The Office Cleaner Who Accidentally Became a Russian Mayor

As the summer of 2020 came to a close, Nikolai Loktev found himself in an odd position. He was the mayor of a collection of 30 or so tiny villages in Russia, the largest named Povalikhino (here’s a map), home to just under 250 people. And he was up for re-election. It shouldn’t have been much of a contest; Loktev was supported by the pro-Putin United Russia party, and any efforts to oppose the ruling party in Russia are done at peril. In fact, as the weeks to election day ticked by, Loktev found himself running unopposed.

And that was the problem. Russian elections are famously illegitimate, and the ruling party knows it. So they don’t allow for uncontested elections. The appearance of a choice, even if mostly false, lends credence to the lie that the people are actually in charge, as the New York Times explains:

That’s why Russia, a number of other former Soviet states and a growing number of countries practice so-called managed democracy, where elections take place on schedule, like clockwork, but the incumbent virtually never loses.

To achieve this, the police squelch real political opposition, and election commissions bump promising candidates off the ballot with technicalities — such as an electoral ban in Russia against the opposition leader Aleksei A. Navalny, who was also incapacitated with poison before this year’s local elections.

These repressive measures have proven to be effective — sometimes too effective. The problem then becomes finding supposed opponents to play the role of losers, to keep up the facade of democratic process.

And no one wanted to run against Loktev. Why bother, if your only role is to lose? According to People, Lotkev “needed an opponent to create the illusion of a free and fair election. After reportedly asking his city hall assistant as well as a member of the Communist Party who had run in previous elections, Loktev, [. . .  ] found himself nearly out of options.” Until he asked Marina Udgodskaya, the woman who cleaned city hall for a living, to be his patsy. She agreed — and then went back to cleaning up after Loktev as if nothing had changed. As the BBC reported, “neither candidate campaigned actively ahead of the election: no billboards, no flyers, no meetings with voters. Locals argue there’s no point, when everyone knows everyone else.” And besides, who was going to vote for the cleaning lady over the former police officer and long-time mayor?

As it turns out, almost everybody. Because Udgoskaya won in a landslide taking 62% of the vote.

The explanations varied — some voted for her to protest Putin’s United Russia party (and this was before he invaded Ukraine), some thought Loktev hadn’t done a great job, some wanted a change for change’s sake, and some knew Uddogskaya personally and just liked her. But in any rate, Uddogskaya was stuck with the job. According to Belsat, a media outlet in Belarus, was not allowed to resign: “if she does not agree to take up her duties, she will by law have to pay for the organization and conduct of repeated elections.” 

So instead, she got to work. According to the above-linked Times article, “as a first order of business — after finding her replacement as cleaner, that is — she plans to bring streetlights to the village, she said, something that people have long been asking for.”

Bonus fact: Vladimir Putin is the owner of a Super Bowl ring, even though he never played for or was otherwise affiliated with an NFL team. As CBS Sports reported, in 2005, Putin met Robert Kraft, owner of the New England Patriots, and showed him the ring. Per Kraft, Putin “put it in his pocket, and three KGB guys got around him and walked out” with the ring still in the Russian despot’s possession. Kraft, at first, considered the item stolen — but then changed his mind at the urging of the U.S. government. Later that year, he put out a statement (which probably hasn’t aged well) saying “I decided to give him the ring as a symbol of the respect and admiration that I have for the Russian people and the leadership of President Putin.” 

From the Archives: The Mayor Who Tried to Eliminate His Own Job: Failed at that, but did fix a road.