"You shouldn’t expect anything in an election," she said after her win

By Virginia Chamlee
October 28, 2020 11:18 AM
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Marina Udgodskaya, who was recently elected as the mayor of Povalikhino, Russia
| Credit: Emile Ducke/The New York Times/Redux

Call it — what else? — a clean sweep: The woman who used to keep up the city hall in Povalikhino, Russia, now runs it as mayor after a surprise election victory last month.

The unexpected story of cleaner Marina Udgodskaya first bubbled up in local media in September before being covered by the BBC, The New York Times and other outlets.

Udgodskaya didn't initially have any plans to run in the mayoral race in her small rural town of Povalikhino until fate — or more specifically, the ersatz election-style of Russian democracy — intervened.

As the Times and others reported, the incumbent, Mayor Nikolai Loktev was running unopposed and 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, 58, found himself nearly out of options. That's when he asked Udgodskaya, a cleaner at city hall and one of the town's 242 residents.

“He just needed somebody else, anybody at all, so the election could take place,” Udgodskaya, 35, told the Times.

Though she didn't campaign for office, Udgodskaya ultimately earned about 62 percent of the vote. Her now-former boss, meanwhile, eked out 34 percent. The results initially left her "worried and confused," according to the Times.

"Clearly the people wanted change," Loktev, a former policeman, told the BBC.

Some of the town's residents told the Times that Udgodskaya's success was in part because she — like her neighbors — is familiar to almost everyone else in the area. Meanwhile, one local who voted for her told the Times that Loktev "didn’t show he cared."

"You shouldn’t expect anything in an election," Udgodskaya told the paper.

She reportedly lives with her day laborer husband and two teenage children. As the Times reports, the new position more than doubles her salary to 29,000 rubles, or about $380 a month.

Udgodskaya initially continued in her cleaning job until Loktev moved out of her new office, according to the BBC. She reportedly settled in to her new role earlier this month.

The Times reported that a priority for her was installing streetlights in Povalikhino.

In Russia, so-called managed democracy sees elections that preserve the illusion of competitiveness but in which incumbents virtually never lose. Instead, the outcome is somewhat predetermined, with any truly promising candidates generally being bumped from the ballot (or from campaigning at all).

There can be exceptions, however, as a member of the Povalikhino electoral commission told the BBC when discussing Udgodskaya's victory.

"Nikolai Loktev thought no one would vote for her and he would stay in the job. But the people had had enough and they came out and chose Marina Udgodskaya," said the woman, who wished to remain anonymous. "He was amazed and she was flabbergasted!"