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.”