A carefully planned career Khabarovsk’s new acting governor is known for weird ideas, but the man’s a pragmatist
It took a week and a half for the Kremlin to select a new acting head for the Far Eastern Khabarovsk Territory, where the population has been protesting the arrest of their elected governor, Sergey Furgal. After nearly ten days of sustained demonstrations, President Vladimir Putin dismissed Furgal from his post on July 20, “due to loss of confidence,” and appointed State Duma Deputy from the Liberal Democratic Party Mikhail Degtyarev as the Khabarovsk Territory’s acting head. Degtyarev accepted the position without hesitation, saying that he was prepared to fly to the region immediately. Meduza breaks down Degtyarev’s political career.
A favorite of Liberal Democratic Party (LDPR) leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky, Mikhail Degtyarev had no connection to the Khabarovsk Territory prior to July 20, 2020. The 39 year old grew up in a family of doctors in Russia’s Southwestern city of Samara. He began his political career there: at the age of 20, he led the Samara Region’s branch of the pro-Kremlin youth movement “Idushchiye Vmeste” (Walking Together), after which he joined United Russia and its youth wing (now known as the Young Guard of United Russia, at the time it was called “Molodezhnoe Edinstvo” — Youth Unity). At the age of 22, he became a deputy in the Samara City Duma.
“We had t-shirts with Putin on them, I was so happy about it, being in that organization [Walking Together] was cool for me, after all, a new, young president had come in, an athletic one. I considered it an honor to be in that organization. But I joined United Russia because I was working as an engineer, and the CEO gathered everyone together and said we had to join. I didn’t resist because Putin supported the party and I didn’t have any prejudices against the president, not then, not now. I stayed there for two years and they tried to remove me twice. But in 2005, I met [Vladimir Zhironovsky] at a train station. My whole life I had turned up the volume on the television when he spoke, so I went over to introduce myself…” Degtyarev recalled, in an interview with Lenta.ru.
That said, those familiar with Degtyarev claim that he switched from United Russia to the LDPR because his career growth within the ruling party was limited — he wasn’t allowed to head the local branch of United Russia’s youth wing and had no opportunity to move into position any higher than municipal lawmaker. But as a member of the LDPR, Degtyarev — with the help of the leadership of the large local holding company “Volgapromgaz” — immediately became not only the head of the local branch, but also became LDPR leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky’s aide in the Samara Region. When Meduza asked Degtyarev’s friends how he became close with Zhirinovsky, they gave vague replies: “There was an opportunity for upward mobility. He took advantage of it.”
Two years later, Degtyarev was elected as a Samara Regional Duma deputy from the LDPR. He simultaneously headed the party’s regional branch. In 2011, at the age of 30, he moved to Moscow and became a State Duma Deputy. He worked as the deputy chairman of the State Duma’s science committee until he’s reelection in 2016, at which point he led the committee on tourism and sport.
While part of the State Duma, Degtyarev was also working on the LDPR’s image and became responsible for election campaigns. He began working closely with the Putin administration on this basis, source close to the Kremlin and Degtyarev noted. Last year, he went through the “school for governors” — a Kremlin and Russian Presidential Academy of National Economy and Public Administration (RANEPA) program for training a personnel reserve.
Degtyarev has competed in mayoral elections three times in his career. In 2006, he ran for mayor of his hometown, Samara, and won 1.71 percent of the vote. In Moscow’s 2013 mayoral elections, he came in fifth place (out of six candidates) with 2.86 percent. He fared slightly better in the capital’s 2018 mayoral elections, where he came in fourth place (out of five candidates) with 6.72 percent of the vote.
In the State Duma, Degtyarev became famous for his odious legislative initiatives and proposals — none of which were adopted. For example, he suggested banning the circulation the U.S. dollar in Russia, prohibiting gay blood donations, introducing technical standards for the images of Ded Moroz (Grandfather Frost, Russia’s version of Santa Claus) and Snegurochka (his “snow maiden” sidekick), repainting the Kremlin white, reinstating Russia’s imperial flag, banning the sale of alcoholic beverages for one day per year, and creating a collection of swear words. During the 2013 mayoral campaign, Degtyarev was remembered for his proposal on offering women time off during their periods, his visit to the banya (a traditional Russian bathhouse) with Vladimir Zhirinovsky, and for talking about himself in the third person.
Degtyarev doesn’t hide his xenophobic views. “If Muslims or Jews want to conduct rituals in their offices, no one will forbid them. Let the atheists, pederasts, and other minorities with mind-numbing conversations about their rights sit in their unconsecrated apartments and offices and keep their heads down. Let them exercise their civil rights in the elections. My advice to them is to get used to being the minority: that’s what they are and that’s what they’ll always be. In Russia there will never be an aggressive minority that dictates its will to the majority, like in Europe,” he said in 2013.
Degtyarev was planning to take a commercial space flight next year. “We have a private company, KosmoKurs, which is supported by Roscosmos [Russia’s state space corporation]. I turned up as the first cosmonaut. It will be a small flight in 2021,” he said. Until recently, Degtyarev dreamed of becoming the head of Roscosmos; he’s a member of the corporation’s community board. “If we talk about what I would like to do now, then my dream is simple — to head Roscosmos. I want to head Roscosmos, I’m a space system engineer,” he said in an interview with Life. Earlier, Degtyarev suggested naming a cosmodrome after a contemporary rapper.
Some of Degtyarev’s acquaintances, as well as political analysts, have referred to him as the nephew of Oleg Sysuyev, an ex-Samara mayor and former deputy prime minister, who is now president of Alfa-Bank. In conversation with Meduza, Sysuyev said that this “isn’t entirely true.” “We are distant relatives, it’s been written somewhere that his mom is my wife’s sister, but this isn’t true. Misha’s [Mikhail Degtyarev’s] father has a distant family connection to my wife, he’s a remarkable surgeon. We have a warm relationship with his [Mikhail Degtyarev’s] parents, but we haven’t been in touch with Misha for a long time,” Sysuyev said.
Degtyarev described Sysuyev as someone who is “very purposeful” and “meaningfully making a political career.”
Other friends talk about Degtyarev as a tough, pragmatic person, who carefully planned his career. “He loves giving interviews, [having] photos taken with him, he worked on [citizens’] appeals, but didn’t take a lot of people’s input, and didn’t waste his energy. He has a clear idea of who to make friends with and when,” a Meduza source explained.
So far, the Khabarovsk Territory has been less than welcoming to Degtyarev. His Instagram page was flooded with thousands of negative comments, like: “It’s a complete mistake to appoint you to the post of governor!!!! Khabarovsk, countrymen, hold on, all of Russia’s cities support you”; “We didn’t choose you. We have no confidence in you. We don’t need you here. Go back to Moscow. #FurgalIsOurGovernor”; and, “👎🏻 👎🏻 👎🏻 Khabarovsk will not accept you.”
Degtyarev’s fellow party members in the region aren’t happy either. After his appointment, two Khabarovsk deputies left the LDPR.
On July 21, the acting governor arrived in Khabarovsk, where he already had a briefing scheduled with reporters, including film crews from federal television channels. However, 10 minutes before the start of the press conference, the regional government’s press service cancelled the briefing, citing the large number of requests and the “difficult epidemiological situation.”
Translation by Eilish Hart