Soviet elections all over again. Ilya Shablinsky on how those who kept Ekaterina Duntsova out of the presidential election got scared

25 December 2023

by Ilya Shablinsky


A few individuals from the Central Election Commission (TsIK), carrying out their superiors’ order, have eliminated the chief danger on our animal trainer-in-chief’s thorny electoral path. What happiness. Now circus [Tsirk in Russian – ed.] performance No. 1 can go forward in full accord with the existing plan.

The chief danger, 40-year-old journalist Ekaterina Duntsova, will not have the opportunity to collect voters’ signatures. Her initiative group was not registered because the documents submitted contained 100 or so mistakes. For example, the patronymic “Valeryevna” was written as “Valerievna,” and others like that.

One has to think that the presidential administration heaved a sigh of relief. So did the FSB [Federal Security Service]. Here was another attack on their head. The TsIK took care of everything, as always, and he did not have to take on that sin. Now the ring is empty and awaits the ugly old clowns they’d planned for, clowns capable of servile idiocy in all kinds of forms who are no threat whatsoever to the main participant.

Actually, the debate on social media concerning Duntsova that has been going on for two whole weeks was also connected to her possible role and attitude toward the above-mentioned departments. True, supporters of conspiracy could not explain precisely what the “Kremlin’s (FSB’s) intention” was toward the little-known journalist from Rzhev. Either it was to additionally root out antiwar-inclined citizens or else it was to draw additional attention to circus performance No. 1. To be honest, neither required such a reckless maneuver.  The Kremlin people were obviously not looking for additional complications in and of themselves. The Kremlin has planned for and continues to plan for the full obedience of the Russian populace, based on its specific archetypical trait.

It’s been nearly two years since the country’s media sphere has been dancing wildly on piles of bones. An amiable choir of malicious and emaciated snouts has lauded the mass killings and demanded more. From my Moscow, elderly lackeys wearing deputy pins or epaulets are hailing curses down on all parts of the world, dissipating their energy on vengeance for their master. Thousands are dying, and thousands are being sent behind bars.

To declare amid this bacchanalia that everything going on is not the “new normal” but self-destruction—yes, that takes courage. I give those who helped Duntsova or even persuaded her to take this risk their due. Formally, it’s a trivial matter: declare yourself a candidate after gathering 500 like-minded people together in one hall. Put out your platform: restore peace, free political prisoners, democratic reforms. That’s all. I don’t think Duntsova and her supporters had any special faith in the next stage. But what they did do was a terrible risk for our day and age. And Ekaterina is a desperately brave woman. Alone in the whole country.

Let’s analyze in a little more detail a fantastic version involving the possible collection of signatures for her. Why some in the Kremlin tensed up while others in the TsIK instantly took action.

Right now in the country—I emphasize right now, on the basis of slightly less than two years of war—tremendous potential of dislike has accumulated for this “new normal,” or rather, for the country’s fierce propaganda of war and killings, militarization, and isolation and its slow economic depletion. You’ll say, “People are used to it.” No, millions are putting up with it and may be prepared to put up with it for a lot longer, but as soon as even a slight prospect for change and return to a normal life appears—a life without war, without propaganda, without a wartime economy—they will feel unprecedented enthusiasm.  

We saw these people at gatherings with Ekaterina Duntsova. We read hope in their eyes. These people would support a woman candidate who gave them and all of us a chance, and then we would see well-attended rallies and lines at signature-gathering points.

Of course, it appears strange and paradoxical. The main danger for the dictator in the course of the game he is playing is a young journalist from Rzhev, and not a pack of ugly, though experienced and diligent, political clowns. But in fact this is exactly how things are. And history has something to offer us here.

Think back to the last presidential election in Belarus. Their dictator was careless enough to allow himself a real competition with a very similar rival. By the way, unlike our Ekaterina Duntsova, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya had never been elected anywhere and had never published anything. Nevertheless, her transformation during the election campaign quickly showed how a miracle happens in the conditions where the public sphere has been turned into a wasteland and a great part of the population feels nothing but fatigue with regard to an aging dictator who is clinging, teeth and claws, onto power. A political miracle.

Of course, the difference between Russia and Belarus is huge. Aleksandr Lukashenko overestimated himself and lost by a wide margin to Svetlana Tikhanovskaya – this is evidenced by several copies of real voting protocols, which the most courageous members of election commissions photographed and made public. One of them paid for it with his life. It is also amusing to recall how the dictator, emanating anger and fear, arrived in August 2020 at the Minsk Tractor Plant (MZKT), which was considered his fiefdom. On the eve of his visit, the workers went on strike, protesting against the falsification of the election results. I remember the director shouted to the audience: “Tell me, who voted for the president?” He raised his own hand but no one else did. And then someone suggested that those who voted for Tikhanovskaya raise their hands, whereupon everyone in the workshop at that moment did. Lukashenko’s electorate have been completely fed up with him now for a long time now.

Yes, in Russia we have a different situation. A dictator who has decided to add a bloody war to his fifth campaign can count on success with a much higher probability. Since the time of Saltykov-Shchedrin, the shedding of blood is exactly what a significant part of Russian citizens expect from their leaders.

But another part – a huge, frowning, silent mass of voters – would willingly vote for a kindly-faced woman who gives them hope if such an opportunity arose. That’s all there is to it.

Such a large number of votes would be hard to hide. Of course, they’d fabricate the percentage they needed, they’d use electronic voting and counting to help their fraud. But imagine all over the country tens of thousands of members of electoral commissions would be witnessing the large number of votes won by this courageous candidate, opponent of the dictator. And there would be no way to hide it.

And let’s not compare with this potential and lost opportunity the alternative candidates in previous Russian presidential elections – Pamfilova (amusing to remember), Khakamada or Sobchak (even funnier).

In the case of a vote for Duntsova, it would be an act of desperate courage and of hope.

For obvious reasons, we should have no hope during this performance. But there is still courage.  And disappointment. Despite the fact that everything is completely predictable, that is the way we are.

And let’s not forget a feeling of disgust, as if rats appeared out of nowhere and scurry and swarm around the arena.

Translated by Marian Schwartz

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