Skip to main content
  • Share to or
A United Russia "humanitarian center" in occupied Kherson

‘He walks the walk’ How United Russia General Secretary Andrey Turchak turned the ‘party of power’ into the party of war

Source: Meduza
A United Russia "humanitarian center" in occupied Kherson
A United Russia "humanitarian center" in occupied Kherson
Sergey Bobylev / TASS

After Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine, it didn't take United Russia General Secretary Andrey Turchak long to realize that Vladimir Putin’s obsession with the Donbas region was here to stay. In a bid to secure his own political future as well as that of the party — whose approval ratings are in decline — Turchak decided to go all-in on consolidating United Russia’s influence in Ukraine’s occupied territories.

Turchak soon found a niche for himself in espousing “ultra-patriotic” rhetoric, traveling frequently to the Donbas, and constantly comparing Russia's war in Ukraine to the Second World War. He often brings up the fact that his grandfather reached Berlin in 1945 before being sent to serve in Ukraine’s Rivne region, where he “rooted out the rest of the [Nazi] scum from the forest.” “Comparing the stories I heard from my grandfather with the things I’ve seen in the Donbas over these four months, [I realized that] nothing has changed. The war was simply unfinished. But our president and our armed forces are finishing it now,” he has said. After Turchak's comments, a number of other United Russia members began using similar rhetoric in their statements about the war.

Early in the war, the party began sending humanitarian aid shipments. United Russia members personally delivered the packages to the Donbas, which, according to Meduza’s sources, gave Turchak and his entourage a perfect excuse to “show up in the Donbas constantly.”

Before long, United Russia began opening party-branded “humanitarian centers” in the self-proclaimed Donetsk and Luhansk “People’s Republics” and other Russian-occupied Ukrainian territories. The centers serve as bases for United Russia representatives to distribute humanitarian aid (including groceries, medication, and SIM cards with Russian numbers) in an effort to win local residents’ loyalty. One of the first centers opened in Mariupol on March 24 — almost two months before Russian forces fully captured the city. In the second half of July, Turchak reported that over thirty centers had been opened in the city.

“Russia will restore everything [in Mariupol]. Right now, we need to finish the operation. Then builders and everyone else will all pitch in together to do everything. We’ll restore it all,” Turchak promised.

A United Russia vehicle in Mariupol. June 27, 2022
Yegor Aleyev / TASS

United Russia’s leaders have also chosen State Duma deputies to serve as party “coordinators” for the occupied territories. The Donetsk “People’s Republic” is overseen by Fighting Fraternity leader Dmitry Sablin, while the Luhansk “People’s Republic” is overseen by former Great Don Army chieftain Viktor Vodolatsky. The occupied part of Ukraine’s Kherson region is assigned to Igor Kastyukevich, former head of the All-Russian People’s Movement’s youth chapter, and the occupied part of the Zaporizhzhia region is assigned to deputy Artyom Bichayev.

Similar “coordinators” from the party have been assigned to oversee various occupation-wide agenda items. State Duma deputy Yulia Drozhzhina, for example, is in charge of Russian construction projects in the Donbas, while deputy Dmitry Khubezov coordinates Russian medical workers' trips to the area.

According to sources close to the Kremlin and to United Russia’s leadership, the “coordinators” fall into two groups. The first group consists of people close to Andrey Turchak and Sergey Kiriyenko (Putin’s first deputy chief of staff), while the second one consists of “people who have long been active on the Donbas issue,” such as Dmitry Sablin.

“For lack of a better term, longtime ‘Putin people’ aren’t there [among the coordinators]. Right now, [Turchak and Kiriyenko] are only letting their own people do those [Donbas-related] projects and do the publicity work for it,” said one of Meduza’s sources.

Sources also noted that State Duma Speaker Vyacheslav Volodin appeared to be jealous of the parliamentarians’ highly visible Donbas trips. In May, he criticized them publicly for their “un-deputy-like” behavior and for the cost of their travel. Turchak’s response came swiftly.

“I don’t see any point in paying attention to statements from officials who have completely lost touch with reality. I’ve already stated that the only people who can comment on this work are people who have been there themselves — people who have gone there and experienced it, rather than wearing their pants out by sitting in comfortable armchairs all day,” said Turchak. (Volodin made his first trip to the Luhansk “People’s Republic” in July).

One source close to the presidential administration (AP) told Meduza:

“Turchak knows how to get under Volodin’s skin. The Kremlin never reprimanded him for his harsh response to the speaker, even though they’re theoretically on different levels — the State Duma speaker is higher up in the hierarchy. Volodin’s public criticism didn’t lead to anything, either — the United Russia deputies still travel to the Donbas regularly.”

A 'special relationship' with the president

Meduza’s sources described Sergey Kiriyenko’s relationship with Andrey Turchak as one between “allies” — not that of the typical boss and subordinate. Kiriyenko is Turchak’s “senior partner,” they said, and Turchak comes to Kiriyenko to coordinate his activity.

“Turchak still has that St. Petersburg background, [which gives him] a special relationship with the president. It was at Putin’s personal suggestion that he became United Russia’s secretary general,” said a source close to the Kremlin.

According to sources, United Russia coordinates its activities in the Donbas every day with AP domestic policy department head Andrey Yarin, who answers to Kiriyenko and oversees the work of the Russian-backed “military-civil administrations” in Ukraine’s occupied territories. For example, when State Duma deputies and regional governors make trips to the Donbas “people’s republics” and other occupied territories, they have to coordinate their travel with Yarin.

Mariupol’s collaborationist “mayor” Konstantin Ivashchenko, St. Petersburg Governor Alexander Beglov, “DNR” leader Denis Pushilin, United Russia Secretary General Andrey Turchak, and actor Yevgeny Mironov in occupied Mariupol. June 1, 2022
Nikolai Trishin / TASS

Meduza reported earlier that State Council administration deputy head Boris Rapoport was working in the Donbas. Now, according to sources, Rapoport is in charge of preparing referendums to incorporate the Russian-occupied territories into Russia, which the Kremlin plans to hold in September 2022.

“For now, the division of labor [for Kiriyenko’s subordinates] has been settled — it’s like in Russia during peacetime. Yarin is handling day-to-day operations, while the State Council’s managers do elections, including the referendums,” sources close to the AP told Meduza.

At the same time, the war has left the balance of power inside United Russia itself practically unchanged. Meduza’s sources called Andrey Turchak’s influence on the party “serious,” but noted that he’s seeking to expand his role — and to strengthen his position in the eyes of Vladimir Putin by focusing on the Donbas. The sources stressed that Putin still considers United Russia to be “his party.” According to two people close to the Kremlin, Putin has watched Turchak’s embrace of the Donbas with approval. “Andrey has shown that he’ll walk the walk, rather than just talking about it,” said one.

“It’s fair to call him [Turchak] the party’s frontman right now — that’s true. Dmitry Medvedev remains the leader of United Russia, and he still has influence over the situation, he hasn’t let the party go, but he doesn’t want to be its public leader because of its low approval ratings. So Turchak really is the party’s frontman, though he doesn’t always have final say. He has overseers in the party,” said a source close to the AP.

Turchak’s “overseers,” according to multiple sources, include United Russia Deputy Secretary General Sergey Perminov and Central Executive Committee head Alexander Sidyakin, both of whom answer primarily to Sergey Kiriyenko. Along with Turchak and his people, the two men work to “limit the influence” of Vyacheslav Volodin on the party, according to Meduza’s sources.

Volodin is a longtime opponent of both Turchak and Kiriyenko. After resigning from his post as first deputy chief of staff in 2016, Volodin maintained his own set of people in United Russia’s leadership for a relatively long time. State Duma deputy Sergey Neverov was the party’s general secretary, while Maxim Rudnev was head of the Central Executive Committee. That didn’t suit Sergey Kiriyenko. After the party’s leadership changed, with Andrey Turchak taking over the General Council, Volodin and Turchak began competing for influence over United Russia’s faction in the State Duma, which was led by Neverov, who had resigned from his position in the party’s leadership. After the 2021 State Duma elections, former Dagestan head and former Deputy Interior Minister Vladimir Vasilyev, who has never been close to Volodin, took control of the faction.

According to two sources close to the Kremlin, there have been no orders for the pro-government media to promote Andrey Turchak specifically; “the media campaign is for United Russia’s actions as a whole and the things they did to help over there. But Turchak isn’t the priority.”

They emphasized that the press campaign is happening just as the authorities are expected to “restructure” the party. The Kremlin’s domestic political bloc had the idea before the war; it’s now expected to happen as soon as the invasion ends (though none of Meduza’s sources mentioned how that might happen).

“The special operation has changed a lot of things, but it’s still clear that something needs to be done [to fix] the party and its approval ratings,” said one source. He said that the Kremlin hasn’t decided exactly what changes it plans to make.

The AP’s current consensus is that there’s no reason to expect open public disapproval of the party while the war is going on — but by the fall, the party’s ratings might fall even further due to problems with the economy.

At the same time, Meduza’s sources suggested that Andrey Turchak (who seems to have party members’ approval) might leave his position in the foreseeable future. They said it’s unlikely that he’ll replace Dmitry Medvedev as party chairman due to his “confrontational” side, which comes out often in his public statements. Multiple sources said they expect Turchak to be given a high-ranking position — possibly in the Federation Council, where he currently serves as vice speaker.

Neither Andrey Turchak nor Central Executive Committee Information Department head Anastasia Kostikova responded to Meduza’s requests for comment. Russian Presidential Press Secretary Dmitry Peskov told Meduza that Vladimir Putin “commends” Turchak’s actions, but declined to comment on his career prospects.
the mood in the kremlin

‘Almost nobody is happy with Putin’ Meduza’s sources say a new wave of pessimism in the Kremlin has Russia’s hawks demanding more brutality in Ukraine while others scout for presidential successors

the mood in the kremlin

‘Almost nobody is happy with Putin’ Meduza’s sources say a new wave of pessimism in the Kremlin has Russia’s hawks demanding more brutality in Ukraine while others scout for presidential successors

Story by Andrey Pertsev

Abridged translation by Sam Breazeale

  • Share to or