Meduza.
Billions at stake
“People in town voted against consolidation mostly because of money,” said Yury D., the editor of a forum called Barvikha Life, who asked that his last name remain confidential. Yury explained that, in Barvikha, there has always been a “hefty budget that gave people respectable dividends.” For example, pensioners got 5,000 rubles (almost $80) per month, and young parents were paid a one-time bonus of 27,000 rubles (about $420) when they had their first child, 54,000 (about $830) when they had their second, and 108,000 (about $1,670) for every subsequent child. After consolidation, Barvikha will lose the right to make its own budget because the Odintsovo Urban Okrug will have a single, united budget for all of the former municipalities within it, and the payouts will either become uniform for every town, or some of them will disappear.
Barvikha’s budget really was substantial. In 2018 and 2019, the town council approved more than a billion rubles ($15.45 million) in expenses. For comparison, the town of Kratovo, whose population is also around 9,000, is set to spend a little more than 200 million rubles ($3.09 million) in 2019. Kratovo is also considered to be a very wealthy dacha suburb.
Aside from social services, the budget took care of various public needs in the town. For example, last year, the town bought an artesian well for 75 million rubles ($1.16 million) and partially funded the construction of Razdory, one of the most expensive private schools in the Moscow suburbs.
“Why did we invite Demushkin? So he would do an audit. Otherwise, they’ll liquidate everything, and it’ll all be gone, no one will find anything,” Sergey Tenyayev said. “Now they just have to sit tight for a while until they can do business without any local sovereignty. But we want there to be an audit. In 2016, the town’s budget was almost two billion. There’s a massive case of embezzlement here.”
Odintsovo district head Andrey Ivanov believes the Barkhiva opposition has attracted local residents to its side with “provocation and populism.” In an interview with Kommersant FM, he said, “The mayor has tried to gather together primarily the older members of the population to spread speculation that the payouts pensioners currently receive will disappear.”
On May 15, Ivanov posted a video on his Instagram account assuring his followers that “there’s no Demushkin in Barvikha’s administration,” that the news of the nationalist’s appointment was a fake, and that the documents supposedly formalizing his appointment have already been passed on to law enforcement officials.
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On April 21, elections were held for Odintsovo Okrug’s Council of Deputies. In Barvikha, the winners were three communists: Sergey Tenyayev, his brother Alexander, and Vladimir Kukin. Before long, the council will select a leader for the entire district, and that person will receive executive control over Barvikha.
One potential candidate for the position has already appeared.
“We think our best candidate in the competition to lead the district will be Demushkin,” Konstantin Gavrikov told Meduza.
Demushkin confirmed that he intends to enter the competition. He doesn’t believe his criminal record will get in the way: “My sentence was commuted 15 days before my prison term was officially set to end. Because of the decriminalization. That means I don’t have a record, and I can join the competition.”
The nationalist said he sees his new political career as a job like any other: “When I left the zone, the guys in uniform told me to get a job. They called me not too long ago and asked, ‘Well, how’s it going?’ I told them, ‘I found a job.’ They just laughed. They said, ‘Well, aren’t you something.’”
Translation by Hilah Kohen