POVALIKHINO, Russia — With election day looming, Nikolai Loktev was in a panic: The mayor of a tiny village of log houses, wood-burning stoves and rutted dirt roads 300 miles east of Moscow, he was running for re-election unopposed.
In a Western democracy, this would not necessarily set off alarms; it might even be welcomed. But in Russia, where elections are rigged and the ruling United Russia party virtually always wins, the bedrock political principle is to create the illusion of democratic choice.
For that, Mr. Loktev needed an opponent.
But it was proving difficult to find one in the village. He had already asked a number of Povalikhino’s residents, including his assistant at city hall and a member of the Communist Party who had run and lost in elections in 2011, but both declined.
When he finally found who he thought was a willing patsy in the person of one Marina Udgodskaya, who cleans city hall, he thought his troubles were over.
But then she won.
Nobody was more surprised than Ms. Udgodskaya, who did not campaign and who said she had agreed to run in the election last month only to help her boss.
“He just needed somebody else, anybody at all, so the election could take place,” Ms. Udgodskaya said.
At first, she said, she was “worried and confused” when the results rolled in, but she is now quite clearly warming to the idea of the mayoralty. “You shouldn’t expect anything in an election,” she said.
She agreed to be sworn in, more than doubling her salary to 29,000 rubles, or about $380 a month, and settled into the mayor’s office in city hall before isolating at home last week because of a coronavirus scare.
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.
The goings-on in Povalikhino precipitated a Russian media frenzy, focusing predictably on the farcical nature of it all. But by illuminating the essential cynicism that is gnawing away at democracy around the world, the election of Ms. Udgodskaya served a more serious purpose.
Apart from in a few Arab monarchies and the remaining Communist dictatorships in places like North Korea, democratic elections are the only method in almost all the world today for legitimizing political power.
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.
In Russia, Vladimir V. Putin has won the presidency three times against the same hapless candidate, Gennady Zyuganov, a humorless man with a droning, wooden voice conveniently put forward by the Communist Party. In 2018, Mr. Putin ran against a lineup that included his reputed goddaughter, Ksenia Sobchak, who of course also lost.
In Turkmenistan, the president once ran against his minister of water resources. In Kazakhstan in 2011, a candidate running against the president endorsed the president.
“I didn’t want to become president because that is not possible,” the Kazakh presidential candidate, Mels Yeleusizov, said in an unusually candid interview at the time of his role as a fig leaf of democratic process.
Andrei Kolesnikov, a political analyst with the Moscow Carnegie Center, said that in Russia, political advisers to the Kremlin keep a close eye on national and local politics, scouting for talent for both pro-government candidates and for those who can plausibly and safely play the role of losers.
“This is one of the instruments of legitimizing elections in Russia,” Mr. Kolesnikov said in a telephone interview of fielding weak opponents. “They look like elections without being real elections.”
The system does occasionally cough up the wrong result. In the Siberian region of Khabarovsk, an opposition candidate won the governorship and was later arrested, touching off months of protests. “In small communities, such breakdowns can happen,” Mr. Kolesnikov said.
That, of course, is what happened in Povalikhino.
Irina Nechayeva, the mayor’s assistant, said it wasn’t so much the assumed hopelessness of running against Mr. Loktev that turned off most people but, in fact, the remote possibility of winning.
“You have to listen to everybody’s point of view,” Ms. Ivanova said of the mayor’s role, “and in Russia, there as many opinions as there are people.”
Ms. Udgodskaya, 35, lives with her husband, a day laborer, and two teenage children in a cozy, if weather beaten, house, raising chickens, ducks, rabbits and geese in the backyard. In an interview, she said she was never interested in politics and had no idea whether her story reflected any larger issues. “I like farming,” she said.
In Povalikhino, logging trucks rumble through town, sending up splashes of dirty water from potholes on the main street. To get around, the residents navigate a maze of wooden walkways to stay above the swampy ground, passing garden plots and cow pastures.
Tatyana Murzina, a clerk in the village store, said Ms. Udgodskaya stood a chance only because the village is small enough that people knew her personally and liked her. “Everything was clear to us,” Ms. Murzina said.
Vladimir Yeltsov, 62, a retired trucker, said he voted for Ms. Udgodskaya, “though I pity her,” because the village budget never has enough to fix the roads. The former mayor, Mr. Loktev, actually did a good job repairing water mains, he said, but was such an introvert he rarely talked to people. “He didn’t show he cared,” Mr. Yeltsov said.
Mr. Loktev declined to be interviewed. Tamara Lokteva, his wife, said in an interview outside their tidy blue house that the loss was a “very painful topic.”
Ms. Lokteva said that her husband never really wanted to be mayor and never clung to power. He now blames her for encouraging him to run twice, and for the way things turned out. “He always says, ‘You got me into this.’”
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