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An exhibit by artist Erik Bulatov at the Yeltsin Center. 2018

Accusations fly in Russia’s ‘center of vile liberalism’ The war-skeptical Sverdlovsk region has been under attack from conservative pundits. That's great news for its Putin-backed governor.

Source: Meduza
An exhibit by artist Erik Bulatov at the Yeltsin Center. 2018
An exhibit by artist Erik Bulatov at the Yeltsin Center. 2018
Natache / URA.RU / ТАСС

Story by Andrey Pertsev. Abridged translation by Sam Breazeale.

Over the last decade, Yekaterinburg has shown itself to be a city of edgy street art, opposition politicians, and a fair amount of old-fashioned protesting. While the federal authorities have done their best to quell all of the above, officials still know that many of the city’s voters are inclined to protest — and the voters know they know. So when recent attacks against the city from pro-war pundits gave the Sverdlovsk region’s Putin-backed outsider governor, Yevgeny Kuivashev, a chance to defend his territory and prove himself to locals in the leadup to an election, some observers smelled conspiracy. Meduza takes a closer look at the political moment in the Urals.

In mid-July, film director and outspoken Putin supporter Nikita Mikhalkov released an episode of his YouTube show, Besogon TV, titled “Are you hunter or a faggot?” In it, he told a homophobic joke about a hunter and a bear in reference to the West providing military aid to Ukraine. Later, he came back to the same joke — this time to disparage Sverdlovsk regional governor Yevgeny Kuivashev. In late June, Kuivashev spoke out in defense of the Yeltsin Center after local Communist Party members accused it of “anti-Russian activity.”

That reminded Mikhalkov of his previous Besogon TV episode. In that one, he read aloud from anonymous Telegram posts that accused Buivashev of creating a “Ural party” whose “ideological focus” would be the Yeltsin Center itself (whatever that’s supposed to mean).

Do you understand what kind of events are held at Yeltsin Center? All of this is happening in a strategically important part of the country — in the Urals, the region where victory was forged in the Great Patriotic War, where the military industrial complex is the strongest. The blacksmith behind this giant country.

How much of a coincidence is it that this region’s governor is organizing a “Ural party?” I don’t know… I’m not claiming anything, I’m just asking a question. There’s a party of local elites that’s taking advantage of the Yeltsin Center’s popularity. It’s sending us towards the collapse of the country.

Three months earlier, in April 2022, a different high-status “ultrapatriot” started going after Kuivashev: national TV host and propagandist Vladimir Solovyov. On an episode of his show that featured Presidential Envoy to the Ural Federal District Vladimir Yakushev as a guest, Solovyov called Yekaterinburg “the center of vile liberalism.”

Yakushev didn’t argue. Kuivashev, however, responded to the attack in a social media post:

Vladimir Solovyov slandered Yekaterinburg in front of the entire country using words I can’t repeat — my upbringing doesn’t allow it. I’ve made no secret of the fact that I’m proud of Yekaterinburg and its citizens, who are free, brave, smart, and capable of critical thinking. They truly love their country; they’re not just saying that for show. After Solovyov’s statements, I’m confident that he’s lost a lot of his audience in Yekaterinburg.

In the same post, Kuivashev recommended that Solovyov “watch his tongue” (though he later removed that part from the post). Solovyov responded by invoking Yekaterinburg's mafia-laden history.

Sverdlovsk regional governor Yevgeny Kuivashev
Anna Maiorova / URA.RU / TASS

“Are you trying to put a fight on the calendar? Is your Uralmash [a powerful crime syndicate in 1990s Yekaterinburg] past coming out?’” said Solovyov. Then he addressed his viewers: “If Kuivashev takes his wife-beater off, will we see his criminal tattoos blazing?”

However, before his appointment as regional governor in 2012, Kuivashev had no connection to Yekaterinburg, let alone to the gang Solovyov was accusing him of belonging to. He began his career in the Tyumen region, where he served as the mayor of the regional capital, among other positions. Sources close to the Kremlin told Meduza that Kuivashev belongs to the “inner circle” of Moscow Mayor Sergey Sobyanin, who was the Tyumen regional governor when Kuivashev was the mayor of Tobolsk.

Solovyov soon continued his campaign against Kuivashev, this time criticizing him for being insufficiently patriotic:

Right now, Kuivashev is on vacation. Is he going to the Donbas to provide humanitarian aid, or is he afraid he’ll appear on sanctions lists? (Editor’s note: Kuivashev later showed up on a British sanctions list.)

Or what, do you think that since he was recommended by the president, he’s untouchable now? There's a forcefield around him or something? No — there’s no forcefield. Is he a patriot or not? I haven’t heard this guy say even once whether he supports the special [military] operation or not.

At that point, Kuivashev stopped responding to Solovyov’s attacks. Solovyov’s last statement was also false: Kuivashev had visited the city of Makiivka in the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic, and the Sverdlovsk region had been named the city’s “patron,” taking responsibility for rebuilding it.

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Meanwhile, Russian social media began filling up with memes in support of Kuivashev. One of them depicted him as a Jedi and showed him using a lightsaber to decapitate Solovyov. The image was shared by Pervouralsk Mayor Igor Kabets, among other people. After that, Solovyov stopped mentioning Kuivashev on his show.

State Duma deputy Anatoly Vasserman, though, took up the mantle, tackling the city of Yekaterinburg rather than its mayor. He claimed that the city is one of the main “same-sex relationship centers” in Russia, along with Moscow and St. Petersburg.

Kuivashev responded to the attack immediately, saying, “[Vasserman] has proven once again that education and intelligence are two different things.” On social media, Russians began speculating that the entire conflict might be a strategy to help Kuivashev win the upcoming election.

A ‘pre-programmed’ campaign

Kuivashev is far from being Russia’s most popular governor. He’s repeatedly faced criticism from his constituents for simply failing to understand the problems facing the region; after all, he just moved there in 2012. Nevertheless, Kuivashev is gearing up for a third term — something that’s only be possible for Russia’s regional governors since 2021.

According to a source close to the Kremlin, the criticisms from the “capital elites” — Mikhalkov, Vasserman, and Solovyov — have indeed only helped Kuivashev in the leadup to September’s election. “It’s like he’s becoming one of them by defending the region,” said the source.

Two sources close to the Putin administration told Meduza that the Kremlin considers the Sverdlovsk region to be “fairly opposition-minded,” but Kuivashev should nonetheless have little problem winning his race.

“With the help of the municipal filter, it’s easy to block any serious opponents in gubernatorial elections,” said a source close to the Kremlin.

Yekaterinburg City Duma Deputy Konstantin Kiselev agreed, telling Meduza that Kuivashev’s election is “pre-programmed.” Journalist Dmitry Kolezev, who has worked in Yekaterinburg for years, noted that in Kuivashev’s last election, he “had no real issues winning reelection,” racking up over 60 percent of the vote.

“In Yekaterinburg, like in other cities, the protest sentiment is more salient than in cities that are average-sized or smaller. But the protest energy in Yekaterinburg has ultimately burned out rather than snowballing,” political scientist Mikhail Vinogradov told Meduza. He agreed that the upcoming election won’t be a problem for Kuivashev.

Four candidates are slated to run against Kuivashev: regional Communist Party leader and Legislative Assembly deputy chairman Alexander Ivachyov, regional LDPR leader and Legislative Assembly deputy Alexander Kaptyug, State Duma deputy Andrey Kuznetsov from the party A Just Russia, and State Duma deputy Alexander Demin from the New People party.

A source close to the Putin administration told Meduza that all of these candidates have been approved by both the Kremlin and the regional administration. Ivachyov and Kuznetsov didn’t respond to Meduza’s requests for comment, and Meduza was unable to contact Kaptyug.

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Former Yekaterinburg Mayor Yevgeny Roizman, who is still popular in the region, said in January 2022 that he will not run in the upcoming gubernatorial election. “Given the current political situation, participating in the elections would just be pointless. I’m not even going to try. I have no chance of being allowed to register. No part of me is tempted to run,” he said. Both Yevgeny Kuivashev and Yevgeny Roizman declined to discuss the upcoming elections with Meduza.

At the same time, Dmitry Kolezev told Meduza that Roizman is “the only political figure who, under different circumstances, would have a chance at the governorship.”

“I think he would win the election even without any [campaign] resources. But he’s not participating — he realizes they won’t let him register. Plus, it’s clear that running right now could end up with him in prison, and Roizman, as a critic of the war and of Putin, is exercising reasonable caution,” he said.

Yekaterinburg State Duma deputy Konstantin Kisel, a member of the Yabloko party, referred to Kuivashev’s opponents as “spoiler candidates”:

None of the candidates would have been able to gather enough signatures from municipal deputies themselves. There were administrative resources at work — for all of them, without exception.

The candidate from A Fair Russia is just siphoning support from the KPRF [Communist Party]. The KPRF candidate is running on the party name, racking up support from various kinds of protesters. LDPR [Liberal Democratic Party of Russia, a nationalist party] candidates traditionally get support from people who want to oppose everything else. The New People party’s job is to get some votes from liberals and young people. At the same time, the name recognition of the LDPR and New People candidates is close to zero.

According to two sources close to the Kremlin, Vladimir Putin has a generally positive view of Kuivashev and wants him to continue working in the region.

“In fact, there are a lot of officials and businessmen who would do an even better job than Kuivashev. But in the last election, the president made it crystal clear that this is an important region, that nobody is to touch anything, and that everything should be left as it is, with Kuivashev at the helm,” said one source. After Russia launched its full-scale war in Ukraine, according to him, Putin didn’t change the instructions.

According to journalist Dmitry Kolezev, public support for the war is “relatively low” in the region, and even local media outlets have devoted little attention to Kuivashev’s trips to the Donbas. Kolezev believes the trips were made “mostly for the Kremlin.”

A source close to the Sverdlovsk regional administration denied that the local authorities played a role in Solovyov, Vasserman, and Mikhalkov’s statements about Kuivashev.

“This [was initiated by] someone from the outside, but we don’t know who,” he said. Anatoly Vasserman, Nikita Mikhalkov, and Vladimir Solovyov all declined to answer Meduza’s questions, as did Yevgeny Kuivashev.

According to a source close to the Kremlin, Vladimir Solovyov first criticized Solovyov “in a wave of emotion” — and continued only because of Kuivashev’s sharp responses. Sources also told Meduza that Kuivashev has “a lot of enemies” among politicians and businessmen since he’s a “confrontational person” and “can be rude” when communicating in person.

Yekaterinburg State Duma deputy Konstantin Kiselev also told Meduza that he doubts Solovyov and Mikhalkov’s statements were part of a coordinated campaign. “There’s no need to look for a conspiracy in something that can easily be explained by mistakes and stupidity,” he said.

Political scientist Alexander Kynev noted that Nikita Mikhalkov and Vladimir Solovyov have been criticizing the Yeltsin Center for a while now. “The most essential quality of a political technologist is the ability to take advantage of the news cycle, respond to it, and control it. Kuivashev’s strategists reacted skillfully in this case. The governor’s main problem was that he’s an outsider to the region, he wasn’t beloved. Now he’s managed to show that he’s one of them,” said Kynev.

Dmitry Kolezev agreed: Kuivashev has grown on a lot of locals, because they’ve now seen that their governor is willing to “defend them against that nasty Solovyov.” According to Konstantin Kiselev, local clothing designers have begun making t-shirts and tote bags advertising Yekaterinburg as the “Center of vile liberalism.”

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