By Mike Eckel*
(RFE/RL) — There’s the gun-rights activist who infiltrated U.S. Republican Party circles and served 15 months in U.S. detention for being an unregistered Russian agent. There’s the well-known nationalist writer who formed a volunteer battalion to fight on the side of Russian-backed militias in eastern Ukraine. There’s the former Hollywood martial arts action hero who now does cameos in cell phone commercials.
Oh, and don’t forget the former pop singer who co-represented Russia at the Eurovision Song Contest nearly 20 years ago.
In the cycle of Russian politics, President Vladimir Putin is usually the singular figure to watch. This fall’s election for the lower house of the Russian parliament is a less-heralded moment in the country’s political life, but no less significant.
For the Kremlin, the problem is malaise. Russians are increasingly cynical and tired, worried about losing economic ground, and fed up with a system of ruling elites seen as cravenly corrupt. The ruling party, United Russia, is decidedly unpopular, currently holding ratings that are the lowest in the 21 years Putin has been effectively the country’s leader. The president’s ratings, while still high, have slipped noticeably.
What makes the September Duma election important is 2024. That’s when Putin’s current term expires. The Duma last year tweaked the constitution, amending it to make Putin eligible to remain in office for another 12 years. But he hasn’t shown his hand yet. If United Russia loses its absolute majority, or if another party gains substantially, in this year’s vote, it could be problematic for another Putin run.
The Kremlin already is taking no chances: it’s moved to eliminate the political movement of jailed anti-corruption crusader Aleksei Navalny, Putin’s biggest political rival, and prevent it from disrupting the process with its “Smart Vote” campaign.
United Russia has tapped celebrities in the past: the world’s first female cosmonaut, Valentina Tereshkova, has been a party member and Duma member since 2011. Former world heavyweight boxer Nikolai Valuyev has been in the Duma since 2011. Hockey legend Vladislav Tretiak has been a United Russia Duma member since 2003.
In February, the online news site Meduza said party officials in Moscow were discussing putting several TV presenters on the ballot for the city’s Duma seats.
Here’s a list (likely to change) of just some of the nontraditional figures who have entered the Russian political stage this cycle.
Above The Law
Outside Russia, Steven Seagal is best known as the martial arts action star of a series of 1980s Hollywood movies of arguable quality.
Inside Russia, Seagal is known not just for those films, but also is increasingly well known for his public support for Putin. In 2016, the year Putin granted him Russian citizenship, Seagal appeared in a holiday-themed advertisement for cell phone giant Megafon in which he also managed to say a couple of words in Russian.
On May 30, Seagal raised eyebrows when he announced he would be joining a newly formed political bloc formed from three leftist parties that call themselves opposition, but which in fact wholly support Putin’s policies. (He spoke English at the event).
Seagal can’t run in the Duma election, party leaders said, because he retains his U.S. citizenship. But his visage could give a publicity boost to the new bloc, which calls itself A Just Russia-Patriots-For Truth.
A Just Russia has been a presence in the Duma for years, currently holding 23 of the chamber’s 450 seats. The other parties are relatively new; the For Truth features celebrity nationalist writer Zakhar Prilepin.
Limonka = Grenade
For years, Prilepin, whose legal name is Yevgeny, was known for his membership in the National Bolshevik Party, a rabble-rousing fringe group whose leader Eduard Limonov was a cult author and political activist who dabbled in radical nationalist politics. The group’s newspaper, Limonka, was a pun on Limonov’s name, slang for a hand grenade.
Prilepin served in Chechnya during the first war there in the mid-1990s, then joined the Interior Ministry’s feared riot police, before establishing himself as a popular writer in his own right. His 2007 novel Sin was widely acclaimed in Russia.
A critic of Putin, Prilepin helped form a volunteer battalion that fought against Ukrainian forces after war broke out in eastern Ukraine in 2014.
Last year, he announced the formation of the For Truth political party, whose platform appears to be vaguely nationalistic and right-wing.
According to the Kommersant newspaper, the party was one of four specifically created by the powerful Presidential Administration, the Kremlin office that serves as a domestic policy shop, personnel office, and clearinghouse for other major Putin initiatives.
The purpose of the new parties, according to Kommersant, was to draw votes from younger voters — who gravitate toward activists like Navalny and also help siphon votes from more established parties — in order to benefit United Russia’s overall standing.
Right To Bear Arms
Nearly a decade ago, Maria Butina was a 24-year-old up-and-coming Russian activist with a quixotic goal in mind: liberalizing Russia’s strict gun laws.
These days, she’s looking to parlay her celebrity into a seat in parliament with United Russia.
Her celebrity status stems largely from the scandal in the United States that resulted in her pleading guilty to federal charges of being an unregistered agent of the Russian government, and serving 18 months behind bars.
Prior to her arrest by FBI agents in June 2018, Butina had been a Washington, D.C.-area graduate student who had built a network of contacts with Republican political groups, including the influential National Rifle Association. Prosecutors charged that Butina conspired with a Russian government official and an American political figure to try to set up backchannels between Moscow and Republicans, including members of Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential election campaign.
Her lawyers, and her defenders, portrayed as merely as an eager advocate for improved relations between Russia and United States.
After her release, Butina was deported, and she became an advocate for Russians deemed to have been unjustly imprisoned in foreign countries. More recently, she’s appeared regularly on the TV channel that used to be known as Russia Today. In early April, she and a TV crew went to the prison where Navalny was being held and taunted him for complaining about prison conditions, mockingly using a diminutive form of his first name.
“Lyosha, are you a man or not? I’m tired of the whining,” she said in a post to the Telegram social-messaging app. “He is in one of the best penal colonies in Russia.”
Butina is now running for election with United Russia in the Kirov region, about 1,000 kilometers east of Moscow. In a campaign video released last month, she references her time in U.S. custody, as she asks for support.
“For me, the Kirov region is a unique coincidence of my desires and love for the very smart, intelligent, erudite people who live here, and the requests of the inhabitants of the region. I would be very happy to be useful to the Kirov region,” she says in the video.
In a so-called primary election held for United Russia candidates on May 31, Butina placed first.
Don’t Believe, Don’t Fear
One year into Putin’s first term as president, in 2001, an all-girl pop duo called Tatu burst onto the Russian music scene with a song called Don’t Believe, Don’t Fear. Two years later, the women — Lena Katina and Yulia Volkova — were chosen to represent Russia at the annual Eurovision music contest in Riga, Latvia. (They came in third).
Tatu later faded from the scene, and Volkova tried to pursue a solo music career, even making a second run to represent Russia at Eurovision as a solo act. She lost out to a group of singing Siberian grandmothers. Volkova also performed at the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics, but surgery for throat cancer all but put an end to her singing career.
Earlier this year, she announced she would seek a seat in the Duma, running in the down-on-its-luck, post-industrial city of Ivanovo, northeast of Moscow.
Though she ran without United Russia’s formal blessing, a regional party official said Volkova’s candidacy would help “stir up interest among Ivanovo voters.”
In the United Russia primary election, however, she got just 919 votes.
Not Fade Away
Another actor who is reportedly seeking to join United Russia’s party list and get a Duma seat is Mikhail Porechenkov, famous in Russia for his TV and action movie appearances as a secret spy or a military grunt. He gained acclaim for his role in the 2005 battlefield film 9th Company, about a group of Soviet soldiers fighting in Afghanistan in the 1980s.
Porechenkov traveled to eastern Ukraine in late 2014 as fighting raged between Ukrainian forces and Russia-backed separatist militias. A video from October 2014 showed him firing a machine gun, allegedly at Ukrainian forces, while wearing a flak jacket that said “PRESS” on the front.
Ukrainian officials later said they would charge Porechenkov with terrorism-related charges, and they banned him from entering the country.
In May, Kommersant reported that United Russia had given its blessing for Porechenkov to run for the Duma from the central Nizhny Novgorod region.
- Mike Eckel is a senior correspondent in Prague, where he reports on developments in Russia, Ukraine, and around the former Soviet Union, as well as news involving cybercrime and money laundering. Before joining RFE/RL in 2015, he worked for the Associated Press in Moscow. He has also reported and edited for The Christian Science Monitor, Al Jazeera America, Voice of America, and the Vladivostok News.
RFE/RL journalists report the news in 21 countries where a free press is banned by the government or not fully established.