All over Ulan-Ude there are billboards with this guy’s face in the foreground, beside an open road with green hills and the rising sun. The billboards rise up from parking lots and along highways. We even encountered him out in the woods of Lake Baikal, a lone billboard standing above the pines beside the road. “Alexey Tsydenov”, the billboards proclaim proudly, followed by two words in Russian that we cannot understand, but translate in Google to “The time of change”. When we returned to Ulan-Ude after our hike, we asked our favorite hostel staff about it. “Oh, our new governor,” she tells us. “You had an election recently?” I ask in return. “No,” she laughs, “but we know he will be governor because last month Putin came to meet with him. And they have a rally for him tomorrow night, sort of. You should go.”
The rally our host spoke of turned out to be “Moscow Night in Buryatia”, billed as a summer music festival with live bands, contests, and sing-alongs. We watched crews assemble a huge stage in the central square and hang up banners displaying Buryatia’s flag in the afternoon, and hung around to watch people gather for the rally. Though I think of elections with a known outcome as symbolic of a forged democracy, our host last night saw it differently. “No, it’s not fake. If the election was fake and the government could just choose someone as governor, they wouldn’t have this rally,” she scoffs, “Why waste the money to have this show if they could just rig the election?” That’s a hefty but true dose of Russian cynicism.
As the sun sank lower, the crowd in the square swelled to over a thousand people, all chatting and jostling and waiting with excitement. This event seems like a cultural event, a gift from the capital that lies 2,700 miles to the west. The lights of the stage suddenly flashed on and a man with a microphone walked out. It was time for the show to begin.
For anyone who has studied influence, this show was a master-class demonstration of it, meant to build nationalism among the Buryati people. First came the speech, in which the man onstage enumerated the ways that Moscow needs Buryatia and Buryatia needs Moscow, with a lot more emphasis on the latter. After fifteen minutes, we had heard “Buryatia” about ten times. We had heard “Moscow” more than thirty. Following this was the awards ceremony, in which children of Buryatia who had written the best essays about Moscow and Russia were brought onstage, given a gift, and invited to Moscow with all expenses paid.
Third came Alexey Tsydenov, the soon-to-be-governor of Buryatia, with a speech for his people about what he hoped to do. And last but not least came the Buryat Choir from Moscow, singing impassioned renditions of popular songs from the last fifty years, as footage of Russian soldiers battling and being heroes played in the background. Soon everyone was singing along with them. And just when we thought it couldn’t get any better, they dragged Alexey onstage with a microphone and got him singing as well. He didn’t look entirely comfortable up there, but he put on a brave face and sang anyway.
Alexey escaped the stage again shortly afterward, but the show continued for hours, through more fan favorite songs for sing-along, jokes, and laughter. We couldn’t last to the end and found ourselves heading back to the hostel through crowds of people still coming to see the show. In retrospect, this event didn’t seem all that different from the rallies of America, of musicians headlining political rallies, of cheering crowds and overt nationalism. It’s just that in our case, we’ve got two choices, and no one is ever totally certain of the election’s outcome until it occurs.
Maybe the rally will help Alexey win the election he’s already been preordained to win, but from talking with our host he doesn’t need the help. He’s a Buryatia-born man who’s worked in Moscow for the better part of a decade, so Moscow wants him because he’s vetted and won’t rock the boat. But the people of Buryatia also find this appealing–his story narrative is one of the prodigal son returning home to give his people a better life. “The old governor is kind of useless now, he hasn’t done much in years,” our host tells us, “Tsydenov knows the politicians in Moscow. He can work with them and get more for us from the capital.” So in that sense, Moscow’s choice for the next governor may also be Buryatia’s preference.