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‘Vote against everyone’ Ahead of city council elections, Russia’s Ulyanovsk sees provocative campaigning harking back to the 1990s

Source: Meduza
Andrey Pertsev / Meduza

The authorities in Russia’s Ulyanovsk Region are sponsoring a controversial new movement called “Protiv Vsekh” (Against Everyone), which has nominated several candidates to run in the upcoming city council elections in Ulyanovsk. The movement’s leader, Anna Karvaleiru, is trying to win over local voters using performance art and provocative campaign ads — appearing on billboards in blackface under the slogan “We’re all ‘negroes’! Vote against everyone!” This “anti” campaign is directing its efforts against everyone from governing officials to the ruling United Russia party, but it targets the nominally opposition Communist Party (KPRF) in particular. As it turns out, the KPRF would have been posed to take power in the city’s parliament, but half of its candidates were banned from competing in the elections. In protest, the KPRF has set up a tent city on one of Ulyanovsk’s main squares. Meduza special correspondent Andrey Pertsev travelled to Ulyanovsk to meet the people behind this absurd campaign and uncover what’s actually at stake in the elections.

On August 16, the head of the Ulyanovsk Drama Theater’s development department, Anna Markesh Karvaleiru, laid out the following items in front of the city’s monument to Karl Marx: shoeshine equipment, a white sheet, red carnations, the book “On Russian Actionism” by political performance artist Pyotr Pavlensky, and a sign with the words “I’m cleaning my conscience.” It was an open offer to passersby; a civil servant expressing her willingness to clean the people’s shoes. According to Karvaleiru, her performance was dedicated to the events in Belarus, among other things: “I believe that Lukashenko can’t continue beating [and] going after civilians violently, putting them in jail and depriving them of their votes, [he] should stand down!”

She explained the essence of the protest action as follows: “I think the image of the shoe shiner is important. Because this is a job that has to do with cleanliness. I want politicians to clean their consciences, to go out to the people, to listen to their own people, and carry out their orders!”

Karvaleiru is running for the Ulyanovsk City Council in a single-member district. There are posters with her face plastered all over the city. Her campaign slogan proclaims, “We’re all ‘negroes’! Vote against everyone!”. To drive home her point, the candidate — who has Afro-Portuguese roots — appears in blackface. In campaign materials circulating on social networks, Karvaleiru — still in blackface — can be seen dressed as a teacher, doctor, or worker. This time she appears under another slogan — “We are not slaves!” 

Anna Karvaleiru is the frontwoman for the so-called “Protiv Vsekh” movement (Against Everyone), which nominated candidates for the Ulyanovsk City Duma elections in several dozen districts. In this regional city, the lead up to the municipal vote (scheduled for September 13) has become a carnival reminiscent of Russian election campaigns in the 1990s. Ulyanovsk now has many more “We’re all ‘negroes’!” billboards on display than campaign posters for the ruling party, United Russia, which is trying not to flaunt its party logo. The main target of this absurdist campaign, directed by spin doctors linked to Ulyanovsk Governor Sergey Morozov, is the Communist Party (KPRF), whose members have also put forward their candidacy in the birthplace of Russian revolutionary leader Vladimir Lenin

Under the leadership of State Duma Deputy Alexey Kurinny, the Communist Party took first place in the regional legislative elections in 2018, winning 36 percent of the vote; candidates from United Russia came in second with 33 percent. In Dimitrovgrad — the Ulyanovsk Region’s second most populous city — the Communist Party won 26 of city council’s 30 seats.

A visit to the Communist encampment 

The Communist Party looked posed to repeat its success in this year’s municipal elections. “There was every chance! But now they’ve eliminated half of our candidates, the strongest got cut!” — Communist Party deputy Alexey Kurinny tells Meduza, outraged. The conversation is taking place on 30th Anniversary of Victory Square, where the Communists have set up an encampment: there are several tents, a bus, and cars with flags and slogans. Alexey Kurinny has to remain on duty here around the clock, so the camp won’t be dispersed: formally, this protest action is considered one of his campaign events — a meet and greet with voters. 

“Public events are banned due to the coronavirus, but it’s difficult to hold me accountable. I’m conducting [a meet and greet] as a State Duma deputy — don’t like it, write up a protocol. For this, you need to [send] a request to the Attorney General, who has to go to the State Duma, the Duma has to give permission,” Kurinny explains.

The KPRF is demanding that 19 of its candidates be put back on the ballot. A court removed them following a lawsuit from another communist party, the Communists of Russia (CPCR): the proceedings were launched over the fact that the KPRF’s nominees submitted an extract from the regional party branch’s conference resolution on their nomination, rather than the resolution itself. The Communist Party maintains that candidates from A Just Russia and the Liberal Democratic Party (LDPR) submitted the exact same documents. “The [Central Election Commission] even lists the necessary documents in its recommendations: a resolution [or] an extract,” says perplexed Communist Party candidate Pavel Arkhipov in conversation with Meduza. 

The Communist Party’s tent camp on 30th Anniversary of Victory Square in Ulyanovsk 
Andrey Pertsev / Meduza
Communist Party Deputy Alexey Kurinny at the tent camp in Ulyanovsk 
Andrey Pertsev / Meduza

A regional court found the decision legal. But Kurinny says that there’s a chance of getting the candidates reinstated through the Supreme Court. “I haven’t ruled out [the possibility] that some of the candidates will be reinstated, but the news that the Communists were removed will spread — they’ll say there’s no alternative, no one to vote for, and some supporters might stay home,” he says with a shrug. In turn, Arkhipov fears that the Communists will be reinstated after the start of early voting. “Well what to do then? At that point our names won’t be on the ballot,” he says.

Visitors stop by the KPRF’s camp often. During the day it’s mostly elderly people, but by evening there are more young men and women. “Our people are like that...In Khabarovsk and in Belarus the people have risen [up], they’ve come to a point where they can’t stand it anymore. But we probably don’t have this pain threshold. Everyone tolerates [it],” a man in shorts and an expensive sweatshirt says, while signing a petition on reinstating the Communist Party candidates.

In large part, the secret to the success of the Ulyanovsk Communist Party branch has been the figure of Alexey Kurinny himself — he holds a PhD in medicine and was previously a chief physician; he then went on to run for Ulyanovsk mayor in 2010 and regional governor in 2016, taking second place in both elections. In 2013, he won a seat in the regional legislative assembly, defeating the then-leader of United Russia’s regional branch, Tamara Dmitrieva, in a single-member district. According to Kurinny himself, regional residents are sick of Governor Sergey Morozov, who has been head of the region since 2004. 

“People are tired of Morozov’s rule, of the numerous corruption scandals, they’re at their limit. The man appoints his sons as officials, his wife is the head of the largest agricultural enterprise, and he signed over a state dacha to his daughters. [He has] a manic addiction to power — a consequence of a long stay in office, it affects any politician,” Kurinny maintains. 

He considers the Against Everyone movement a “spoiler project” directed against the Communist Party: according to Kurinny, they’re encouraging voters to think “everyone around is a crook, let’s check the ‘Against Everyone’ box.” “They’ll use any means to touch the federal agenda — Navalny’s poisoning, Khabarovsk, we’re supporting Belarus. For them, everything is permitted— do what you want so long as the protest-minded vote for you. As for the rest, create the impression that they’re all clowns. The authorities have been stealing, the KPRF are scoundrels and careerists, Against Everyone are insane — so there’s no need to go vote!” Kurinny speculates. 

The KPRF is well acquainted with spoiler parties — in regions where their branches are strong, smaller communist groups like the aforementioned Communists of Russia Party (CPCR) and the Communist Party of Social Justice (KPSS) often participate in elections to split the “red” vote. During the 2018 elections to the Ulyanovsk Region’s legislative assembly, the CPCR entered into the regional parliament after winning 5.83 percent of the vote — party leader Maxim Suraikin even became the parliament’s deputy speaker. As such, the Communist Party leadership assumed they would face similar “projects” during campaigning for the municipal council elections.

“We were expecting [these] strategies — for example, [candidates with] the same last names [as KPRF candidates in the same districts], and they were, in fact, nominated. The techniques can be dirty — spoiler [parties], black PR, you don’t have to support it, but they went ahead and removed [our] candidates,” Pavel Arkhipov says, resentfully.

Against everyone, except the governor

“Our agenda is, of course, left-wing, leftist even. We think that trade unions [in Russia] don’t function at all. People keep quiet, they don’t have a voice, they’re afraid to speak, they hold onto their jobs with 10,000 ruble [$135] salaries,” says Anna Markesh Karvaleiru, as she begins to tell the story of Against Everyone. From time to time she’s distracted by her phone, presumably checking messages from her colleagues at the Ulyanovsk Drama Theater. She says that the theater’s management has banned her colleagues from liking her social media posts, adding that she herself was transferred to a remote location and threatened with losing her job over her shock-art and politics. 

The Communists of Russia Party filed a lawsuit against Against Everyone over signs of racism in its campaign ads (the KPRF believes this was done on purpose, to remind everyone about the Against Everyone movement). During the hearing on August 24, Ulyanovsk’s Leninsky Court dismissed the claim. According to Karvaleiru, the word “negro” (in Russian, negr) in the slogan has an “entirely different connotation — these are socially vulnerable segments of the population.” She claims that she couldn’t have come out with a racist slogan, seeing as she’s of mixed heritage: her paternal grandmother is African and her paternal grandfather is Portuguese. 

Anna Markesh Karvaleiru, the head of the development department at te Ulyanovsk Drama Theater, who running as a candidate from the Against Everyone movement in the Ulyanovsk City Duma elections 
Andrey Pertsev / Meduza

In the 1980s, Karvaleiru’s father came to study at the Ulyanovsk Tank School and met her mother, a Russian teacher. “He was a real revolutionary, he left Portugal for Cuba, became a military man, and was sent here to study. He and my mom were legally married, but then my father left for Cuba and disappeared, even though he was supposed to take his family with him. My mom sent an official request and, in return, got a formal response saying he was missing. I was discriminated against: in school they called me ‘darkie’ and trampled on my jacket,” Karvaleiru recalls. She’s a self-proclaimed feminist and anarcho-syndicalist.

“There are a lot of unemployed people in the country after the [coronavirus] epidemic, they’re hoping for a 12,000 rubles [$160] social benefit and don’t see a future, they have no privileges. Work, negroes, for miserable salaries! In this context, our movement is aimed at making the region comfortable, [and] not just for the rich, White people who sit in restaurants. We’re appealing to ordinary citizens, who are burdened with mortgages and loans, who are working for peanuts from morning to night,” she says, trying to explain the Against Everyone movement’s ideology.

“The government doesn’t care about the people! We are counting on those who feel like slaves of the system, and are outraged by this,” adds journalist Daria Kosarinova, Karvaleiru’s colleague from the Against Everyone movement. 

Anna Karvaleiru clarifies that those who want to vote “against all candidates” can support their movement: “The corresponding box on the ballots has disappeared, people don’t have a voice to express opposition, and the authorities have [no] instrument to measure [discontent].” 

During their conversation with Meduza, Kosarinova and Karvalieru are highly critical of United Russia; Kosarinova worked for the ruling party’s executive committee for three years and ran its campaign department. “I went to work there after university, it was a kind of break into the profession. But then the party was different! No living thing can survive near the current secretary [of the party’s Ulyanovsk branch, Vasily Gvozdev], they’re running a fake, a surrogate, they work for show, to show [their] numbers,” Kosarinova says, not sparing her former employer.

However, the Communist Party faces much more criticism from Against Everyone. Karvaleiru describes the KPRF as “marginal.” “This isn’t radicalism — it’s a circus! Is this radicalism directed at anyone? The roads were blocked because of the rally on August 22, and this [was] an inconvenience for residents. Their slogans are old, they don’t offer anything new, they don’t do anything, and they don’t solve problems,” Karvaleiru says, scolding the Communist Party.

Interestingly, the Ulyanovsk Region already had an “Against Everyone” movement — it was founded by spin doctor Ilya Paimushkin during the lead up to the 2003 elections to the regional legislative assembly (at the time, electoral blocs and movements were allowed to compete, not just political parties). Election officials refused to register the movement, on the grounds that its name would mislead voters who wanted to tick off the “against all candidates” box (which was on the ballot at the time), and thereby violate the expression of their will.

When speaking with Karvaleiru and Kosarinova, one gets the impression that they are critical of all government officials. For example, Kosarinova says that young people are leaving the region because they know “any good idea will be stolen and a business will be squeezed out.” However, she quickly clarifies that the movement is not only “against everyone,” but also against revolutions, and doesn’t support opposition figure Alexey Navalny, or former presidential candidate Ksenia Sobchak. As it turns out, Karvaleiru and Kosarinova aren’t critical of all politicians — they have only good things to say about the Ulyanovsk Region’s Governor Sergey Morozov. “[He’s] a very democratic governor, I worked with him from practically the start of his term, since 2006. He supports people’s initiatives enthusiastically. I’m not against him, the government system is also heterogeneous, the human factor plays a big role,” Karvaleiru maintains.

Daria Kosarinova admits that the Against Everyone movement doesn’t have any notable candidates besides herself and Anna Markesh Karvaleiru, but she denies that it’s a spoiler party. 

Political art in the birthplace of Lenin 

Communists of Russia Party chairman, the regional parliament’s Deputy Speaker, Maxim Suraikin, says the CPCR isn’t a spoiler party either. “How can [we] be a spoiler if we gain the support to enter into the legislative assembly? You know, if [we had gained] one or two percent, [that’s] still okay!” 

Communists of Russia Party Chairman Maxim Suraikin (center) during a rally against changes to Russia’s pension legislation in Moscow. August 23, 2018.
Alexander Shcherbak / TASS

Ulyanovsk also has a fair number of banners featuring Suraikin’s portrait and the slogan “Mackerel is better than chicken” (in Russian, Skumbriya poleznee kuritsy). “The first secretary of the KPRF’s regional committee has the last name Kurinny, in [local] slang, many call him ‘chicken’ [kuritsa]. The campaign headquarters’ idea revolved around this nuance — it gave birth to an original idea, mackerel is better than chicken, [meaning] that the CPCR is better than the KPRF. What’s better than chicken? Fish is always healthier!” Suraikin says, rubbing his hands. In fact, the slogan references another slogan the Communists of Russia Party’s campaign used during the 2018 regional parliament elections: “Mackerel — the fish of the future” (Skumbriya — ryba budushchego).

Suraikin explains the attack on the KPRF and the removal of its candidates from the ballot as part of a string of personal insults: on July 23, Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov called Suraikin a “pederast,” while speaking from the Duma’s rostrum. On July 30, members of the KPRF faction in the regional legislature put a rotten mackerel on Suraikin’s table, and then they hung up a poster featuring a picture of the CPCR leader and regional Governor Sergey Morozov, along with the word “Golubki” — slang for “gays.” After that, a scuffle broke out between representatives from the KPRF and United Russia. 

“We decided to teach them a lesson, in order to make it clear within a legal framework — either you behave normally, or we won’t let you go anywhere. The Ulyanovsk regional committee is made up of people who are far [removed] from communism. They are using Navalny’s methods, they prefer to make noise rather than resolve issues. We started to feel bad. We looked for the more or less normal [candidates from the KPRF]. We filed lawsuits against the questionable ones. I’m still very kind,” Suraikin says with a smile. 

According to Meduza’s source close to the regional authorities, the Communists of Russia were taken to court because “after such an insult, Suraikin simply had to respond somehow.” However, the source admits that the regional leadership may have had something to do with the complete removal of the KPRF’s nominees from the ballot. Another source in the regional government is convinced that the region’s newly appointed Deputy Governor, Alexander Kostomarov, could be responsible for orchestrating their removal — he previously occupied similar posts in the Moscow and Kursk regions: “This his style, in the Moscow region [opposition] candidates were often removed like it was nothing.” 

Meanwhile, Governor Sergey’s Morozov’s spin doctors, Lev Pavlyuchkov and Ernest Staratelev — who have been working with him since the 2004 gubernatorial elections, — are preoccupied with political PR. “It’s how they get their kicks. It seems to me that there’s no other point to the Against Everyone movement,” says the Public Chamber’s former chairman, Dmitry Yezhov, shrugging. He says the Communists of Russia’s “mackerel” is also the work of spin doctors. 

Included among the 2020 campaigns in the Ulyanovsk city council elections is one more spoiler project, under the auspices of the centre-right Party of Growth. Their billboards show a man resembling Sergey Morozov, photographed from behind. His gaze is directed towards a background of spaceships, skyscrapers, and blimps. “Turn your face towards the city!” — the poster’s slogan proclaims. A source in the regional administration admits that this project was also overseen by the regional authorities: it’s aimed at catching the attention of the right-wing electorate; to keep these voters from going over to the protesting Communists. 

Andrey Pertsev / Meduza

In conversation with Meduza, Governor Morozov’s advisor, Lev Pavlyuchkov, doesn’t try to hide the fact that he was the actual creator of Against Everyone (and he chalks it all up to what Russian spin doctors refer to as “political technology”). “This is political art, in which aesthetics prevails over strategy. Political technology has degenerated into administrative resource management. Of course, the widespread cancellation of the opponents’ registration can also be considered [political] technology, but what are the repercussions? The elections in Belarus were ‘technological’ [managed], but isn’t what happened next scary to all of us?” he asks, rhetorically. 

Pavlyuchkov thinks that there’s no real political opposition in Russia, but there is a demand for an assortment of political choices and expressions of opposition. “There used to be the ‘against all’ box and a threshold for voter turnout. People could give the signal that a candidate or a group of candidates was unfit, that they didn’t need them. Now this isn’t there, so what’s left?” the spin doctor says.

As such, Pavlyuchkov is convinced that the Against Everyone project has a serious, profound meaning. “Those Khabarovsk residents feel like ’negroes’ too. Moscow, which takes their resources, this is the ‘Whites,’ and they’re ‘Blacks,’ who are sinking into a new slavery,” Pavlyuchkov says. “Under slavery, a person exchanges the time he has in life for money, which he needs, to support that very life at a consistently low level and under consistently high pressure from the state, corporations and his local bosses. People can’t develop. You need freedom of conscience for development. The authorities think that [political] technology can be created in an incubator, but a [secret prison-lab] is better, like during the war.”

Pavlyuchkov doesn’t rule out the possibility that some of the candidates from the Against Everyone movement could be elected into the municipal parliament, however, he cynically admits that the project has much more mundane goals.

“People have to understand that there’s no real alternative, that includes the KPRF — it’s not an alternative. These are squatters who have occupied the regional committee, representatives of the interests of the food, security, and funeral businesses. Against Everyone discredits the reputations of the alternative nominees [opposing] the ruling candidates — it’s the same no names, the same random people,” the spin doctor says. 

Pavlyuchkov also admits that he was the one who came up with the slogan “Mackerel — the fish of the future” that the Communists of Russia used back in 2018. That pre-election project was supposed to raise doubts about the competence of the KPRF — the assumption being that an ordinary voter wouldn’t differentiate between the different types of communists. “But in the end 6–7 percent voted for the Communists of Russia. Suraikin became the deputy speaker of the legislative assembly. People deliberately voted ‘for mackerel,’ venting their opposition,” he recalls.

Asked how Governor Morozov tolerates such rampant political creativity, the spin doctor answers as follows: “He’s a marketing genius with a well-developed political awareness and he understands the practical, short-term benefits of such a project.” Sergey Morozov has actually become famous for making bold statements himself, such as proclaiming the Ulyanovsk Region the birthplace of the fairy tale character Kolobok, announcing that the region would start producing flying saucers, and declaring September 12 the Day of Family Life (locals refer to this official holiday as “Conceiving Day”). Many of the projects he has talked about have never come to fruition. “But nevertheless, the state media wrote about them for government money,” comments Communist Party deputy Alexey Kurinny, indignantly. 

In conversation with Meduza, Andrey Maximov, a member of the Public Chamber (who was born in Ulyanovsk), described Alexey Kurinny as a vibrant politician and didn’t exclude the possibility of the Communist Party winning a majority in the city duma, which currently belongs to United Rusia. “Kurinny has politics in his blood,” says Lev Pavlyuchhkov in agreement. At the same time, a source close to the regional authorities criticized the regional committee’s personnel policy, claiming that employees from enterprises belonging to KPRF Deputy Speaker Airat Gibatdinov made it into the legislative assembly — “even his driver.”

Sergey Morozov’s term in office ends next year. The governor’s circle hopes that the Kremlin will grant him approval to run again, and they assure that Morozov’s ratings have gone up during the coronavirus pandemic, albeit without citing any exact figures (according to independent polling data from the Levada Center, 61 percent of respondents surveyed in April 2020 trusted the governor and this figure rose to 63 percent in August). On the other hand, sources close to the regional authorities admit that after 16 years of Morozov’s leadership, local residents have grown tired of the governor, and the Kremlin is exchanging long-sitting regional heads for “younger technocrats.” 

Communist Party candidate Pavel Arkhipov also admits that Morozov could remain in his post, but doesn’t rule out that the regional authorities are campaigning so hard during the municipal elections because they are counting on the governor being transferred to another honorable post. “After all, he can leave under different conditions — either he surrenders a politically controlled city, or he loses it. In the latter case, the ‘shoulder boards’ might come for him,” Arkhipov says, grinning.

Story by Andrey Pertsev

Translation by Eilish Hart

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