The 2016 Russian parliamentary elections will take place in September instead of the usual December. While a shorter election season might seem like a blessing in some parts of the world, in Russia the date change has been received with suspicion, as many people believe it favors United Russia, known as the country’s “party of power.” Others, believing that in “Putin’s” Russia there are no “real” elections, think it doesn’t matter. United Russia’s dominance is generally considered a foregone conclusion, despite the party’s numerous electoral upsets over the last few years. When United Russia is beaten, it is most often by the Communist Party, which continues to be the strongest opposition force in the country. Concerns about corruption are valid, but “real” elections are not just about counting votes accurately; they are about choice. However, in a political environment in which at least 75 political parties are registered, anything is possible. Too often the choices available remind me of the descriptions of capitalism I heard from Siberian schoolteachers in the 1990s: ranging from “something scary” to “something not so scary.”

This is the world Natalia Pinus entered last summer when she decided to run for Novosibirsk City Council deputy. She was a successful small-business owner, but when she realized that making money wasn’t interesting enough for her, she quit and became president of an NGO. After six years, still determined to have an impact on the community her children would grow up in, this wife of a Western corporation employee and mother of three young children filed as a candidate for deputy in her home district #35. Hers is not the typical profile of candidates who attain political office.

In popular imagination, Siberia is often characterized as a land of prisons, bears, and snow. Novosibirsk, the region’s largest city and third largest in Russia, has somewhat of a split personality. Just outside the city center is Akademgorodok, a scientific center created by Khrushchev that has been struggling to adapt to the realities of Russia’s new economic system. This is the district in which Pinus grew up and ran to represent as deputy last summer. Designed so the paths from institute or university to home were surrounded by trees, far from the eyes of Moscow, Akademgorodok became a percolator for more liberal ideas and one of which—perestroika—changed the country. The mix of old and new in Novosibirsk has made it into a crucible for modern artists like 2015 Academy Award nominee Andrey Zvyagintsev (Leviathan); Yanka Dyagileva, once the most famous female punk singer in the Soviet Union; and the Blue Noses, whose international breakthrough came with their photograph of two Russian policemen kissing in a birch-tree forest. It is also a city located in Russia’s “Red Belt,” known as such for being a Communist Party stronghold. This was most recently made clear in 2014, when the city elected a Communist mayor. Novosibirsk has become an epicenter of the Orthodox conservative cultural movement. This became visible with demonstrations that led to the cancellation of a Marilyn Manson concert. The conflict expanded to Moscow when Orthodox activists objected to a new version of the opera Tannhäuser and the Russian minister of culture fired and replaced the head of the Novosibirsk Opera Theatre. This launched protests and an ongoing campaign for artistic freedom, and Natalia Pinus is one of the leaders.

Running an NGO and organizing protests are both matters of heart, but running for office requires a more complex level of exposure and commitment. Pinus explains that her desire to run “was sincere and an organic progression,” arising largely from her aim “to continue to bring together government, business, and the people to solve problems.”

After making the initial decision to run for office, Pinus directed her attention toward the United Russia primary. “I wanted some experience in the campaign process, and the primary gave me a chance to understand how it works and to see if it was something I could do,” she says.

She won the primary even though her picture disappeared from some of the polling places. “My friends, our actions were victorious in spite of everything, Hurrah! Now it remains to understand what to do with this happiness” she said on Facebook. She subsequently decided not to share that happiness with the “party of power” and instead to run against United Russia, as an independent. “I am not ready to represent the interests of any particular political power but I am open to cooperate on concrete projects,” she said. In various interviews Pinus explained further, “I am running as an independent candidate because it reflects my true inner feelings.” United Russia replaced her with a Tae Kwon Do instructor.

Pinus was the only woman in a crowded field of eight that included representatives from most of the major parties as well as two other independents. Going in, she had three strikes against her. She was the only candidate running without any major institutional or financial resources. She had been a prominent participant in three major protests. And she was a woman, which meant she had to deal with questions such as “Where does your money come from?” and “Why don’t you have to work?” and “How can a mother with three children have time to be so active?”

However, unlike the other candidates, she had been involved in numerous community projects that required reaching out and working with a wide range of people. The projects yielded tangible results, and these experiences informed her campaign strategy. “My campaign will not be typical in many ways and will reflect the way I plan to serve as a deputy, with a focus on openness, accessibility, and a willingness to listen.” To Western ears this may sound meaningless, no more than a politician blah-blah-ing and checking off a necessary rhetorical list, or trite (who doesn’t plan to serve with openness?), or worse, meaning unlimited money, robocalls, and polls. But in Russia, Pinus’s approach is refreshing and reminiscent of old-fashioned campaigning, getting out the vote face to face, and being as visible as possible on the street. This is an anomaly in Siberia, where local campaigning generally consists of no more than posters and the occasional mailbox flyer. No one knew how the constituency would respond, and what happened next took everyone by surprise, including Natalia Pinus.

She upped the ante for all candidates by conducting courtyard meetings with constituents throughout the district. United Russia’s Tae Kwon Do instructor was never seen during the campaign. What did appear were newly paved roads, banners, eight billboards, buses, and life-size cutouts promoting another independent candidate; a young man who worked for his father’s successful construction company, he was suddenly campaigning to represent a district he never lived or worked in. He did show up at the debate to say he had to leave, proving that even he was compelled by Pinus to hit the courtyard circuit, as he was leaving to meet with constituents there. Rumor had it his campaign ended up spending 20 million rubles to try to woo the 27,000 eligible voters. Still, Pinus’s billboard-less “modern” campaign—which became known for its simple slogan, “I love Gorodok”—won with an almost 10 percent margin. Emotional Facebook messages made the meaning of her victory clear and attributed it to her running an honest campaign, which many even described as beautiful. One woman let legendary Soviet bard Bulat Okudzhava speak for her:

Amid alien feasts
and truths that are completely unreliable
Without waiting for praise,
We clean white feathers

Pinus’s triumph said something important about Russian elections—that no amount of money or technology could replace personal contact or compensate for a weak résumé. But, with the purpose of elections being to improve governance and, through that, quality of life, Pinus’s victory was only the beginning of her work.

Another assumption about Russia is that governance is a puppet show, Vladimir Putin its puppet master, and United Russia, the puppet strings. If her results as deputy couldn’t match the success of her campaign, the implications regarding the state of Russian democracy would be even more unsettling. The challenge was daunting. She was one of three independent candidates serving in the new 50-member council. Thirty-two were from United Russia, 12 from the Communist Party, two from the right-wing ultra-nationalist Liberal Democratic Party of Russia, and one from the social-democratic “A Just Russia.” Four of the 50 were women. At the top of a article on the new City Council’s first meeting, there was a picture of Pinus talking to the equally blond head of the City’s Department of Culture. Commentary in the article consisted of “Natalia Pinus chatted for a long time” and “You could stare at them endlessly.”

That was almost a year ago, and after having followed closely her Facebook page, which provided extremely detailed accounts of her activities and key issues, and watching her monthly video reports, I was interested to find out how Pinus assessed her first year as deputy. The quotes below are translated from Russian and edited because she is a detailed policy wonk in a country with an insane amount of bureaucracy and red tape. We sat down for breakfast on August 2, and the first thing I had to ask Natalia, now a reddish brunette, was

What happened to the blond?

There are some things you can’t take too seriously.

How do you like being a deputy?

I like it. It comes naturally to me.

Is it what you expected?

Nothing surprised me. There was one thing that made me nervous: how I would fit in. Among the independents, I am the only one who is truly without any party affiliation. It turned out that people had been watching my campaign and felt some respect towards me because of this. Today, I think I have a very specific niche in the community of deputies. They know I always say exactly what I think and am ready to work. I know there are others who would like to do the same but are limited because of their party affiliation. On certain questions, we can discuss and discuss, but 32 votes say “Yes.”

Are you able to accomplish anything under these conditions?

Yes, and I’ll tell you how I do it. One issue that is extremely controversial is construction companies’ 3 billion-ruble debt to the city for land rental. This is an enormous sum, considering that the entire city budget is 34 billion rubles and some of the biggest debtors are deputies. It’s surprising, but at first there were around 10 deputies who were ready to work on this from different parties. As was typical, the mayor said, “Okay, let’s create a work group,” and he named two loyal debtors to run the group. They worked for several months and this resulted in absolutely nothing.

They kept telling us, “It is so hard for the debtors.” So hard for them? We decided, “Okay, let the work group continue; we will work on it independently.” We prepared a comprehensive approach and sent a letter to the mayor that was stamped by all parties. That was really great. Of course, we included the most difficult issue—defrauded investors [people who paid money to purchase apartments that have not been built]—and they went, “Oy, oy, oy,” but we said, “You have to deal with them.” In the next couple of weeks, something should be visible, because we very carefully prepared the documents so things will move.

What else are you proud of?

I am really excited about open budgets. I think it is very important that the process be maximally open. Now, when I initiate something, people start to get involved. I asked the university to help me understand what it should look like so people could understand it. We looked at various approaches for how to present the budget and then did our own version. Another problem is the public hearing on the budget that must happen twice a year. I attended and they are just dead, not one single living person, no one. Of course all formalities are met, but no result. So I think before the public hearing we will conduct lectures to explain what is going on.

Also with the mayor, we are conducting a competition to explain the budget using sketchnoting, which looks like comics. The first prize is 50,000 rubles, which is generating a lot of interest and excitement among different people, including students and artists, because it’s good money. The winning project will be launched in time for the public hearing.

Can you talk about participatory budget planning?

There are 22,000 municipalities in Russia and only one thousand of them are currently doing this. So far, there is only technology for up to 300,000 people in Russia, so we need to develop something new for Novosibirsk, which has 1.5 million. A German foundation is supporting a conference in Novosibirsk that will bring people with participatory budget planning experience from big cities in France, Mexico, and Germany. I have talked to the vice mayor and said there’s nothing [government officials] need to be frightened about. Maybe the mayor’s office is now being supportive of the idea because they have started to understand that [with open budgets] people won’t say, “Oh, they all just steal the money.”

You were a leader in the protest against the firing of Novosibirsk’s Opera Theatre director after members of the Orthodox Church complained about a new version of the opera Tannhäuser. Can you give us an update on the Opera Theatre and what has happened since the new director conducted massive unauthorized reconstruction work on its interior, which was an architectural-heritage site?

He said that, just like he has done in other cities, he would legalize the work after it was finished, making it obvious it wouldn’t be the first time he got away with something like this. He then realized that here [in Novosibirsk] he would not be getting away with it because of our architectural-preservation committee, which was categorically against the changes he made. Two courts ordered everything back the way it was by September 1. We are now preparing a criminal case, and of course we need money and time, but it isn’t going to just go away for him.

So, you have given several examples of what you have done and how you have been able to fight…

Yes, we are moving; it is possible. I sometimes think there is just so much to do, but then I think of all the issues being very intertwined. The time has come, with the debtors, for example, to say, “Come on, let’s all just live by the laws.” On all fronts, the system of backroom dealings without any level of formality is starting to unravel: You owe money, you have to pay it, and it shouldn’t matter whom you made an agreement with, it’s not important any more.

What about the 16 deputies whom you’re working with who also signed the letter?

They are all different; different ages and parties. I think they are all people who just decided that enough was enough. I understand that now I can encourage other people to also work.

Is your approach being replicated by other deputies?

I am not sure, but the head of the deputies has made clear to everyone that I am an example worth following. He is from United Russia and has said,“Vot, kak nada” [That’s how you’re supposed to do it]. I also got a letter from the School for Municipal Deputies in Moscow saying they use me as an example for their students, only they say I am from United Russia. It’s nice to hear that my approach is being taught. Their focus is on my openness.

Also, I was visiting Barnaul [the capital city of a neighboring region] recently and they told me the political-science department at their university teaches my campaign and has their students analyze it. It is all very curious.

Are you involved in the upcoming nationwide Duma elections?

No. Two big parties came to me and promised the resources necessary to win if I would be their candidate, but there are two factors [discouraging me from running]. I have a 4-year-old son and I need to spend time with him. Secondly, [affiliating with a party] doesn’t suit me. Honestly, I am not ready to pledge and I cannot do it. An independent candidate cannot win a seat in the Duma because it requires an enormous amount of resources.

I still have four years as a deputy and then we will see. I am happy doing very concrete work, and there is a lot of work to be done here. My life is really wonderful. I am completely free, and if I want to stay home all day and be with my kids, I do it. Once a week, I have open hours to meet with constituents—the most recent complaints were a neighbor with too many dogs and cats and the theft of grave markings—but, apart from that, I don’t have an office. I have my big purse and I go to coffee shops to meet with people. My kids see that my job isn’t just work for me, it is my life.

If you don’t think an independent can win a seat in the Duma, would you ever run for governor? There are 13 independent governors.

Really? Out of how many?


Not bad… Interesting.

* * *

As she throws the “office” over her shoulder and goes off to another meeting, it’s clear that nothing riles Natalia Pinus. In many ways she is the opposite of what is trendy today in the media-driven world of politics. To say that the worst imaginable slander simply rolls off her is an understatement. She refuses to speak in terms of grand implications or global visions or to take personal credit for progress that is being made in relation to even the most controversial issues she has taken on.

Are Pinus’s election and first year as a deputy cracks in the wall of “Putin’s Russia” that must be torn down, or part of the foundation for a Russian democracy that will only celebrate its 25th anniversary this December? I don’t know, but they are part of the story of a more nuanced reality in Russia that is often missing from accounts and analysis. A reality that is often as confounding as the sight of Natalia Pinus bounding effortlessly up a staircase in two-inch platform sandals, just one more way she is defying gravity.