Evelina Zakamskaya had a new bob in her hair. She leaned forward in her chair. Her eyes shone brightly. Her lips glistened. Her white teeth flashed in the night. She hung on every word. She tittered at every attempted joke by her TV interview guest, Mikhail Prokhorov.
Russia’s tall, lean, bad boy bachelor billionaire is running for President.
To understand Russian politics, it is sometimes simplest just to turn off the sound. Watch the body language. It is like watching the new French silent movie, The Artist, without the 1920s music track. Appropriately, The Artist opens with a scene from an apocryphal movie, A Russian Affair.
On winter evenings, after dark settles over Moscow, I often work alone, with Evelina on the TV.
On weeknights, around 20:00 she conducts her interview show, Menenia, or Opinions, on Rossiya 24, Russia’s 24-hour state-owned news channel.
Evelina’s body language is good guide to Russia’s presidential race.
Poor Evelina clearly works under sadistic bosses who routinely force gray men in gray suits upon her. They drone on Soviet-style, under the delusion that an interview consists of taking one question and then blathering on and on. They are tone deaf to any conceivable audience. They consider the slightest interruption by a reporter to be a deep offense. (And Russian TV directors wonder why Russians under 30 call TV sets “zombieboxes.”)
Evelina has not interviewed Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. Russia’s strong man does not do debates or one-on-one interviews. He controls his campaign message through 7,000 word essays in newspapers and carefully choreographed public events.
But Evelina’s producers landed interviews with two candidates, both dinosaurs of “The Loyal Opposition” – Gennady Zyuganov, of the Communists, and Vladimir Zhirinovsky, of the Liberal Democrats.
With Zyuganov, Evelina’s face froze into an expressionless pancake, letting the Communist Party candidate go on and on about industrial and agricultural policy. She didn’t exactly slump into the back of her chair. Let’s just say she braced herself for a long evening. Deep inside, there may have been a flicker of interest – like the small flame from a disposable cigarette lighter. But it was hard to detect.
In the mid-1980s, when change stirring the Soviet Union, Zyuganov was an instructor in the Communist Party propaganda headquarters in Moscow. From his base in the party’s Ideological Division, he led hardline resistance to Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev’s perestroika and glasnost policies.
Fast forward 25 years. Zyuganov’s idea of signaling his modernity last month was to greet reporters with a gruff “Merry Christmas!”
Zhirinovsky presented more of a challenge to Evelina.
He first ran for President in 1991. His political act revolves around rant and bombast. He demands that Americans return Alaska. (Sorry, we paid for it. And we still have the receipt). Or he reminisces about the days when “Russian soldiers washed their boots in the warm waters of the Indian Ocean” (Sorry, it never happened. The British stopped them in Afghanistan).
Zhirinovsky’s eternal theatrics and bullying give him the highest negatives of any presidential candidate in Russia. About half of Russians tell pollsters that they would never vote for him under any circumstances.
The problem for an interviewer is that this Slavic Mussolini wannabe can be genuinely entertaining. People laugh with him — and at him.
Evelina clearly struggled during the interview not to smirk, or to laugh. She took the safe route, opting for a polite, noncommittal half smile.
A disdainful smirk would have cost her job. A hearty, sympathetic laugh at would have condemned her to a lonely life in Moscow, shunned by friends and disowned by family.
(Prokhorov proposed the best solution for Zhirinovsky. If elected President, Prokhorov promised to build Zhirinovsky, now 61 years old, his very own theater).
Which brings us to Evelina’s evening with Mikhail Dmitrievich.
Far from frozen with boredom, Evelina perched in the edge of her seat, literally licking her lips in anticipation.
Some Russian women raise their eyebrows at Prokhorov, still a bachelor at age 46.
By age 25, they sniff, a man should be married or in a monastery.
Some make insinuations about his sexual orientation
To this, Prokhorov recently posted a response on his Facebook page
“How will I become President without a First Lady?” he asked “Let me tell you a secret: I had my first lady when I was 17.”
As Julia Ioffe reports this week in her Prokhorov profile in The New Yorker, a joke making the rounds in Moscow has President Prokhorov choosing “his first lady, his second lady, his third lady.”
Prokhorov comes with more than a bad boy reputation, two meters in height, and power abs honed by daily two-hour workouts.
In Moscow’s core, where concentric ring roads place the Kremlin in a bull’s-eye, Russia’s power center is populated by ambitious, single women looking for something simple: not fancy moves on the dance floor, not red wine and roses, not candlelight dinner. Just five minutes and a good reading light to quietly study a prospective partner’s statement of assets and liabilities. (A copy audited according to International Accepted Accounting Practices would be nice).
But with Mikhail Prokhorov, why bother? His net worth is public knowledge to the 55 million Russians now on the Internet. Last spring, Forbes clocked him at $16 billion, and rising.
Evelina leaned forward, lips shining anew. She smiled sweetly and encouragingly. She locked her big baby blue eyes on his. She seemed to positively purr. She threw Mikhail Dmitrievich what looked like yet another tender question. (The TV was on mute, remember).
After all my quiet evenings alone in the office with Evelina, I was shocked, crushed, disappointed.
If Prokhorov could arouse such passion in prim Evelina, I wondered, what is he doing to the rest of the country?
Pollsters have more sophisticated social research tools than watching a TV set with the sound off.
They are detecting an interesting phenomenon. Two months after Prokhorov launched his campaign, he has jumped over Zyuganov and Zhirinovsky to come in second in polls in Moscow and St. Petersburg.
But you don’t have to un-mute your TV to learn that.