Prokhorov Melts Hearts in Russia’s Political Winter

Posted February 22nd, 2012 at 7:00 pm (UTC+0)

Evelina Zakamskaya, interview hostess for Russia 24 News, endured a dreary series of gray men in gray suits, until she landed her one on one with Mikhail Dmitrievich. Photo: Russia 24

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.

Mikhail Prokhorov, owner of New Jersey Nets NBA team, coaches student basketball team in campaign photo op in Moscow. VOA Photo: Yuli Weeks

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.

Russian political heartthrob Mikhail Prokhorov stands 2 meters tall, is worth $18 billion, and has yet to find a wife: Photo: AP

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.

Mikhail Prokhorov, candidate for president, balances on a basketball, as he coaches Moscow middle schoolers in front of a battery of TV cameras. VOA Photo: Yuli Weeks

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.

Basketball break -- Mikhail Prokhorov and some short guy (James Brooke). VOA Photo: Ellen Pinchuk

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.

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James Brooke
James Brooke is the Russia/CIS bureau chief for Voice of America. A lifelong journalist, he covered West Africa, Brazil, the American Rocky Mountain States, Canada, and Japan/Korea for The New York Times. A resident of Moscow since 2006, he was first Bloomberg bureau chief for the region. In 2010, he joined VOA. In addition to writing Russia Watch, his weekly blog, he also does video, radio and web reports from Russia and the former USSR.

4 responses to “Prokhorov Melts Hearts in Russia’s Political Winter”

  1. Danil says:

    Just wanted to say that Alaska (mentioned in the article) leased for 99 years to the US by the Tsarist government in Russia. Whatever the government..a land lease is a land lease.

    • James Brooke jbrooke says:

      Not a lease — a final sale.
      Here are some excerpts from Wikipedia:
      “The Alaska Purchase was the acquisition of the Alaska territory by the United States from Russia in the year 1867 by a treaty ratified by the Senate. The purchase, made at the initiative of United States Secretary of State William H. Seward, gained 586,412 square miles (1,518,800 km2) of new United States territory. Originally organized as the Department of Alaska, the area was successively the District of Alaska and the Alaska Territory before becoming the modern state of Alaska upon being admitted to the Union as a state in 1959….”

      “Russia was in a difficult financial position and feared losing Russian America without compensation in some future conflict, especially to the British, whom they had fought in the Crimean War (1853–1856). While Alaska attracted little interest at the time, the population of nearby British Columbia started to increase rapidly a few years after hostilities ended, with a large gold rush there prompting the creation of a crown colony on the mainland. The Russians therefore started to believe that in any future conflict with Britain, their hard-to-defend region might become a prime target, and would be easily captured. Therefore the Tsar Alexander II decided to sell the territory. Perhaps in hopes of starting a bidding war, both the British and the Americans were approached, however the British expressed little interest in buying Alaska. The Russians in 1859 offered to sell the territory to the United States, hoping that its presence in the region would offset the plans of Russia’s greatest regional rival, Great Britain. However, no deal was brokered due to the American Civil War.[1]

      Following the Union victory in the Civil War, the Tsar then instructed the Russian minister to the United States, Eduard de Stoeckl, to re-enter into negotiations with Seward in the beginning of March 1867. The negotiations concluded after an all-night session with the signing of the treaty at 4 a.m. on March 30, 1867,[2] with the purchase price set at $7.2 million, or about 2 cents per acre ($4.74/km2).[3]”

  2. Gennady says:

    Putin’s regime banned me from comments in the Internet after they switched-off me without any reasons. It’s their delivery of basic human rights for anybody in Russia having a say.

    1. Being a billionaire in an impoverished country that earns cash by selling-off its natural resources, a bachelor at 46 with a bad boy reputation are strong flags against Mr Prokhorov. From the other side it is “Better a small fish than an empty dish” with Mr. Putin leading Russia to abyss. The latter bluntly ignores all failures of his 12 years rule, and isn’t honest in admitting his inability to deal with economic stagnation, rampant corruption, lawlessness, flight of hundred billion investments from dying-out Russia, fallen standards of education, health care and research.

    2. Strong point for Mr. Prokhorov is he has faced his political opponents in TV debates while Mr Putin has been unable to do the same. He promised to demolish remaining attributes of the USSR (secret archives). That is refreshing. Both Russian capitals will certainly follow the motto “Dum spiro, spero” (I hope until I breathe).

    3. A closer look at pro-Putin’s rallies shows that they are illogical, choreographed according some malicious script, have dubious financing (poor Trade Unions leased a passenger train and bought hundreds air tickets from Siberia) and built on false premises. The man behind the performances is Stanislav Govorukhin, film director, age 76. He hates arguments in the Internet (calls them “sewage”) and is confused about his own political orientation. Who can say, is he today a communist, anticommunist or procapitalist (oligarchist)?

    4. All support for Mr. Putin is built on stirring memory, emotions and on sand. But not on present day realities. Just in paranoid frenzy one can connect Mr. Putin, aged 60, with events in 70-200 years history of Russia –Napoleonic War, World War II (Great Patriotic War). What is the logic to attribute Mr.Putin’s “achievements” as a crisis manager in 1998 Russia to changed world prices of commodities for the country heavily dependent on selling-off its natural resources?

    5. How can a FSB man revering bloody VChK-OGPU-NKVD-KGB crimes against humanity, unable to defend his political program in public deliver bright future? How about ending the billion-costing war in Dagestan and Northern Caucasus? How about dozens unsolved murders of journalists, Magnitsky case, gagged press, switched-off Internet and brain-washed state TV in “democratic” Putin’s Russia?

    6. After Mr Putin will be “unanimously” elected I guarantee a profound political and reality hangover for all of those adoring and praising the old man today to the sky with man’s average age 59-63.

  3. Erich Strong says:

    I just hope that Russia becomes a Democracy with a big D so that all the people who have been begging and fighting for this since Stalin died could bear the fruits of their labors. After that it will take law after law to define freedoms and many generations to get it straight but the early generations can celebrate the change and look forward to brighter futures for their children.

    I wish it so so I can finish out my life in a world that truly is at peace. But I doubt it becasue we still have a world with very awful leadership and getting worse. So sad!



James Brooke is VOA Moscow bureau chief, covering Russia and the former USSR. With The New York Times, he worked as a foreign correspondent in Africa, Latin America, Canada and Japan/Koreas. He studied Russian in college during the Brezhnev years, first visited Moscow as a reporter during the final months of Gorbachev, and then came back for reporting forays during the Yeltsin and early Putin years. In 2006, he moved to Moscow to report for Bloomberg. He joined VOA in Moscow in 2010. Follow Jim on Twitter @VOA_Moscow.



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